Wednesday 26 September 2012

Raymond Carver: Ultramarine and A New Path to the Waterfall

From the occasional reviews department; two collections of poems by Raymond Carver.



So, I don't think Raymond Carver is a very good poet. That didn't stop me from being very taken with a number of these works (and more so by others I found online, scavenging around, and even more so with the next collection, which I skimmed on the walk back from the library to work, becoming an obstacle for pedestrians and a hazard for drivers as I lost myself to the words and pulled away from my surroundings).

I love these poems less for their rhythm and lyricism, more for the small observation, the occasionally cruel honesty. Some felt more like dreams and thoughts and experiences jotted down than poems: 'Mother'

My mother calls to wish me a Merry Christmas.
And to tell me if this snow keeps on
she intends to kill herself. I want to say
I'm not myself this morning, please
give me a break. I may have to borrow a psychiatrist
again. The one who always asks me the most fertile
of questions. "But what are you really feeling?"
Instead, I tell her one of our skylights
has a leak. While I'm talking, the snow is
melting onto the couch. I say I've switched to All-Bran
so there's no need to worry any longer
about me getting cancer, and her money coming to an end.
She hears me out. Then informs me
she's leavingthis goddamn place. Somehow. The only time
she wants to see it, or me again, is from her coffin.
Suddenly, I ask if she remembers the time Dad
was dead drunk and bobbed the tail of the Labrador pup.
I go on like this for a while, talking about
those days. She listens, waiting her turn.
It continues to snow. It snows and snows
as I hang on the phone. The trees and rooftops
are covered with it. How can I talk about this?
How can I possibly explain what I am feeling?

Some feel like even more extreme distillations of Carver's short stories, already lean themselves, but broken with enjambments (not even all that precisely or elegantly - almost like any old person breaking up a short piece of writing so it makes a 'poem'). 'The Jungle' is one of these works - but the last two lines saved it for me:

"I only have two hands,"
the beautiful flight attendant
says. She continues
up the aisle with her tray and
out of his life forever,
he thinks. Off to his left,
far below, some lights
from a village high
on a hill in the jungle. 
So many impossible things
have happened,
he isn't surprised when she
returns to sit in the
empty seat across from his.
"Are you getting off
in Rio, or going on to Buenos Aires?" 
Once more she exposes
her beautiful hands.
The heavy silver rings that hold
her fingers, the gold bracelet
encircling her wrist.  
They are somewhere in the air
over the steaming Mato Grosso.
It is very late.
He goes on considering her hands.
Looking at her clasped fingers.
It's months afterwards, and
hard to talk about.

'Nyquil' has a passage in it that struck me hard and true:

Call it iron discipline. But for months
I never took my first drink
before eleven P.M. Not so bad,
considering. This was in the beginning
phase of things. I knew a man
whose drink of choice was Listerine.
He was coming down off Scotch.
He bought Listerine by the case,
and drank it by the case. The back seat
of his car was piled high with dead soldiers.
Those empty bottles of Listerine
gleaming in his scalding back seat!
The sight of it sent me home soul-searching.
I did that once or twice. Everybody does.
Go way down inside and look around.
I spent hours there, but
didn't meet anyone, or see anything
of interest. I came back to the here and now,
and put on my slippers. Fixed
myself a nice glass of NyQuil.
Dragged a chair over to the window.
Where I watched a pale moon struggle to rise
over Cupertino, California.
I waited through hours of darkness with NyQuil.
And the, sweet Jesus! the first sliver
of light.

The sight of it sent me home soul-searching. I did that once or twice. Everybody does. Go way down inside and look around. I spent hours there, but didn't meet anyone, or see anything of interest. Yes. That.

There is some sweetness, some lightness. Some fancy. 'The Minuet'

Bright mornings.
Days when I want so much I want nothing.
Just this life, and no more. Still,
I hope no one comes along.
But if someone does, I hope it’s her.
The one with the little diamond stars
at the toes of her shoes.
The girl I saw dance the minuet.
That antique dance.
The minuet. She danced that
the way it should be danced.
And the way she wanted.

There is also a lot of fishing. A LOT OF FISHING. And I am good with that - but Brautigan and Bishop already own fishing for me. After a while, I started skimming those ones. Death and fishing. I feel ya.

