NM: I’ve been enjoying your wonderful poems featured here from your new book The Life Beside This One. I’m intrigued with the implications of the title—the “Beside” as in the companionable life which accompanies this one, or “Beside” as in place of this one.
LR: I’ve always been interested in the idea of what one’s life might have been like if this or that had gone differently. Of course so many things could have happened differently, there must be countless alternate lives out there. Some we imagine. Others we may wish not to imagine.
The word “beside” in my title may be usefully ambiguous. But as I think of it now I can’t quite put my finger on the ways it’s ambiguous, or how I’d prefer it to be read. So I’ll just settle for saying it’s ambiguous, and hope that the poems in the book create some sense of those possibilities.
Perhaps “Spies,” the last poem in the collection, comes as close as any to speaking directly to the idea of the other life: “I know the story in which you and I/have taken our places/isn’t the one we might have chosen…” Of course we never choose, do we? Though looking back we may think so.
NM: Can you talk more about this?
LR: You’re right that “Beside” in my title suggests both “in addition to” and “next to” (as well as “instead of”), and all of these resonances appeal to me. They suggest that life is an imaginative construct, as well as a function of memory, which we might also say is an imaginative construct. Remembering isn’t a way of retrieving the past so much as it is a way of revising it. What may actually have happened becomes less and less accessible, if the actual ever was accessible. Remembering turns into story-telling. We invent who we were, consciously or not, happily or not.
NM: The title The Life Beside This One also prepares us for the poems in which the speaker might be the “companiable you” “beside”, or a speaker from any alternative “beside” life addressing a “you” of this life. If so, this creates a sort of double intimacy felt in Rilke’s Duino Elegies, an intimacy which also includes/addresses the reader. Can you talk a bit about this “conversation” and how it lands on the page?
LR: I like the idea of a “double intimacy,” and of the poems as constituting a kind of conversation between themselves as well as with the reader, though I can’t claim to have had these thoughts in mind when I was writing. What I did have in mind—which may in fact circle back to that sense of intimacy—was the desire to speak in voices other than my own. Perhaps this constitutes a kind of conversation with myself, or with myself-as-someone-different.
As opposed to my other books, there are only a few poems here in which the “I” appears to stand in for the poet himself. The Life Beside This One contains a wide variety of different voices: a man whose marriage is breaking up because of his desire to levitate, another man wondering if he could have saved his friend from what appears to have been a case of spontaneous combustion, a guide explaining the mysterious but predictable appearance of a sea monster beneath the cliff where he is standing, a woman trying to tell a reporter about a dangerous and unseen beast inhabiting the forest surrounding her town, a philosopher delivering a lecture on his “Theory of Impossible Objects,” a man considering the sadness of robots, a prophet who is certain about the terror of the future, as well as its “fierce/and awful beauty,” a ghost wondering what the life of a ghost should be, then finding himself “slipping away into time/as if into the emptiness of the air.”
All of these characters are linked by different kinds of strangenesses, as if their poems existed in moments when this world opened to reveal another where our lives would be different from the ones we have taken for granted. Perhaps this is a kind of conversation––between alternate versions of the self––or an awareness of one self slipping into another.
One poem in the book uses as an epigraph a sentence from the painter Camille Corot: “Next to an unknown, place a known.” Doing this creates a vibration between the two—between the familiar and the strange, between the predictable and the uncanny. That sort of vibration is very important to me.
NM: Fascinating; it seems the “place known” may be the entrance of the wormhole into the “place unknown.” Quantum physics has posited that there are, as you say, “countless alternate lives out there” and that this vibration, experienced in the sense of the uncanny as in déjà vu, is evidence of their intersections.
LR: I have for a long time been interested in the “uncanny,” not so much as a sense of déjà vu (though that’s part of it), but as a profound uncertainty about the kind of world we—or I, or a character in a fiction—might inhabit. Let’s say a ghost seems to appear (Hamlet’s father, for example, or maybe one’s own father). If that’s true, then the “rules” of what we used to take as a ghost-less world must change. On the other hand, perhaps the ghost is imagined. Then the drama becomes psychological. The uncanny exists in the hesitation between those two different worlds.
