He defeated the odds against his ever finding a measure of peace and happiness in his life.
April 14, 2013
The dedication to Raymond Carver’s last book, A New Path to the Waterfall, reads: Tess. Tess. Tess. Tess. Tess Gallagher was his final and truest love, though they didn’t meet until well into his life, one that began beleaguered and coarse, and carried on into alcoholism and struggle. But he knew love when he finally found it; love bore the name Tess.
Carver was a profoundly talented short story writer and poet. His demand for precision in his work meant his images were raggedly honest yet hemmed as if by fine hand-sewing. When he finally conquered drink, he began to relax into a life enriched with recognition, accomplishment and a loving partner. Though it wasn’t to remain. Two months past his fiftieth year, cancer ended him. But Carver had defeated the real odds, those against his ever finding peace and happiness, and wrote just before leaving us, Late Fragment:
And did you get what you wanted
from life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on this earth.
Raymond Carver found his new path to the waterfall. Through his art, he came home to himself. And like all truly great writers, he leaned heavily on authenticity. His biography is found among his poems, depicting a plethora of flaws, errors, and desperation, yet he pushed on. The results were some of the most quietly touching stories and poems of our age, sometimes sardonic, sometimes ironic but always filled to the brim with a brave exploration of the human condition. What he has to teach us, is that art lives within us. Our exterior circumstances form only our plots, never the crux of the story, for the crux is the art – a message beyond thought and words that seeps into us and swells our sense of love and wonder. The reason for technical expertise is merely to capture, in words, what rises to the top.
If there is one thing I’ve learned in my 67 years, it is that we need art, like we need air, to live, to buff our raw edges, soothe are gnawing angst, and encourage our awakening. May we as writers strive always to create art. It isn’t just literary fiction’s purview. Its legacy is crucial. It opens the door to what is most vital and beautiful about being human.
Carver, in one of his last poems, directed his words at Tess, but art by its nature is never exclusive. Its gift is that it caresses us all:
Suppose I say summer,
Write the word “hummingbird,”
put it in an envelope,
take it down the hill
to the box. When you open
my letter you will recall
those days and how much,
just how much, I love you.
“Hummingbird for Tess”