One of my favorite things to do when I’ve got spare time it to drop in at a used bookstore and go treasure hunting in the poetry section.
Not looking for anything in particular, but rather, just poking around to see what might be there.
The surprises are half the fun of it. I’ve discovered some great poets this way. And stumbled across collections of poems I’m enjoying to this day.
I know it would be more efficient to simply go straight to Amazon and have their algorithms tell me what I should be interested in. But, it’s just not the same thing.
The online bookstore experience lacks the hand of providence … the delight of surprise … the magic of serendipity.
Like what happened to me the other day when I went into town to get my teeth cleaned. (No cavities!) So I celebrated with a visit to the local used bookstore.
It’s a small, narrow poetry section, but with several shelves within it. I was standing up on a chair to start with the A, B and C authors, when I ran across a collection by Raymond Carver.
I had only recently been introduced to Carver by my friends Mark Neigh and Seth La Tour. (Seth is a poet himself, over at One Poem Every Day.)
I had grown to appreciate Carver, but did not have any of his books. So I was excited to find one of his books in decent condition. It was A New Path to the Waterfall, which I remember Seth recommending highly.
I was to learn that this was Carver’s last collection, some written while he knew he was dying from cancer. It had an introduction by his wife, Tess Gallagher, who helped him organize and edit the book.
So, I bought it and a couple of other books and took them home. The next day, when I sat down to read it I found one of those little surprises.
Thumbing through, the first page I came to was the dedication page. Carver simply and emphatically had dedicated the book to: Tess. Tess. Tess. Tess.
And just below the dedication, was the hand-scrawled autograph: Tess
Well, that was fun! Tess had actually signed this book for someone. But, then, when I turned back to the title page, there was a longer handwritten message:
Tess Gallagher for Carolyn Maddux, meeting in Shelton. Have Ray’s and my last time w/him writing ~ until …
When you consider that Carver had died just a few years before at an all-too-early age 50, you can see how my treasure hunt turned from fun to poignant.
I did a little research and found that Carolyn Maddux is a Northwest poet, herself. Still alive and living in Shelton, Washington, as far as I can tell. I wondered a bit about how and why books find themselves in a used bookstore, but then turned back to the book itself.
When I read Tess’s introduction, the poignancy grew. In it, she gives an account of the last months of Carver’s life. She writes how scattered the pages of the book on the floor and crawled around on her hands and knees, reading and deciding by intuition which pages should come next.
She also made this statement about Carver and his poetry:
It seems important finally to say that Ray did not regard his poetry as simply a hobby or a pastime he turned to when he wanted a rest from fiction. Poetry was a spiritual necessity. The truths he came to through his poetry involved a dismantling of artifice to a degree not even Williams, whom he had admired early on, could have anticipated.
That’s an amazing statement: Poetry as a spiritual necessity. But when you read the book, you can begin to see how it can be true.
And what a book of poems this is! For just a taste, this is the book’s last poem, which is also engraved on Carver’s tombstone in Port Angeles, Washington.
And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved. To feel myself
beloved on the earth.