Introduction by Jonathan Dunne
Raymond Carver was born in Clatskanie, Oregon, in 1938. His father was a saw-mill worker and his mother was a waitress and clerk. He married early, and for years writing had to come second to earning a living for his young family. Despite small-press publication, it was not until Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? appeared in 1976 that his work began to reach a wider audience. A year later he gave up alcohol, which had contributed to the collapse of his marriage, and met the writer Tess Gallagher, with whom he shared the last eleven years of his life. During this prolific period he wrote three collections of stories: What We Talk about When We Talk about Love (1981), Cathedral (1983) and Elephant (1987). Fires, a collection of essays, poems and stories, appeared in 1983 and was followed by three further collections of poetry: Where Water Comes Together with Other Water (1985), Ultramarine (1986) and A New Path to the Waterfall (1989). The last was published posthumously, Raymond Carver having died in 1988 of lung cancer.
Raymond Carver had a hard life. He married his childhood sweetheart, with whom he had two children, but felt he ‘poisoned her life’. Alcohol and domestic violence had been aspects of his own childhood and they found their way into his own married life. His children would run away and be brought back by the local sheriff, pleading to be taken anywhere but home. Raymond Carver revisits these moments with shame and regret. There is also tenderness, however, and it is clear to anyone involved that going through a divorce is not a decision taken lightly. His estranged wife on one occasion travels 500 miles to accompany Carver on a river trip just to see if he has really given up alcohol.
He achieves this, but it is too late to save their marriage and Carver must move on. He meets the poet Tess Gallagher, his soulmate, who returns him to himself, allowing him to write prolifically and gain international recognition. What is it that readers find in Raymond Carver? One of their own? A writer who didn’t have an easy life and had to struggle to find his way? A writer of tenderness and humor? All of these things. A poet who fell into the morass of this world, where we do not see, and managed to come out the other side, with experience to share, a story to tell.
This is why we are so keen to share the poetry, experience, of Raymond Carver with a Bulgarian readership. Carver has something to teach us. ‘Happiness. It comes on unexpectedly.’ In a society that all too often thinks happiness is something to be bought, here is a voice advising us to take a more modest, sacrificial approach. Do away with desire and what you want will come to you.
Raymond Carver found what he wanted in his last poem, ‘Late Fragment’:
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.
There is no sense of injustice in his poems at dying an early death. In fact, he called himself ‘lucky’ to have survived his alcoholism and lived another eleven years, which were a ‘gift’, in the company of Tess Gallagher, his wife at the end. His last collection, A New Path to the Waterfall, is the stunning record of a man who knows he has a journey to make, who even thanks the doctor who diagnoses cancer, ‘habit being so strong’.
The selection of sixty poems aims to give as complete a picture as possible of the range and subject-matter of Raymond Carver’s poetry: his childhood, first marriage, uneasy family relationships, tender memories of his father, the one who ‘kept silent’ and turned out to be right, the twin pleasures of fishing and hunting, the sheer joy of dipping his hands in cold water, because ‘it pleases me, loving rivers’, first sexual explorations, seeing the destructiveness of his own actions and trying to persuade his friends, death again… The selection was made after a careful rereading of the poems, in two swaths: first, the more narrative poems; second, the vertical and abstract. Poems from all four collections are included in the anthology.
There are images in Raymond Carver’s poetry that stick in the mind: a scarred fish holding against the current, a man darning a fishing-net who, from a distance, appears caught in that net. There is some beautiful language, as when the cougar ‘smooth-loped out of the brush’. Most of all, this is poetry that speaks to the ordinary reader in an easy (but not shallow) way that the reader can understand and relate to. Raymond Carver’s poetry emphasises the view that this life is about seeking and living in harmony. Violence is not the answer.
The poet Raymond Carver is a personal favourite. He is a poet I would urge people I cared about to read. For what he has to teach us from personal experience about life. For how he manages through pain to turn hate into love, so that death will not win the day.
Sofia, 22 August 2005