Raymond Carver and Grandpa

"The call came over the telephone mounted on the farmhouse wall."
“The call came over the telephone mounted on the farmhouse wall.”

Everyone is telling me I need to look into Raymond Carver.

Somehow I had grown up in America, and lived to a ripe old age without becoming acquainted with the guy. I know, I’m culturally deprived.

This year, even though he died in 1988, Carver seems to be everywhere. I go to see the movie “Birdman,” and it’s centered around a play-within-the-movie, and the play is based on a Carver short story.

My Favorite Living Writer, Mary Karr, says she knew Carver and loves him.

My friends Seth and Mark both tell me that I need to get familiar with Carver. Seth lends me his complete collection of Carver’s poems, “All of Us.”

I’m hesitant and skeptical. First of all, Carver writes in free verse. I’m old school.

A lot of his early work is very dark with a dose of self pity.

So you had a hard life with lousy parents? So you’re an alcoholic?

I’m just not a big fan of wallowing in the muck.

My friends encourage me to stick with it.

“He does have some winners once he sobers up and starts reminiscing,” says Seth. Mark says I need to check out his later stuff.

So I read on.

Then, I come to Carver’s poem, “Another Mystery.”

It begins with a young boy going with his father to the dry cleaners to pick up his grandfather’s burial suit. It proceeds with the death of his father many years later. and finally concludes with the boy, now grown, picking up his own suit from the cleaners and dredging up the old memories from the past.

This one got me.

I had already been working on a poem about my own grandfather, and I was touched by how Carver handled similar subject matter. In fact, our poems were about very similar moments in a young boy’s life, remembered years later.

I’m not claiming this poem is anything like Carver’s in much but subject matter, but I was struck by the coincidence.

Oh yeah. Both are free verse. I decided to take the net down and knock the ball around without worrying about rhyme and meter.

The Day the Call Came

The day the call came
We had just dished up the ice cream.
A special treat for a Friday farm dinner,
(Not to be confused with supper.)
Mother had made it early that morning in ice cube trays.
“Freezer ice cream,” she called it,
Vanilla, made with Junket tablets to keep it creamy,
Even as it froze.
Not as good as the real, homemade ice cream cranked by hand,
But a whole lot easier.
And America was just starting its long affair with convenience.

The call came over the telephone
Mounted on the farmhouse wall.
With two bells for eyes,
You spoke into its honking, beaklike nose.
The earpiece cradled appropriately
Where the right ear should be,
While a hand crank made a poor excuse
For a drooping left ear.
It was a party line,
So the snoopy widow woman down the road
Knew as soon as we did.

The call came, and the man on the phone
Said Grandpa had just keeled over dead
At the auction over in Poosey.

So, we all got up—Mom, Dad, Big Brother and me,
And climbed into the ’50 Ford sedan
Dad was so proud to own.
The first car he’d ever bought brand new.

By the time we got to the auction –
It was a farm sale, really —
Where the worldly possessions of one farm family
Were being sold off.
One at a time.
By the hypnotically fast-talking auctioneer.
Not as depressing as the foreclosure sales
That were all too common
Just a few years before in the Depression.
This was a voluntary sale,
But a little sad nonetheless.

Some farmer was getting too old to run the place,
And didn’t have kids—or leastwise kids who wanted to farm.
A lot of boys joined the service in those days,
Or headed to Kansas City to find work, and a little excitement,
Rather than stay and try to coax a living
Out of that hilly, rocky dirt.

The man at the auction told us
Grandpa had been standing there in the sun with everybody else.
They were just about to start the bidding on the John Deere hay rake
When he grabbed his chest and fell right over.

Years later, they told me when he was a grown man
Grandpa had gone down to the river,
And been baptized, and filled with the Holy Ghost,
With the evidence of no longer speaking in profane tongues.
For, it was well known Grandpa had been gifted
In the art of colorful language.
“He used to could cuss by note,” was how Mother put it.
But after the washing with water and the Word,
Grandpa was never heard to swear again.
I only knew him as a white-haired old man
With a merry smile, and infinite patience
With Grandma, who required it.

