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.”


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.

Common Merganser Males

I needed to buy some medicine for Skye at the vets yesterday, and never one to waste gas I decided once again that I would time my visit so that I could visit Waughop lake. Unfortunately, the sun breaks were so short that it was only clear a small part of the time, but still long enough to get some interesting shots.

Most interesting to me were shots of Common Mergansers, specifically male Mergansers. I knew that the males change colors dramatically during breeding, but I’d never seen it displayed as dramatically as it was today.

It began when I started seeing ducks that I couldn’t identify, though they looked vaguely familiar. What I was seeing was male Common Mergansers changing right in front of my eyes, from that male that looks more like a female than a male

Merganser Beginning to Change Breeding Colors

to this male, which seems about half transformed,

Merganser Half Way to Breeding Colors

to these Mergansers in full regalia.

male Common Mergansers in Breeding Plumage

An Altered Ego

Whenever I get nostalgic I’m apt to hear a soundtrack being laid down somewhere deep in the recesses of my mind. Not surprisingly, hearing a particular song can also trigger a nostalgic moment, too. Often favorite songs are tied to particular memories.

Thus, I wasn’t surprised that when I heard Tommy Tucker’s “High Heel Sneakers”

that I was reminded of Judy, the girl I dated for much of my senior year in college, and, even later, for six months when she was in grad school. I’m sure we never had “our song,” but if did have one it would have been “High Heel Sneakers.” Most of our dates in Seattle took place in the most popular nightclubs in Seattle since I was making good money for a college student, was living at home, and didn’t owe a single bill. I had even more money to waste when we lived in Vancouver and Portland, because I was working while waiting to go to Officers School at Fort Knox and didn’t even have college bills to pay.

Judy and Me

Though Judy was the first girl I ever truly loved, it was a strange relationship because neither of us was much of a drinker and certainly weren’t party animals. Neither of us was particularly good dancers, either, though that probably helped to make us compatible on the dance floor. Still, both of us seemed to love nothing more than spending our nights dancing at local taverns with large dance floors.

Judy broke my heart when I got a “Dear Loren” letter just before my unit went to Vietnam. For awhile I comforted myself by trying to pick up women in bars in Vegas and Bakersfield, but my taste for bars and the blues took a serious blow after I woke up in bed with the wife of an out-of-town Hell’s Angel after a long night in a Bakersfield bar.

In later years I consoled myself for my loss by telling myself that I doubt Judy would have known me when I returned from Vietnam. Hell, for nearly six months, I hardly knew myself, all I knew for sure was that I wasn’t the same person that had gone to Vietnam.

I avoided dancing, and, more particularly, bars after I came home. More often than not, when I did drink I ended up drunk. So I gradually avoided drinking altogether. Of course, I didn’t help that my first wife didn’t drink or dance.

I sometimes wonder what happened to that happy-go-lucky guy who loved fancy clothes and funky bars. Was he just a temporary aberration, a momentary tribute to college, or a Vietnam casualty?

Ai’s “Visitation”

The sixty some pages of “New Poems” that ends vice are very similar to those that make up the first two hundred pages of the book, though the poem on President Clinton’s affair obviously couldn’t have been written in the past. Unfortunately, for me, at least, the shock-effect of earlier poems doesn’t wear too well.

Strangely, I find myself annoyed when Ai tries to get inside the heads of famous people, particularly when her insights don’t jive with my own insights. I can’t quite imagine ever presuming to understand why real people have done what they have done, though I enjoy seeing the world from inside the mind of a fictional character. I’m not sure why that distinction bothers me, but it does, considerably so.

While I’ve found effective poems that are seared into my memory, like Anne Sexton, I think I prefer Ai in smaller doses. Even the most optimistic poems, like this one, leave me in pain:


“Heaven and earth.
What else is there?”
Said Walt Whitman in your dream,
then he smiled at you
and disappeared,
but you wanted him to come back.
You wanted to tell him that there was more.
There was the hardsell
you had to give yourself to stay alive
HIV positive five years
and counting backward to the day
your other life was stripped
bare of its leaves
at the start of the war of disease
against the body.
You don’t have AIDS,
yet, you know it’s coming
like a train whose whistle
you can hear before you see it.
When you feel the tremors
of internal earthquake,
will you do the diva thing?
Will you Rudolf Nureyev your way on stage
so ravaged and dazed
you don’t know who you are,
or commit your public suicide in prlvate
windows open wide
on the other side,
where your father, Walt is waiting
to take you in his arms
like a baby returning there on waking,
beside the picnic basket
in the long grass,
where the brittle pages of a book
are turning to the end.

After 20 some years of teaching American Lit, I’d have to be pretty stupid not to be aware that Walt Whitman’s optimism is too much for many, if not most, readers. Any positive associations the reader might identify with the mention of Whitman at the beginning of this poem are probably cut short by the lines “There was the hardsell/ you had to give to yourself to stay alive/HIV positive five years.” No one I know has entirely escaped the horror of that disease. Still, Walt managed to stay eternally positive despite a hellish personal life, so I guess it’s not impossible. Better to fight for hope than to stand frozen on the tracks as death roars down on you. I guess it could be argued that this poem ends on an optimistic note, with Walt “waiting to to take you into his arms,” but even this seems undercut by the ending phrase “where the brittle pages of a book/ are turning to the end.”

Although there are some poems in vice that I’d never consider putting in a high school text, there are also many poems that would enrich any anthology of modern poetry. Ai reminded me of some painful early memories of my time in Vietnam, my short career as a caseworker, and even some experiences as a teacher. Certainly, I doubt anyone can be a “whole” person, or at least a complete adult, without being aware of the suffering of our fellow humans, and Ai helps us to vicariously share that pain.

That said, I doubt I’ll be returning to this volume regularly like I do to Theodore Roethke, Stanley Kunitz, or even David Wagoner.