Carver’s “Gravy”

I’ll have to admit that purely for personal reasons, Carver’s “Gravy” is probably my favorite poem. Those few who were reading “In a Dark Time” in December of 2001 will remember that I was diagnosed with throat cancer and told I would be dead in less than six months unless I got immediate treatment, and none of the treatment options seemed particularly good.

GRAVY

No other word will do.  For that’s what it was.

Gravy.

Gravy, these past ten years.

Alive, sober, working, loving, and

being loved by a good woman.  Eleven years

ago he was told he had six months to live

at the rate he was going.  And he was going

nowhere but down.  So he changed his ways

somehow.  He quit drinking!  And the rest?

After that it was all gravy, every minute

of it, up to and including when he was told about,

well, some things that were breaking down and

building up inside his head.  “Don’t weep for me,”

he said to his friends.  “I’m a lucky man.

I’ve had ten years longer than I or anyone

expected.  Pure Gravy.  And don’t forget it.”

I survived throat surgery, learned how to eat again and seem to have totally recovered from the cancer even though the odds seemed stacked against me. Since then, I’ve felt exactly like this. I sometimes think these have actually been the best years of my life, though that’s hard to say because I seldom think much beyond the moment. Though I’m not planning on dying in the near future, I seldom plan beyond that time.

And yet, if I were to die on the way home this Friday I would be happy. I need nothing more than today and today and today. It’s been all gravy.

Carver’s “Hope”

I’ll have to admit that my favorite Carver poems are those that seem to mention “Tess,” and refer to the last ten years of his life, apparently the happiest years of his life. Those poems, however, lose much of their strength if they are not seen against the whole of his work, which includes many poems focused on his failed marriage and to the alcoholism that threatened his very existence.

In light of may own divorce after seventeen years of marriage, I can certainly identify with this poem:

HOPE

“my wife,” says Pinnegar, “expects to see me go to the dogs when she leaves me. It is her last hope.”

–D.H. Lawrence, “Jimmy and the Desperate Woman”

She gave me the car and two
hundred dollars. Said, So long, baby.
Take it easy, hear? So much
for twenty years of marriage.
She knows, or thinks she knows,
I’ll go through the dough
in a day or two, and eventually
wreck the car — which was
in my name and needed work anyway.
When i drove off, she and her boy —
friend were changing the lock
on the front door. They waved.
I waved back to let them know
I didn’t think any the less
of them. Then sped toward
the state line. I was hell-bent.v She was right to think so.

I went to the dogs, and we
became good friends.
But I kept going. Went
a long way without stopping.
Left the dogs my friends, behind.
Nevertheless, when I did show
my face at that house again
months, or years, later, driving
a different car, she wept
when she saw me at the door.
Sober. Dressed in a clean shirt,
pants and boots. Her last hope
blasted.
She didn’t have a thing
to hope for anymore.

I suspect that anyone who has endured a bitter divorce (aren’t all divorces bitter ?) can identify with this poem, perhaps even hoping the same for their former spouse. I know it took me many years before I could begin to hope that my ex-wife found the same happiness that I sought for myself.

The irony, of course, is that even the narrator believes that his wife is right when she believes he is “hell-bent,” as many of Carver’s poems show. The remarkable thing is that he managed to overcome his personal devils and find happiness. And, though it’s never stated, the implication seems to be that he has done better than his ex for when she last sees him her last hope, for happiness, is “blasted” and she “didn’t have a thing/ to hope for anymore.”

The best revenge in life isn’t getting even; it’s simply finding your own happiness.

Carver’s “For Tess”

At times I find myself wishing that Carver’s poetry was more lyrical than it is. In fact, at times the poems seem more like really short short stories than poems. Not having read his short stories, I wonder if I shouldn’t find at least one volume of them and see whether I prefer them to his poems.