As Freud writes, “…an uncanny effect…is produced by effacing the distinction between imagination and reality.” Perhaps the most successful sustained use of the uncanny as an aesthetic strategy is Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw. Is the governess crazy, or are the ghosts really there? We never know. Our impulse, of course, is to want to know, and therefore to decide, to assert what we have come to believe is “the truth.” But what if the story won’t allow us, careful readers that we may be, to be sure? James prolongs that “moment of hesitation” for the length of his novel, and then leaves us hanging. The more attentive we have been, the more uncertain we must remain.
NM: That’s the ticket—to endure, and perhaps inhabit the “moment of hesitation.”
So, are these poems—which are both “beside” and “beside”—in which you speak “in voices other than my own,” an attempt “to efface the distinction between imagination and reality?”
LR: Effacing the distinction between imagination and reality sounds too grand for anything I’d have been thinking about in composing these persona poems. What I wanted, and still want, is to claim some of the prerogatives of the fiction writer—to make up characters, to write in a variety of voices, to invent situations. Lots of poets write persona poems, and though I hope mine are different, I don’t think the basic impulse behind them is different.
I remember a poem I wrote in 1967 when I was a junior in college, called “Voices Answering Back: The Vampires.” (I included it in my first book, Mysteries of the Horizon.) The poem is spoken by vampires as a kind of choral group, living in a world in which people no longer believe in them. (And I hasten to add that in 1967 vampires were a much fresher subject than they are now.) In it I wrote (for the vampires): “you never heard what we were saying/it was something about desire/what we had in common even then.” I remember that what drew me at that time to the persona poem (if not exactly to vampires) was the impulse to speak about subjects—desire, say—that I didn’t feel I had the authority to approach on my own. Or something like that. Of course at the same time I wrote first-person poems that revolved around my own desires. But giving that idea––and that word––over to the vampires seemed to make the subject more consequential. At the very least it released me from the facts of my own life. Plus it was fun. I’d never underestimate fun as the reason to begin a poem, or pursue a subject, or a line of thinking.
NM: “Five Parables” featured here—so mysteriously resonant with that “double intimacy” of Rilke’s Duino Elegies—can you talk a bit about them?
LR: That little sequence of poems is certainly rather different from anything else in the book. And they remain somewhat mysterious to me, which I like. I like reading a poem of mine and feeling that I don’t know everything about it.
In any case, the poems were written quickly, over the course of a week or so, and in the order in which they appear here. I know that the reason I started them was that I wanted to appropriate some of the grandeur and authority (that word again) of the language of the King James Bible. I’m not a religious person, but for some reason I wanted Christ to appear in the poems. (Maybe I thought it would be fun to see if I could manage that.) And I liked the potential strangeness of the parable. I thought of these poems as something like anti-parables, although that’s perhaps not the most accurate way of speaking about them. But as the author I should probably not be trusted if I were to speak about how they should be read. I wrote them and I enjoyed writing them and when I’d written five, that seemed to constitute a group, and I didn’t feel like I wanted—or needed—to write any more.
I suppose there is in them a sense of “effacing the distinction between illusion and reality,” of the uncanny, or of that being the subject behind the individual subjects of the poems. The story of Christ is an uncanny tale. Was he the Son of God? Is there a God who can have a son? Is there a God at all? The believer answers this question in one way, and so moves the story into the realm of fact and certainty. The atheist takes the opposite stance. The agnostic is left with not knowing—with the belief that being unable to be certain is where we live as human beings, and is a condition to be embraced.
NM: Thank you, Larry, for taking the time to talk so fully with us about these delightful and provocative poems from your new book The Life Beside This One. Readers, a rare pleasure awaits you:
WHAT DEATH SAID
After a while, one late afternoon
as I was walking beside the sea,
I heard Death say, “I’ll tell you a secret.
