C.W. Emerson on April at the Ruins by Lawrence Raab

In Lawrence Raab’s stunning new collection of poems, “April at the Ruins,” the author of nine previous books of poetry asks us to accompany him on a long train ride back to the sea, back through a half-remembered and only partially revealed childhood: “...the landscape of my youth— / those burnished fields / that vast, enigmatic sky.”  The universe Raab conjures in this volume is liminal in nature, one in which enigma may (or may not) give way to clarity, to certainty. 

The poet is more concerned with possibility than with absolute certainty, more focused on the need to stop, and observe—to meet and experience time on its own terms. The moon may be temporarily obscured by clouds; but if one accepts, as Raab does, that concealment leads eventually to recognition, there is certainty that the clouds will clear eventually, revealing the moon once more. But is it the selfsame moon one has known for a lifetime, or has it been altered by dint of having been “lost,” and thus, somehow changed? In Raab’s world, an object once lost “ . . . stays lost, and can never be / only the actual letter, or knife, or ring of keys” it once was.  Its very thingness has been unalterably changed by its lostness.

Raab seems to long for a world uncluttered by the superfluous, the world seen simply as it is, knowable through direct experience, without the intrusion of analysis or the assignment of labels. In his poem, “In the Earliest Days,” the poet asks his reader to imagine a time when “...the world / was only itself.”  From that blank page of possibility, almost beyond the reader’s capacity to imagine, is the organic movement and flow of the natural world, unaccompanied by human commentary:  “... the night / must have been magnificent / in its loveliness, and the dawn / a kind of rapture we can’t imagine.”

Lest it seems that “April at the Ruins” is a series of obscure, difficult high-concept poems, it should be noted that more often than not, the poet grounds his work in quite familiar terms—in fractured fairy tales, in everyday conversations had by people not unlike the people we know, in nature—a lake, for instance, with a plain, flat surface perfect for skipping stones or hurling boulders into its depths—depths which can, in fact, be measured, but which loom dark and limitless in our imaginations.

Even here, in the places we’ve been to on family vacations or over spring break, Raab doesn’t relax his admonition to stop and consider what we might miss— and must subsequently bear—as a result of not being fully present in any given moment (attention deficit and anticipatory anxiety being the banes of modern-day existence). The result, as described in the wonderfully evocative poem, “The Last Moment,” is a human being’s need to be released 

“ . . . from whatever fastens his mind / to the day after this one / and hangs little weights / from his heart.” 

Yet, for all his meanderings into deep glades of paradox and forests of uncertainty, Raab’s unerring sense of irony keeps spirits high, buoys even the most cynical reader, and propels her into the next poem, and the next. It is, after all, “April” there in the ruins, the juxtaposition of newness and freshness a pleasant contrast to the connotation of “ruins” as timeworn, classic, a little stodgy.

Neither timeworn, lovelorn, nor forlorn, Lawrence Raab is the kind of poet whose work is read and appreciated by other poets, at least by those whose self-esteem is intact, and who are not intimidated by his erudition. In “April at the Ruins,” it may be possible to glimpse a random turn of phrase or half-stanza that reminds us of our own most accomplished work. But it would be a mighty task indeed to match the intelligence, integrity and heft of the poetry of Lawrence Raab.

C.W. Emerson’s work has appeared in journals including Crab Orchard Review, Greensboro Review, december, New Ohio Review, and Tupelo Quarterly, and has earned awards and honors from the Atlanta Review, The Comstock Review, New Millennium Writing Awards, New Letters Press, and others. Emerson is a winner of Poetry International’s C.P. Cavafy Poetry Prize and a Pushcart Prize nominee. He is the author of a chapbook, Off Coldwater Canyon (The Poetry Box, 2021), and Eyewear Publishing, LTD, an imprint of The Black Spring Press Group, will publish his first full-length collection of poetry, Luminous Body, Glittering Ash in early 2023. Dr. Emerson is a clinical psychologist and resides in Palm Springs, California.