The very short stories of Raymond Carver.
The three volumes of poems that Raymond Carver has added to his large collection of stories have received a very mixed response.(2) Nevertheless, there seems to be something consistent about Carver's poetic ambition. Carver's poems are intimately related to the stories, but structurally the poems perform a very different function. If the stories move along a metonymic process of repetition, always reiterating the same social and autobiographical trauma,(3) then the poems are the metaphoric condensation of the stories, as if their author had hoped to find in his poems a deliverance from his stories.
Or, one might say, the poems are the stories' "recognitions," their moments of crisis and of intense introspection. Recognition is the telos of Aristotle's tragic plot. For Freud too, who based much of his psychoanalytic theory on Aristotle's theory of tragedy, a narrative serves but to postpone the recognition. The poems thus become the occasion of a narrative consummation, of a discharge of narrative time into the quiescence of lyric timelessness. The timeless, as I will attempt to show, is in Carver's poetry not only death but also, if tentatively, eternity.
In his celebrated essay, "The Storyteller," Walter Benjamin points out that it is from the ending backwards that everything acquires meaning. A man who dies at the age of thirty-five will always, at any stage of his life, be the man who died at the age of thirty-five. But this is true only for the retrospective reader whose knowledge of the end of the story the protagonist must blindly fulfill. One such reader wonders in a recent review of Carver's posthumous volume A New Path to the Waterfall whether such knowledge does not fundamentally determine our aesthetic judgment: "Is it good in itself, or is it good because we know the writer is dying?" (Lee 57). Inadvertently the reviewer points to a characteristic quality of Carver's poetry: the speaker in these poems is always dying. Thus, as readers of Carver's poetry we witness, as Benjamin observes in an extraordinary passage,
the fire that devours another's life, the fire which warms our own life which we can never light in our own. That which draws the reader to the novel is his hope, as he reads, to warm his own shivering existence by the warmth of another's death. (402)
In The Sense of an Ending, Frank Kermode points out that endings are profoundly inscribed in literary narratives: "we project ourselves . . . past the End, so as to see the structure whole, a thing we cannot do from our spot of time in the middle" (8). For us who always live "in the middle," the aesthetic closure is a deliverance from the middle, cathartically granted through the structure and form of literary texts. But Carver's stories usually do not allow catharsis, his characters do not escape from the middle of life "to see the structure whole." The poems on the other hand seek this wholeness patiently, fiercely, desperately.
For life, as Carver's stories pitilessly demonstrate, is always the middle of life. "Nights without beginning that had no end," as he comments in one of his poems, nights in which one is "Talking about a past as if it'd really happened," so that, by invocation, by need, by wish, "this time next year, / this time next year / things were going to be different" (Where Water 26). "I wanted / everything behind me," we read in another poem, "I even wanted / to become inhuman" (Ultramarine 65). Or elsewhere: "If I were dead / I remind myself, I wouldn't / be eating . . . It's not so simple. / It's that simple" (Ultramarine 126).
Carver's poetic tense is narrative retrospection. He projects in order to remember, hopes that things will be different, warms his shivering existence by the fire of his own rekindled death in order to remember his life. Driven by "The worn out face of death! / The lightning speed of the past" (Ultramarine 73), walking "in his own past" and kicking "through piles of memories" (Ultramarine 17), Carver has an unquenchable appetite for narrative consummation. Death is his desire for a life beyond its ending from whence the "relentless logic" (Ultramarine 116) of the present would be resolved. "Before long, before anyone realizes, / I'll be gone from here" (Ultramarine 9) or "soon enough we'll rot under the earth" (Ultramarine 78), or "We vanish soon enough. / Soon enough, eaten up" (Ultramarine 113).