Don’t be surprised, but any theory
you invent to account for me
will be true. Not entirely true,”
he added, “but true enough.”
So I thought I would ask:
Does that mean I can prove
your powers are useless, your promises
a fraud, your presence a mere illusion?
“All of that and more,” said Death,
who had been listening to my thoughts.
“But in the end whatever
you devise you will disown.”
We walked a little farther, looking around
at nature. But what was lovely was lovely
only until it wasn’t. Which was no help.
“No help at all,” said Death, “is it?”
So then I thought of dying at peace in my bed.
“Alas,” said Death. And the sea
wore against the shore. And the birds
of that region were finishing their songs.
I could think of nothing else to think.
“You see the problem,” Death said.
“But since you’ve read so much
about me, remember—I have no reason
to deceive you. Which is why
I’m pleased you walked this far with me
as if it were your choice.”
LET ME TELL YOU WHAT TO FEEL
I can tell you’re not sure
if I’m really your friend, or someone
from the other side. But what
would convince you to trust me?
I know everything
that’s gotten to you––what they’ve done
to the ocean, and the fish in the ocean,
and the people on the shore.
I understand, and I feel
the same, and I can’t do anything
about it either. But right now
the sky’s blue enough, the trees
are holding their own, and the dogs
are told to hush when they bark too often.
Imagine that hush, like the sound
of snow falling all around a man
who’s so tired he says to the angels,
Come on down. Even if he doesn’t
believe in them, he’s dying in the snow
that swirls around him and looks enough
like angels to make him think
he might be wrong. If you were he,
what would you want me to tell you?
Hush, I’d say. Look at the angels
bending down to lift you up,
you who did not want to believe
they were on your side.
1. Lilies of the Field
You knew she was a saint because the birds trusted her.
And the flowers in the fields
leaned in her direction as if wishing to be blessed,
although they might have been saying,
We ask for nothing but what we have,
which is why we are not anxious for our lives.
You wanted to be different,
but look at yourself––you are the same as your father.
Doesn’t it drive everything into your dreams?
Doesn’t it only pretend to release you?
And when Death explains
what you must become, you reply:
But you only believe in one kind of destiny.
And Death replies: I believe in everything.
And the ghost of your father says:
Take your longing away––
it won’t help either of us now.
Which is why men cling to the idea of change.
Consider the lilies of the field––
how God so loves them that even
the greatest king could never be arrayed
like one of these.
Look how the quiet morning
allows them to live,
how the woman pauses among them,
how chance troubles them as little as fate,
since unlike yourself
they do not dream
nor are they anxious for their lives.
2. A Man at Midnight
Imagine a man at midnight knocking
on your door, asking for bread.
If you knew
he was Christ and yet you rejected him,
how could you not help
but feel ashamed, then later wonder
why, of all those asleep, you had been chosen.
But you knew nothing.
You might have been dreaming
of your father
standing outside your house.
Perhaps he was about to speak––
to forgive you, or to ask
for your forgiveness.
My door is shut, you call out.
It is midnight. My children are asleep.
I have nothing to give you.
And today, in the casual light
of morning, you wonder:
But why should I be blamed
if I didn’t understand, and was afraid
waiting in the darkness
for the knocking to cease?
3. The Fig Tree
The fig tree is in bloom, therefore summer
is almost upon us.
Look at the wind tear at the branches
as if the tree
were not meant to survive,
or had to prove it could
to enter the weather of August,
part of everything that is briefly calm.
This generation will not pass away
until all things are accomplished,
Christ said. But in this he was mistaken.
Why not believe in postponement?
Of course you want to live.
You want to live forever.
That’s how the tree becomes part of the story.
The gardener shows his patience,
although his patience has limits.
But now it is still spring,
so the question cannot be answered.
If the figs ripen the tree will be saved.
If not, it will be cut down.
