Poetic Words: Lawrence Raab

From Poetry Daily, a narrative, dream-touched poem by Lawrence Raab (part of a longer work). I love the way it slips in and out of relating the dream in a gentle, but precise, blur.


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John Ruskin, who, as yet, has not had any walk-ons in my dreams.

A Cup of Water Turns into a Rose (excerpt)



On the radio a choir was singing
“I want to be a crocus”
in a mournful British accent.

One of the three men who wasn’t me
expressed disapproval. He seemed to know
the composer’s work, may in fact have had

some personal connection, which couldn’t
have been a happy one. I followed them
into another room where soon enough

I understood their conversation
wasn’t meant to include me, and so,
feeling like an intruder, as seems often

the case at the end of a dream, I woke up.


There’d been a long unwinding narrative,
perfectly coherent until all of it was lost

when the music began and I noticed
the radio—shiny and black, with huge dials,
like nothing I’d ever owned, maybe

something out of the Second World War,
or a movie about it: anxious men bent forward
around what now had turned into the forbidden

short-wave equipment—static that opened up
to a voice declaring in code the time of a landing
on some important beach nearby. Within hours

everybody’s lives would change,
and the excitement on their faces
was illuminated by the glowing of the dial.


I’d seen other versions of that story,
and could predict who wouldn’t survive,
cradled in the arms of his best friend—

the selfless bravery of his dying,
the precise way he’d close his eyes
after his choked but eloquent final words.

Had he made a last request—a sweetheart
back home who needed to be told,
a father who’d never understood?

Was a letter involved, a medal, a ring?
No doubt such deaths occurred, such tokens
were passed from hand to hand.


As seems often the case these days
I woke up troubled by the purposeless
weight on my chest. I knew that later

that morning a few pills would help,
a walk with the dogs, a way to choose
what I could expect to accomplish, a way

to calculate the lengthening of the day,
to see it moving toward dusk, then evening.
But now the birds were beginning

their chorus, and the folds of sleep
unhanded me. No, Doctor, I don’t
want to die, if that’s what you’re asking.

I’d just rather not wake up.


For it might be at first thought, wrote John Ruskin,
whom I must admit I’ve hardly read,
that the whole kingdom of imagination

was one of deception also. Not so. Let’s admire
that brave stab at brevity—Not so—even if
it’s followed by a colon, and the reader’s

certainty that Ruskin will never choose
a single word when two or three present themselves.
Therefore the imagination is a summoning

of things absent or impossible. And the force
of it lies in the knowledge of their actual absence
or impossibility at the moment

of their apparent presence … We invent
and observe what does not exist,
and at that moment we are pleased to see

what we have made, and how it cannot be real.


Their code was never broken. The invasion
would succeed, but not without cost. Later
the father bows his head, and turns away,

the girl tries hard not to cry—an expression
of resignation, then of pride, crossing her face.
She’ll refold the letter and show it to no one.

“Do you think that’s from They Were Expendable,”
I ask a man who looks like he might know.
“It’s not,” he replies. We’re standing on a road

among tall white pines, and a pleasant breeze
has found us there, so I say, “It helps—
nature—at times, though it doesn’t mean to.”

“At times,” he says, “the impossible
looks like it’s on our side
until it isn’t.” He shakes his head.

“I knew Ruskin—he was a jerk.” I nod,
as if I’d known him too, and felt the same.

[ … ]


Lawrence Raab

A Cup of Water Turns into a Rose

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