In "Gravy" the poet becomes his own survivor, so to speak. The voice from beyond the grave finds an unexpected occasion in the gift of an added decade of life: "Eleven years / ago he was told he had six months to live / at the rate he was going. And he was going / nowhere but down. So he changed his ways . . ." (A New Path 118). "Gravy" is a retrospective, redemptive self-completion by which life acquires the structure and meaning of a closed narrative. The opposite of looking back from the end of one's life is to locate oneself in life's middle, to which Dante has added the condition of solitude and given the famous formula "Nel mezzo del camin di nostra vita," the midway of life in which one gets lost like Rimbaud in his forest of symbols. Meaning, direction, and closure, indeed the poem itself, are in question. One stops and waits:
I go for a ways then stop. . . .
this waiting that's gone along with me wherever I go. But the hope widening now that something will rise up and splash. I want to hear it, and move on. (Ultramarine 97)
But in another poem hope narrows again:
This morning I woke up to rain on the glass. And understood that for a long time now I've chosen the corrupt when I had a choice. Or else, simply, the merely easy. Over the virtuous. Or the difficult. This way of thinking happens when I've been alone for days. Like now. Hours spent in my own dumb company. Hours and hours much like a little room. With just a strip of carpet to walk on. (Ultramarine 91)
Here as elsewhere the beginning of the story is beyond telling: the story has been going on "for a long time now." Yet the occasion for the poem is a sudden understanding, a stillpoint, an interruption of an unredeemable middle, a life of mistaken choices.
Carver's poems are narrative caesuras, pauses, crises of larger narratives beyond which beckons promise of narrative self-transcendence, a deliverance from "a little room." Thus, in the poem "The Window," an electricity blackout causes a serene "vast calm"; "the trees were translucent" (Ultramarine 119) and the speaker stands poised, listening beyond the sound of words: "in the early morning hours, / he opened a curtain . . . / He leaned closer to the glass" (Ultramarine 17). In moments of such lyrical poise Carver writes his best poetry, becoming a writer of tableaux, a painter of still lifes, a recorder of how the light falls at certain moments, a receiver of pure, purposeless lyric insight:
The girl minding the store. She stands at the window picking a piece of pork from her teeth. Idly watching the men in serge suits, waistcoats and ties . . . (Ultramarine 106)
About lyric pauses, Tess Gallagher insightfully points out: "There is something in the way, and we wish to defy the injunction to halt. Rather to absorb, to go around it, to plunder--but it won't agree and becomes instead the site of meaning, which represents a dialogue with dominions other than our own, but including our own, through what it excludes of even our utmost desire." Lyric poems are injunctions to halt and the poem becomes the condition of recognition: "This way of thinking happens / when I've been alone." The lyric transforms the narrative into a still life with rain on the glass. The unresolvable story is at standstill, the middle come to an end--if only for a time. The lyric forges a retrospective illumination similar to Benjamin's notion of the death that casts a sudden light on past events: "This morning I woke up to rain / on the glass. And understood" (my italics). The understanding occurs as suddenly and as unexpectedly as death: "This way of thinking happens." And it causes the same sudden sense of completion as death, of having arrived at the end of life, from which vantage point life becomes understandable, ready to be reinterpreted, atoned for, changed, and re-lived. In "Gravy," the moment of recognition becomes the moment of return with the resolve to "quit drinking," after which "it was all gravy, every / minute of it."
But many of Carver's poems arrive at a point of recognition without promise of redemption. In "Limits" (Ultramarine 36) a goose is kept in a barrel to attract other geese for shooting. The eye zeroes in on the vision of the bird in its terrible confinement: "I took a good long look and, / unmoving, the goose looked back." The narrative remains confined in that moment of looking: an injunction to halt. Rather would the narrator absorb, go around, plunder, hence ". . . we left, / my friend and I. Still / willing to kill anything / that moved, anything that rose / over our sights." But the gaze into the bird's eyes is irreversible. Nothing will cancel it or rise above it. The "unmoving" eyes of the bird return the man's gaze and turn it into a haunting and unforgiving introspection: "[L]iving / on a staple of bitterness, I / didn't forget that goose./ I set it apart from all the others." But eventually, the speaker's failure to resist indifference, in which failure the poem itself is perhaps implicated, is deemed a "betrayal . . . just another word / for loss, for hunger." The poem remains an incomplete apology. Loss and hunger remain.
"An Account" (Ultramarine 101) too is morally incomplete: that which was to be accounted remains, as it were, unaccounted. For Carver, the poem's slightly ironic tone is unusual:
Frank and his wife [were] watching TV. Hill Street Blues. Frank's favorite show. When he gasps twice, is thrown back in his chair-- "as if he'd been electrocuted." That fast, he was dead.
