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.
I must say … Raymond Carver is growing on me. Thanks to some literary friends, I overcame my prejudice against poets who “play with the net down” and write in free verse.
At first I was put off by Carver’s early focus on his alcoholism. But, after sticking with it, I’m warming to his honesty and humanity.
He can take a sliver of a memory and spin it into a little short story in the form of a free-verse poem. It’s not surprising, I suppose, that Carver is most well known as a short story writer.
His poems are little mini-short stories.
I’m also appreciating Carver’s blue collar roots. I’m not sure I should say he celebrates his blue collar roots. It just is, and he doesn’t shy away from it.
I’ve read that he left the Iowa State Workshop because he was having trouble fitting in with the “upper-middle-class milieu” at the school. And although his wife-at-the-time successfully lobbied for him to be given a second chance by comparing his struggles to Tennessee Williams’ difficult experience with the program 30 years earlier, Carver eventually dropped out with no degree.
I’ve known what it is like to go from blue collar roots in a small town to the jungle of an academic arena, and that’s a story for another day.
But, Carver has my empathy.
I’ve also come to appreciate how Carver can spin a little story and — BAM — just nail you with a feeling or an observation that leaves you pondering and pondering. He’s open and honest to a fault.
Whether he’s writing about getting letters from his kids asking for money, or about him committing adultery, you can be cocksure he’s telling you the truth.
I love, too, how his childhood in the American Northwest gave him insight into nature.
While I now live in the Northwest, I didn’t grow up here. I did grow up in the country in Missouri, so we have some shared experiences.
For the first few years of my life, I grew up on a farm. Here is a story of one memory from that time.
I heard them long before I saw them
Like a cacophony of oncoming clown cars.
Rising up out of the valley
And breaking over the Douglas firs.
The biggest formation I’d ever seen,
A magnificent wedge of geese all headed somewhere fast.
There must have been a hundred of them
Flying so low they went by just-like-that
With two hundred wings pumping urgently in unison.
And then they were gone
With just a fading honking echo left behind.
Was it a flock like that, dear brother,
That enticed you to run out of the barn door
That evening so long ago, shotgun in hand,
Thinking you might have a chance at bagging one?
Mom and I were up at the house making cookies,
And I remember hearing eerie wails and noises
Coming from the dark outside
And laughing, thinking it must be some strange animal
Making its strange animal sounds.
But when the cries went on and on
Mom got worried and went to look.
It could have been worse, you know.
You could have blown your head off,
You big klutz.
As it was, you only tripped over the threshold
And broke your elbow, which was bad enough,
So bad you couldn’t wrangle open the barnyard gate,
And so bad it made you moan like a dying beast.
But we drove you all the way to Cameron that night
To find a doctor who could set the bone.
And you got a cast and it healed up mostly,
And though you’d live another 60 years or so,
You never would be able to straighten out that arm.
You did your best to teach me how to hunt
But I never was much for killing things,
Yet … any time I hear wild geese approaching
I still run to where I can get a clear line of sight,
If only to shoot them with my eyes.
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.