The Last Poem I Loved: “Locking Yourself Out Then Trying To Get Back In” by Raymond Carver
Look, very small things happen in this poem. They are described clearly, in the first person, in the most everyday way possible. I want to do the same here, to tell you why this poem matters, in the simplest way that I can.
A man finds that he has locked himself out of his house. It is raining.
You simply go out and shut the door
without thinking. And when you look back
at what you’ve done
it’s too late. If this sounds
like the story of a life, okay.
Here is what happens, the entire narrative action of the poem:
The man tries the downstairs windows, and finds them impossible to open. He gets a ladder, and positions it towards the upstairs deck. Climbing over the railing, he stands before the glass door of his home office. He breaks the glass of the door. He steps in.
Here it is: the civilized world, a man just being, just doing what he has to do. And Carver knows it. Okay, he says, I’m just telling you what happened, and it’s going to sound like an allegory. Here we go. The admission moves me.
Here, the speaker stands and looks through the glass door to his office, the room where he writes:
…This was not like downstairs, I thought,
This is something else.
And of course it is different, by mere physical location. The poet looks into a room he is locked out of, and accustomed to looking out from. How could it be anything but different?
The difference between the poet and any other person who has ever looked into a window of their own locked-out-of house, before breaking in, is that he writes down the moment of catching his mind in a moment of noticing. The difference is that he writes it down.
It is poems like this which sometimes bring me a greater sense of belonging-in-the-world than works I find deeply moving on musical and spiritual levels, like Rilke’s Duino Elegies, or Hopkins’s “Carrion Comfort.” This kind of poem, Carver’s poem, gives me hope for the people around me, poets and not-poets, or perhaps not-yet-poets, for it contains the essence of the type of poem I hope to write—one that anyone can read, in almost any part of the world, and implicitly understand. The language is simple, the speaker’s actions are simple, but it is not the simplicity alone that I find so moving. It is the moment of catching oneself seeing. Some deep part of me thinks that this is all poetry is, at best: a clear record of a moment where something catches.
The older I get, and the more I read, the less interested I am in poems touching language alone, and the less interested I am in poems that contain little more than flights of fancy, superficial flourish, glibness, or cynicism, no matter how witty. Those are poems without hands, as full as they are sometimes of the rich multiplicity language affords us, in all those sprockets, pop stars, and jalopies. I have become deeply interested in sincerity, in work that risks sentimentality. Carver’s poem does for me what I hope my own poems do—reach out to the reader to say, Look, here we are together, isn’t it strange…
The “I” of the poem seems so honestly to be Carver himself that I have trouble not believing that what the poem describes is a true experience, trouble not using “the speaker” and “the poet” interchangeably. Does it matter if the experience is true? I don’t think it does. What matters is that the experience is real. It is a poem presented palms up. And importantly, too, the poem is full of cracks of reflection, the deepest cracks appearing before the poet breaks the window. This is the moment where he steps away from the present… no, not steps, but is pulled.
And it was something to look in like that, unseen,
from the deck. To be there, inside, and not be there.
I don’t even think I can talk about it.
And yet, Carver continues. This is the poetic impulse—the moment Carver continues to talk about what he says he can’t, but must. What he tries to say then is that he imagines himself in the room. He thinks of himself thinking, and not thinking about the present moment, but about the past. This is the moment of hurricane complication, sharp gratitude and grief, and wonder. Standing at the window of his office, he thinks of himself thinking of people he has loved, and of harms he has done, but does not say who, or what. This isn’t important for the poem. What is important is that the poet will break the window, and go back into the room. It almost seems to be the start of something, and yet, this is where the poem ends. I get no sense that the poet enters the house with new purpose, that he will march to the telephone to call someone and speak of this outdoor/indoor epiphany. And yet, in the moment before he breaks in, or perhaps in the moment the window breaks, he understands it as beautiful.
I bashed that beautiful window.
And stepped back in.
Beautiful. When I think of the poem, this is the only adjective I remember, though the poem contains a few more. It sticks with me, this word—beautiful. As a poet who has graduated from an MFA program, I could analyze my own remembering of this word, saying that the adjective is notable because it is the only abstract adjective given to an object, and could go on, academically, from there. But simply as a person who has locked herself out of her house before, who has looked, passing by, into windows of many houses and wondered about the lives inside, I think the poet finds the window beautiful because it reminds him so clearly that he is alive. That he has a life, and a history, and that there is still time.