And that was it, really.
Nothing more to say,
Except for the understated condolences
Of the country folk.
Nothing more to do,
Except for my father,
Now lately promoted to the role of the family’s eldest male,
Who assumed the duties and made the necessary arrangements.
Although I didn’t know quite what had happened,
I felt a lurch … as something shifted beneath me …
And I was yanked one more notch forward.

By the time we got back to the house,
The ice cream had long since melted
And now was returning back to solid state,
As it curdled in the September heat.

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The Ukrainian Candidate’s Face

Ukranian President Viktor Yuschenko
In 2004, Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko was believed to have been poisoned in the midst of a reelection campaign.
Things have not gone smoothly for the Ukrainians since they gained independence from the Soviet Union.

The recent troubles involving Russian separatists is just one chapter.

Over a decade ago, I remember being riveted by the news report of the strange illness that hit charismatic Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko during a campaign for reelection. One of the leading theories at the time implicated the Russians. The more things change …

It was one of the few times I’ve been tempted to play tennis with the net down.

THE UKRAINIAN CANDIDATE’S FACE

“Ukrainian Presidential Candidate Poisoned.” – September 10, 2004

The day the Ukrainian candidate’s face
Erupted with boils and turned ash-grey,
Nowhere to hide with the whole world watching,
His cosmopolitan good looks marred
Beyond the power of greasepaint and powder,
Did his young wife then love him any less,
As the life mate who made her heart beat fast
Transmogrified before her very eyes,
Some curse spoiling his original face?

She knew (wives know) that something was amiss
The night before, when giving him a kiss,
She tasted something strange upon his lips.
Did she curse his drinking and say harsh words?
Perhaps suspect him of unfaithfulness?
(There are diseases you can catch, you know,
From Russian whores, that will pock your skin, and
Ruin your health like Chernobyl ruined the land.)
Who’d blame her for a thought or two like that?

His already fallen foe cleverly
With toxins the potato soup did lace,
Beguiled the unsuspecting innocent
To taste the apple-of-the-earth puree.

What would we think if we could only see
Before-and-after pictures of ourselves?
What wormwood dioxin pox concoction
Would we say has over-swept our race
More like a glacier than the mushroom patch
That blossomed in Yushchenko’s garden face?

Playing tennis with the net down

Playing tennis with the net down
We don’t need no stinking nets!

Robert Frost once famously said “writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.”

Although this has been the dominant form of poetry for — um — like a hundred years now, I’ve always been more inclined to playing with the net up.

Not trying to restart long-settled fights or open old wounds. I’m just saying I was introduced from a young age to poetry with meter and rhyme, so that’s what I’ve gravitated towards over the years.

So shoot me.

But I must say, Mary Karr may make a convert of me.

Mary Karr
Mary Karr plays tennis with the net down

Mary Karr is best know for her memoirs, Liar’s Club, Cherry, and Lit. These are wonderful, funny and profound books.  They are credited with — or depending on your point of view — blamed for sparking the current trend of confessional memoirs.

But she would consider herself a poet first, and she has a good point.

Full disclosure:  I went to school with Mary back in the 70s.  And by “going to school with” I mean I was at the same college at the same time for a year or so.

She actually dated — or hung out with .. or whatever we called it back then — one of my roommates back at an off-campus house near Macalester College in St. Paul.

It was a pretty arty scene.  We had musicians and songwriters and artists and aspirants all living in close quarters and striving to find their voices.

This roommate of mine was a freeloading squatter who lived in our attic.  But he was a talented musician, so we gave him a free pass.  He appears on the early pages of Lit, the “Missouri cowboy,” who never seemed to lack female attention.

My primary impression of Mary back in those days:  “This girl is trouble.”

I was most certainly right.  And she would probably agree.

Later she would date David Foster Wallace, and reportedly inspire him to write Infinite Jest.  Or at least, make it good.

But enough with the name dropping.

Mary is one heck of a poet.  Exhibit A:  a poem called “Suicide’s Note: An Annual.”  Pretty universally regarded as being about Wallace after he killed himself.

It’s almost enough to make me consider taking down the net.