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:


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.

5 thoughts on “Carver’s “For Tess””

  1. I met Tess Gallagher on a few occasions as a grad student in 1985 in the faculty mailroom at Padelford Hall. I had financial aid which meant I had to work something like eight hours a week for sixteen dollars an hour doing mostly menial work that the departmental secretaries found tedious or time consuming. I learned to use a mimeo and a few other office machines and distributed flyers and circulars to the departmental mailboxes. Tess had a class she was teaching twice a week on writing screenplays, and would check her mailbox on her way to class at a time when I was usually filing flyers. Quite affable, and notable in a building where most people lived wholly inside their heads.

  2. Loren: From personal experience, I understand exactly what you say about thinking about death. It’s too close to the bone for me to say more at the moment.

    As for Carver’s short stories, in a way, they ARE poems, IMO. WEll worth reading.

  3. “At times I felt so happy I had to quit fishing.”

    When I first read Raymond Carver’s poetry in the early 1990s, it had been a long time since I had felt any sustained happiness. His poems in the spirit of “For Tess” were lifelines for me, putting me back in touch with the feeling of being extraordinarily glad to be alive and having someone to share that with.

  4. Hi,

    I have just stumbled across your piece whilst looking for somewhere i could find this poem written down. It seems it is more than eight years since you wrote this. I hope you have since discovered Carver’s short stories; that your life has been enhanced, that you love them as much as i do.

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