Meanwhile Frank's favorite show goes on. At the end of the poem, after efforts to revive Frank have failed, "someone thought to turn off / the images pulsing across the screen." The program on television ends abruptly, "in the middle," as does Frank's life. "An Account" is a poem with several narrative and meta-narrative levels. It tells a story about Frank's death told by Ed, then recalled and retold: thus it is a story about telling and the necessity of retelling--for only in telling, such is the implication, lives can be recalled---after death. But it is also a story about the failure of such attempted revocation, about the impossibility of reviving the dead. Death remains the unaccountable and unaccounted. The poem thus also becomes an allegory of a failed poetic ambition, dramatized by a contemporary version of the archetypal muse who "knows / something about CPR":
She places her lips on Frank's icy lips. A dead man's lips. Black lips. And black his face and hands and arms. Black too his chest where the shirt's been torn, exposing the sparse hairs that grew there. Long after she must have known better, she goes on with it. Pressing her lips to his again, and then again. Even after it's too late and it was clear he wasn't coming back, she went on with it. This girl, beating on him with fists, calling him every name she could think of. Weeping when they took him away from her. . . . (Ultramarine 102)
Recalling the dead to retell their stories, coaxing them forth with kisses and curses, these are ancient orphic ambitions of the poet but they are always doomed by failure. Eros must struggle with death, but must be vanquished. The story must come to an end, but the end comes like an afterthought: "And someone thought to turn off / the images pulsing across the screen."
If the poems tell a tale of death so as to retell life, under such pressure and ambition the poems frequently contract to paradox, to tableau, to wistful still point in the early morning hours, by the edge of water, in the kitchen, near the window:
I find myself, at last, in perfect silence. Knowing the little that is left. Knowing I have to love it . . . (Ultramarine 39)
Such hope but also such doubt linger in the conclusions of many of the poems--poignantly in Carver's last volume, the section subtitled "Forebodings." In one poem the speaker says, "We were getting ready, as if we'd found an answer to / that question of what's left / when there's no more hope" (A New Path 116). Here Carver's imagination is of two worlds (which is the title of one of his poems [A New Path 6]), one in which obsessive intimations of mortality pervade and another in which such intimations may perhaps, miraculously, against all writerly desire or limitation, be canceled. Some of Carver's poems thus promise intersection of two worlds, where water comes together with other water. These, Carver says early on, are "like holy places" (Where Water 17-18), and his poetry, one might say, is a continuous preparation for the recognition of such places: "This is a quiet place. As good a place as any / to break my walk, sit, and provide against / my own death" (Where Water 54).
The poems that attain this "quiet place" are like edges near water, perching posts over an inexplicable blank. From such a vantage point, one of Carver's characters in a poem entitled "Fields" (Where Water 130) admits to an "impulse to take off [his] shoes," but adds the skeptical injunction, "But just an impulse." Nevertheless, the last lines of the poem disavow that gesture of spiritual timidity and the speaker proceeds beyond the limits of certainty: "Amazing! to walk that open field-- / and keep walking." Similarly, in another poem, a lyrical pause provides a new mental focus: "I couldn't see it. / Not until this morning" (Where Water 82), or "It's later . . . that he understands something" (Where Water 116). But Carver is equivocal throughout; meditative intensity may amount to intimations but never to revelations--these remain slightly beyond the ending of the poem.
William Stull has observed that Carver's short stories often conclude with "implosions," moments where ". . . Carver shows that we can mean what we say, but we can never say what we mean" (241). The term implosion suggests the sense of an accumulating tension breaking inward at the end, leaving no fragment, no shard. Yet the poems are these shards and fragments, holding an energy that makes a narrative collapse. The poems then are also the stories' exclamations, their ellipses, their equivocations, their unfinished, unfinishable intimations. "It was night like all the others. Empty / of everything save memory. He thought he'd got to the other side of things. / But he hadn't." At the end, the speaker finds himself "Once more . . . in the presence of mystery. Rain. Laughter. History. / Art. The hegemony of death. / He stood there listening" (Where Water 68). One beautiful poem, entitled "Switzerland" (which plays with the cliche of "having a good time, wish you were here"), closes with the same gesture of impending revelation:
All of us, all of us, all of us trying to save our immortal souls, some ways seemingly more round- about and mysterious than others. We're having a good time here. But hope all will be revealed soon. (Where Water 70-71)
Hope, in Carver's poetry, is an unfinished time, an inexplicable deferral of meaning. Frequently hope is denied altogether. Meaning and world contract to paradox: "Nothing adds up. / It all adds up. How long will this storm go on?" (Ultramarine 22), or "Nothing was happening. Everything was happening. Life / was a stone, grinding and sharpening" (Ultramarine 16).
