Saturday, January 20, 2007

On Raymond Carver, Poet

The late Raymond Carver (1938-1988) is such an important figure for several generations of American short story writers, we sometimes forget that he was also a fine poet. Carver published six collections of poetry, including At Night the Salmon Move (1978), Where Water Comes Together with Other Water (1985) and the posthumously released A New Path to the Waterfall (1989). All of Us: The Collected Poems was published in 1996, and in a paperback edition in 2000. There are also several collections of his work (two published posthumously) that mix poems with essays and short fiction.

The poet Tess Gallagher was Carver's longtime companion. They were married in 1988, shortly before his death from lung cancer. She is also his literary executor.

I love all of Carver's work, but the poems in Ultramarine (Vintage Books, 1987) are particular favorites of mine. I bought the collection in 1989 in Missoula, Montana, at a great little bookstore called Freddy's Feed and Read, on my way to The Yellow Bay Writers' Workshop. This may be the book that persuaded me my future was in poetry, not fiction.

Here is a poem from that collection. I particularly like how the economy of Carver's phrasing is set against the odd vocabulary of this poem––Carver's use of the words "grilse," "parr," and "smolt"––all terms for young salmon at various stages of development. The speaker of the poem seems to be asserting a kind of brave mastery over the river, while simultaneously making it clear that he has entered an unfamiliar and dangerous place.


I waded, deepening, into the dark water.
Evening, and the push
and swirl of the river as it closed
around my legs and held on.
Young grilse broke water.
Parr darted one way, smolt another.
Gravel turned under my boots as I edged out.
Watched by the furious eyes of the king salmon.
Their immense heads turned slowly,
eyes burning with fury, as they hung
in the deep current.
They were there. I felt them there,
and my skin prickled. But
there was something else.
I braced with the wind on my neck.
Felt the hair rise
as something touched my boot.
Grew afraid of what I couldn't see.
Then of everything that filled my eyes––
that other shore heavy with branches,
the dark lip of the mountain range behind.
And this river that had suddenly
grown black and swift.
I drew breath and cast anyway.
Prayed nothing would strike.


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