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.
I've encountered this poem by Raymond Carver so many times before: in poetry anthologies, in workshops, as an easily sharable meme on social media. I have also, of course, encountered death many times in fiction, and encountered both reported and metaphorical death in poetry. But this Friday morning just gone I had my first encounter with a real-life poet's death through his poetry.
As I started reading All Of Us, Carver’s collected poems, I knew that he was dead. I knew that he'd almost died of his alcoholism at 40, detoxed, and then had another ten good years (gravy he called those years in his poem of the same name). But I also knew from his wife Tess’ introduction to the collection that cancer found a way to sneak in and take him anyway, when Carver was still so young at the age 50.
I remember first learning about dramatic irony for my English GCSE. But I’ve never felt it so keenly as I did reading Carver’s work. Every time he fished for steelhead, or felt the resonance of foghorns on the Washington State shoreline, or fought with or kissed a woman, I almost couldn’t breathe in case somehow he might hear the future whispering from outside his tea-coloured pages. But eventually the reader forgets, just as we all do with each turning year.
Until Friday. I read most of my poetry on my morning commute through Croydon, on my way to my work at The Bethlem Hospital. Grey skies. Tramlines. Little scraps of green gardens. Always my tiredness. Perhaps I should have heeded the warning of Wake Up – a piece of writing that is far more flash fiction than poetry, in which Carver and his woman, his South, role play at an executioner’s block in a dungeon museum. But I didn’t. And so I landed at What The Doctor Said (“he said I counted thirty-two of them on one lung before / I quit counting them”) and realised I was, quite suddenly, in startlingly new territory, and that through the handful of poems that remained I was going to witness Carver die.
And isn't it so much worse to die as a poet? When the task we set ourselves is to notice and contain the essential moments of life; to somehow create an architecture in which those moments can persist? I certainly feel that. The pressure and responsibility of it sometimes makes me feel like I’ve cracked a rib.
Recently one of my poetry mentors asked me why it is that I write. I was embarrassed not to have an immediate answer, especially when she then rattled hers off quite fluently. Of course there is a sort of intuitive feeling (isn’t there always) that has been with me for as long as I can remember, but in that moment I struggled to put that feeling into any kind of words – though perhaps that precise struggle was the beginning of my answer. I have thought a great deal about the question ever since, and of course there are many strands to my answer. And I would be lying if I didn’t acknowledge that one of those strands is my own desperate greed for life; the ravenous wish to somehow survive my own death through my words (I like the idea of peering out from my own tea-coloured pages, held in 22nd Century hands; of somehow continuing to experience the world through them).
But in his final poems Carver takes a braver route. There aren’t many poems after we learn of his terminal cancer diagnosis, and those that are included are sparse. He writes a lot about holding hands and about kissing. And why wouldn’t he? Because, of course, in poems like No Need (“I see an empty place at the table. / Whose? Who else’s? Who am I kidding? / The boat’s waiting.”) he knows that it is not about the telling, or even the leaving behind, but about making those last moments count. (“I’ve left the key / in the same place. You know where.”)
Earlier in the collection Carver tells a story about a job he had as a teenager, working as a delivery driver for a local pharmacist. On one of his deliveries he met an elderly gentleman in a cravat whose home contained the first private library Carver had ever seen. The man also had stacks of poetry magazines piled on the floor, and while he was waiting for the man to bring payment, Carver leafed through one these magazines, a whole new world opening up in his hands – the possibility of sharing his poetry with others, and of his poetry becoming a living thing in other people's minds. The man ended up giving Carver the magazine, along with a poetry anthology, and as a reader I was left moved by that exchange of wisdom; moved as I always am by the act of passing something down from one generation to the next.
Here is the poem that follows that story:
They’ve come every day this month.
Once I said I wrote them because
I didn’t have time for anything
else. Meaning, of course, better
things – things other than mere
poems and verses. Now I’m writing
them because I want to.
More than anything because
this is February
when normally not much of anything
happens. But this month
the larches have blossomed,
and the sun has come out
every day. It’s true my lungs
have heated up like ovens.
And so what if some people
are waiting for the other shoe
to drop, where I’m concerned.
Well, here it is then. Go ahead.
Put it on. I hope it fits
like a shoe.
Close enough, yes, but supple
so the foot has room to breathe
a little. Stand up. Walk
around. Feel it? It will go
where you’re going, and be there
with you at the end of your trip.
But for now, stay barefoot. Go
outside for a while, and play.
I cried three times reading All Of Us. The first was at Carver’s poem Heels (“A man with socks over his hands / under the night sky.”) And this was the second. Because I realised that of course the business of writing, to borrow Carver’s metaphor, isn’t about the leather vessel but the living flesh inside it. After all, haven’t I seen shoes in museums, and don’t they only ever carry the faintest stain and scent of their previous journeys (as moving as that nonetheless is)? And I cried because in that moment I felt the still-warm flesh of Carver’s hand take the living flesh of mine and place something very important into the vessel of my palm.
And so I arrived at Late Fragment, the final poem in All Of Us, one bus stop away from work, and grateful to have the top deck to myself and the privacy that allowed me to cry for the final time – the sort of tears you shed, not for the passing of a fictitious character you’ve fallen in love with, but for a real person who inhabited a real space in this life, and whose death is therefore just as real. I almost felt, in that moment, like I was beside Carver’s bedside watching the fish-shape of his mouth take its last breath.
It’s a ten minute walk from the bus stop to the therapy centre I work at, along the perimeter fence of The Bethlem’s generous grounds. A line of old oak trees stand like fatherly sentinels, and beyond them the hospital's orchards and wildflower meadows wait for the day, so often still damp with their morning mists as I arrive. The hospital welcomes dog walkers onto its grounds, and so I am used to the huffing sounds of Labradors against the early morning quiet. But suddenly on Friday morning there was a different sound. Birds cracking out of the treetops like gunshots. And then, just like that, the streak of two greyhounds low against the grass, all grey flank and speed and terrifying beauty, naked muscular feet kicking up the earth. I couldn’t do anything else but stop, my mouth falling open.
My god, I hope you saw that Raymond. I said, right out loud.
I’ve left the key in the same place. You know where. He replied.