Carver's last book of short stories bears an epigraph from Robert Lowell: "Why not say what happened?" The poems pursue this question fiercely and intensely. They stop and look into the stories for a truth always latent, always unspoken.
1 All translations of Benjamin mine.
2 Most of Carver's reviewers read the poems as stories: ". . . one may enjoy [Carver's] poems for their anecdotal value. He tells good stories" (Disch). Or: "Carver's poems are episodes from his life. They are stories told by an avuncular sort of fellow . . ." (Pugmire). The title of the present essay is from Dave Smith, who observes that Carver's poems are "very short stories." Smith then wonders "But are they poems? . . . some of his poems," he continues, "feel like outlines, rough drafts . . . Yet," he concludes, "we must call them poems and even argue they are often very good." Robert Shaw claims they are only good when Carver speaks in the voice of the prosewriter. Otherwise "a gap opens, as we read on, between the human interest he sparks and the artistic treatment of it." For Fred Chappoll, Carver's poetry turns out "pretty bad" and can only be appreciated "if we read it as a novel in journal form." For Anthony Thwaite, Carver simply lacks "artistry" (Washington Post), and for one of his severest critics, R. T. Smith, Carver's poems only "resemble the outlines of unwritten stories" (Poet Lore). Robert Dana has drawn attention to Carver's relationship with Chekhov's prose and points out that Carver's poetry exemplifies "the long developing of poetry towards prose. The poems in A New Path to the Waterfall exploit the values of lyric poetry at the same time they exhibit the qualities of the best expository or narrative prose."
3 Carver's last short stories, particularly "Blackbird Pie" and "Errand," attempt to break out of this pattern. See Schweizer.
Benjamin, Walter. Illuminationen: Ausgewahlte Schriften. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1977.
Carver Raymond. A New Path to the Waterfall. New York: Atlantic Monthly P, 1989.
-----. Ultramarine. New York: Random House, 1986.
-----. Where Water Comes Together with Other Water. New York: Random House, 1984.
Chappell, Fred. "Attempts upon Delight: Six Poetry Books." The Kenyon Review 12 (Summer 1990): 168-76.
Dana, Robert. "In the Labyrinth." North American Review 275.3 (Sept. 1990): 72-80.
Disch, Thomas. Rev. of Where Water Comes Together with Other Water, by Raymond Carver. The Nation 12 Apr. 1986: 529.
Gallagber, Tess. Personal letter. 4 March 1990.
Kermode, Frank, The Sense of an Ending. London: Oxford UP, 1966.
Lee, L. L. Review of A New Path to the Waterfall. Western American Literature 25 (Spring 1990): 57.
Pugmire, Stephen. Rev. of Ultramarine, by Raymond Carver. Wester American Literature 22.2 (Aug. 1987): 177-78.
Schweizer, Harold. "The Unread Letter in Raymond Carver's 'Blackbird Pie'" Profils Americains. Ed. Claudine Verley. Poitiers: Universite de Poitiers, 1993.
Shaw, Robert. Rev. of Ultramarine, by Raymond Carver. Poetry 150.4 (July 1987): 230-31.
Smith, Dave. Rev. of Where Water Comes Together with Other Water, by Raymond Carver. Poetry 147.1 (Oct. 1985): 38-40.
Stull, William. "Beyond Hopelessville: Another Side of Raymond Carver." Philological Quarterly 64.1 (1985): 1-15.
Schweizer, associate professor of English at Bucknell University, is co-editor with Michael Payne of the twelve volume Bucknell Lectures in Literary Theory (Basil Blackwell). Author of many articles on literary theory and poetry, he has recently edited a book on the poetry of Irving Feldman. He is currently writing a book on suffering and representation.