Often I find myself unable to relate to the subject of his poems, particularly those related to his alcoholic background. However, when I find a poem that I can relate to, and there are several, it often seems quite moving, like this one:

FOR TESS

Out on the Strait the water is whitecapping
As they say here. It’s rough and I’m glad
I’m not out. Glad I fished all day
on Morse Creek, casting a red Daredevil back
and forth. I didn’t catch anything. No bites
even, not one. But it was okay. It was fine!
I carried your dad’s pocketknife and was followed
for awhile by a dog its owner called Dixie.
At times I felt so happy I had to quit
fishing. Once I lay on the bank with my eyes closed,
listening to the sound the water made,
and to the wind in the tops of the trees. The same wind
that blows out on the Strait, but a different wind, too.
For awhile I even let myself imagine that I had died –
and that was all right, at least for a couple
of minutes, until it really sank in: Dead.
As I was laying there with my eyes closed,
just after I’d imagined what it might be like
if in fact I never got up again, I thought of you.
I opened my eyes then and got right up
and went back to being happy again
I’m grateful to you, you see. I wanted to tell you.

I don’t fish anymore, but I’ve spent much of my life near the Sound and instinctively respond to his descriptions of it. I’ve certainly fished enough to know that it isn’t always the number of fish you catch that determines whether the day was enjoyable or not. Carver’s an astute observer, and details, like “your dad’s pocketknife” and “Dixie” add depth to the poem, making his happiness seem convincing.

I don’t often imagine myself dead, though I did right after twice being diagnosed with cancer, but I know that imagining, or anticipating, your own death makes you grateful for every moment you’re alive. At such moments happiness seems even more precious than usual. And I suppose we really should tell others that being around them makes us happy, but I’d probably need to write a poem in order to be able to do that.

Raymond Carver’s All of Us

I’ve finally started reading Raymond Carver’s All of Us. I’ll be taking it with me on my upcoming trip to California and should have lots of time to finish it there, though I may not get it posted until I get back, depending on how things go.

Although I was originally attracted to Carver because his poems were set in the Pacific Northwest, the more I read the more I realize that he’s much closer to being a “confessional poet” than a “nature poet.” Still, the fact that I immediately recognized the setting of “Hominy And Rain” probably made it more appealing to me than it might have otherwise have been. That, and the fact that it seems to come very close to expressing the same feelings I touched on in the entry “Altered Ego.”

HOMINY AND RAIN

In a little patch of ground beside
the wall of the Earth Sciences building,
a man in a canvas hat was on
his knees doing something in the rain
with some plants. Piano music
came from an upstairs window
in the building next door. Then
the music stopped.
And the window was brought down.

You told me those white blossoms
on the cherry trees in the Quad
smelled like a can of just-opened
hominy. Hominy. They reminded you
of that. This may or may not
be true. I can’t say.
I’ve lost my sense of smell,
along with any interest I may ever
have expressed in working
on my knees with plants, or
vegetables. There was a barefoot

madman with a ring in his ear
playing his guitar and singing
reggae. I remember that.
Rain puddling around his feet.
The place he’d picked to stand
had Welcome Fear
painted on the sidewalk in red letters.

At the time it seemed important
to recall the man on his knees
in front of his plants.
The blossoms. Music of one kind,
and another. Now I’m not so sure.
I can’t say, for sure.

Its a little like some tiny cave-in,
in my brain. There’s a sense
that I’ve lost – not everything,
not everything, but far too much.
A part of my life forever.
I like hominy.

Even though your arm stayed linked
in mine. Even though that. Even
though we stood quietly in the
dorway as the rain picked up.
And watched it without saying
anything Stood quietly.
At peace, I think. Stood watching
the rain. While the one
with the guitar played on.

Part of what he’s talking about here is probably the result of age, the loss of smell, not to mention the loss of interest in some activities that might have once interested us, like working on our knees with plants, but I think the the “barefoot/ madman with a ring in his ear/ playing his guitar and singing/ reggae” represents more than just the losses of old age. He seems to represent the Dionysian side of human nature, for Dionysus is the god of wine, ecstasy, and intoxication. One only has to think of Zorba the Greek or Yeats’ Wild, Wicked Old Man to know what he fears he has lost.

Although the narrator seems to have found love and is “At peace, I think,” he misses that irrational, ecstatic side of his earlier life, even more surprising when we realize how many of his poems are about an admitted alcoholism that seemed destined to destroy his life and everyone around him.