This though is my favourite in the collection. Pierre Bonnard painted his wife Marthe over and over again in the decades of their marriage, in his luminous light and colour-soaked canvases. Marthe aged with the years, but not the image of her that Pierre held. 'Bonnard's Nudes' -

His wife. Forty years he painted her.
Again and again. The nude in the last painting
the same young nude as the first. His wife. 
As he remembered her young. As she was young.
His wife in her bath. At her dressing table
in front of the mirror. Undressed. 
His wife with her hands under her breasts
looking out on the garden.
The sun bestowing warmth and color. 
Every living thing in bloom there.
She young and tremulous and most desirable.
When she died, he painted a while longer. 
A few landscapes. Then died.
And was put down next to her.
His young wife.


A New Path to the Waterfall

So, I still don't think Raymond Carver is a very good poet. That didn't stop me from loving some of the short-storiest of the works in this collection. 'What the Doctor Said' is deservedly well-known, for making universal one of those tragic, tragi-comic moments:

He said it doesn't look good
he said it looks bad in fact real bad
he said I counted thirty-two of them on one lung before
I quit counting them
I said I'm glad I wouldn't want to know
about any more being there than that
he said are you a religious man do you kneel down
in forest groves and let yourself ask for help
when you come to a waterfall
mist blowing against your face and arms
do you stop and ask for understanding at those moments
I said not yet but I intend to start today
he said I'm real sorry he said
I wish I had some other kind of news to give you
I said Amen and he said something else
I didn't catch and not knowing what else to do
and not wanting him to have to repeat it
and me to have to fully digest it
I just looked at him
for a minute and he looked back it was then
I jumped up and shook hands with this man who'd just given me
something no one else on earth had ever given me
I may have even thanked him habit being so strong

'Margo' is slight, but moves me

His name was Tug. Hers, Margo.
Until people, seeing what was happening,
began calling her Cargo.
Tug and Cargo. He had drive,
they said. Lots of hair on his face
and arms. A big guy. Commanding
voice. She was more laid-back. A blonde.
Dreamy. (Sweet and dreamy). She broke
loose, finally. Sailed away
under her own power. Went to places
pictured in books, and some
not in any book, or even on the map.
Places she, being a girl, and cargo,
never dreamed of getting to.
Not on her own, anyway.

I think it is not the 'being a girl', but that notion of venturing forth, unexpectedly, under your own power, and finding you can navigate with deftness and travel distances that you - and others - did not explicitly rule out, but never thought should be ruled in.

A New Path to the Waterfall was published the year after Carver's death. In her introduction, Gallagher talks about working with Carver to bring together this last book. Gallagher writes at length about the structure of the book, and the introductions of poemised extracts of texts by Chekov (I - a nonwriter - am not going to argue with two writers about the decision. But I didn't get much out of it.). As well as the professional, she writes of the personal. Of how in 'Summer Fog' Carver told her he was trying to do for her what she would do for him, and he would never do - mourn her. Of how on a last fishing trip to Alaska, where they spent mornings working on the manuscript and afternoons with their friends, when they came to the end of the work Carver asked her to pretend they had not, so they could keep these mornings of theirs. Of the piece of scrap paper next to Carver's typewriter, on which he had written "Forgive me if I am thrilled with the idea, but just now I thought that every poem I write ought to be called 'Happiness'."

In her final pages, Gallagher protests to those who may feel Carver wasted his time on poetry - short, precious time better spent on fiction. 'But this would be to miss', she writes, 'the gift of freshness his poems offer in a passionless era.' The passion, the intimacy, the gratitude rise off this collection like steam off a hot bath in cold night air - 'Gravy' (Gravy, these past ten years. / Alive, sober, working, loving and / being loved by a good woman.), 'Woman Bathing' (We laugh at nothing / and as I touch your breasts / even the ground-squirrels / are dazzled'). And oh - the poem of the book (of his career) for me will have to be 'Hummingbird (for Tess)'

Suppose I say summer,
write the word “hummingbird,”
put it in an envelope,
take it down the hill
to the box. When you open
my letter you will recall
those days and how much,
just how much I love you.

That little ritual of love is so sweet, so clear. Even as an imagined (Suppose ...) act, the sweet gift is there. You, it says. Oh, you. You who know what power one word holds, shared between lovers. You who make each day summer.


Anonymous said...

When you comment on 'Margo' and the'notion of venturing forth, unexpectedly, under your own steam' you seem to forget that 'Margo' is cargo and therefore 'carried' rather than going under her own steam.
Just a thought that changes your conclusion I think.

Courtney Johnston said...

You don't think

She broke
loose, finally. Sailed away
under her own power.

suggests Margo moved out into the world on her own terms? Because I do.