What, after all, could it represent
4. Legion of Demons
The legion of demons and the suicidal swine
came much later.
What I recall is simple––just a few words
and our friend was himself again.
For months madness
had overwhelmed him with certainty.
We weren’t surprised.
What is madness, after all,
but certainty about everything?
And he was already
inclined in that direction.
Then he explained
that he could see by our faces
who each of us was pretending to be,
and more often than not he was right.
no one wanted to hear
his prophecies and premonitions—
neither his wife nor his children,
who wept for the changes he’d embraced,
nor his neighbors, who were fearful,
nor the strangers on the road
he stopped to exhort, nor the soldiers
who mocked him.
He forgave them all, since that was part of his madness.
And in this way
life continued, until one of the many
prophets of those days, passing through
with his followers,
paused, and knelt down, and said
something we couldn’t hear, and our friend
blinked his eyes in astonishment,
and was as he had been.
Later, when word got around
about the multitude of demons
he’d been possessed by,
and the two hundred swine rushing off
into the sea to escape from that evil,
there was no doubt
how much drama this prophet,
or one of his disciples,
had added to our lives.
And why not?
A savior needs his miracles to be impressive.
After all, our friend had been restored
and was again
like the rest of us,
a man who knew what we all knew––
the stuff of day by day,
world without end, enough to get by.
5. House of Sand
He’d asked me to go with him to the sea.
He wasn’t about to walk upon the water.
He just wanted me to look, and tell him what I saw.
So I said I saw the colorful sails
of those boats near the horizon,
and the small waves on the shore,
and two children building
a house from the sand.
Surely they realize
the tide will take away whatever they make.
And yet tomorrow, I said,
the children may return.
The scent of oranges drifted down to us
from the hills. He told me
I knew what I needed to know.
And I did not reply
because I was certain
the secret of that moment had escaped me.
And I thought if I said what I felt
—that he was wrong—
he would leave me.
Perhaps that was my error.
But shouldn’t he have recognized how much
my desire to believe
so that I saw only what anyone would see?
Repeating themselves, the seasons
become, each year, more symbolic.
In the winter there are huge piles of snow.
In the summer: water lilies.
Summer ends and returns.
We ourselves return, and even if
this hillside conceals another,
in the distance a mountain appears
with its sharp peaks and icy ridges,
now impassible. You’re tired,
aren’t you? You’d like to build a fire
and let the snow accumulate, forget
about the shovels by the door.
Or, if it were summer, you might
sit quietly on the bank by the pond
and watch the water lilies—
how they don’t change, although
if you stayed long enough, if you waited
until evening, and then the end of evening,
you would see them shiver and close.
Lawrence Raab is the author of nine collections of poems, including What We Don’t Know About Each Other (Penguin, 1993), which was a winner of the National Poetry Series and a finalist for the National Book Award, The History of Forgetting (Penguin, 2009), and Mistaking Each Other for Ghosts (Tupelo, 2015), which was longlisted for the National Book Award, and named as one of the Ten Best Poetry Books of 2015 by The New York Times. A collection of his essays, Why Don’t We Say What We Mean? appeared in 2016, and his most recent collection of poems, The Life Beside This One (Tupelo Press), was published in the fall of 2017. He has taught literature and writing at Williams College since 1976, where he is the Harry C. Payne Professor of Poetry.
Nancy Mitchell is a 2012 Pushcart Prize winner and the author of two volumes of poetry, The Near Surround (Four Way Books, 2002) and Grief Hut (Cervena Barva Press, 2009). Her third book, The Out-of-Body Shop is forthcoming in 2018 with Plume Editions. Her poems have appeared in, Agni, Columbia College Literary Review, Green Mountains Review, Poetry Daily, Tar River Review, Thrush, Tulane Review, and Washington Square Review among others. She is the co-editor of and chief contributor to Plume Interviews I (2017). Mitchell teaches at Salisbury University in Maryland and serves as the Associate Editor of Special Features for Plume.