Saturday, January 11, 2014

Last Days

In what we call synchronicity in The Artist's Way study (wonderful pieces of serendipity dropped into life and examined/appreciated carefully), my boss loaned me a copy of Raymond Carver's last book of poems A New Path to The Waterfall. He was a family friend of hers, and this thin, battered book added to the literary mystique of the gift. Now I'm not a particular Carver fan, save for "The Cathedral," but when I looked at these poems in a specific light they had something incredible to say.

I'll revert momentarily to the other night, when I finished reading a very intense and truthful Young Adult novel called "Insurgent." The finality of the book was horrific and also promising. As a result, I fell into a fitful sleep that included dreams about my death, my husband's death, and the death of our pre-labored baby. It was a cold, wretched shock to my system and when Travis turned in for the night I kept touching him to make sure he was there. Tears collected quietly and as dramatic as it sounded, it also opened up my heart to think about the life I have now. What can be done to really relish what's already here?

I see some of that discussion in the following poem:

"Sunday Night" by Raymond Carver

Make use of the things around you.

This light rain

Outside the window, for one.

This cigarette between my fingers,

These feet on the couch.

The faint sound of rock-and-roll,

The red Ferrari in my head.

The woman bumping

Drunkenly around in the kitchen

Put it all in,

Make use.

This brief, touching piece uses the reflective imagery of rain, window, and couch to invite the reader into a home. His home is around him, and the simple things like the touch of his cigarette between fingers and feet on the couch--propped and relaxed and interested in life. He listens to hard, lovely music and dreams of something vibrant and flashy. He then comes to the woman in his kitchen, the companion that for better or worse or temporarily or permanently he has now chosen. And he wants to use these things to increase. To increase his art, his character, his existence. The fact that the poem is named "Sunday Night" could mean a restful pause before launching into the everyday work. It could mean quiet and contentment. The author means for us to observe small, precious details.

Another great aspect of this collection is the introduction by Carver's last wife, Tess Gallagher. Who better to remark on his life and work than the person who spent his final days with him? One memorable passage is the opening paragraph:

"This is a last book and last things, as we learn, have rights of their own. They don't need

us, but in our need of them we commemorate and make more real their finality which

encircles us, and draws us again into that central question of any death: 'What is life for?

Raymond Carver lived and wrote his answer: 'I've always squandered,' he told an

interviewer, no doubt steering a hard course away from the lofty and noble. It was almost

a law, Carver's law, not to save up things for some longed-for future, but to use up the

best that was in him each day and to trust that more would come. Even the packaging of

the cigarettes he smoked bore the imprint of his oath in the imperative: NOW." (Carver,


Called "seizing the day" or "making it count" or "NOW," gives name to humanity's need to embody purpose. I now grow so tired of movements that want to emphasize the meaninglessness in the world. (Sorry Camus, your work is so perfectly written, but I can't hide the moral drivel behind your Frenchness anymore.) Where on earth do you get that from after a pale violet sky or coo from an infant or story of how love wins? How can even the worst of things trump this? I feel that they don't, and they never will because God has promised His children more than that.

The second stand-out poem for me was this:

"Poems" by Raymond Carver

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.

This is an intimate scene of a man making some peace with his lung cancer. His life's work is writing, and poems have become a very deep and special part of that. He does it now because he has to, not because of an agenda. The words just bubble up inside of him, and have been steadily coming out now that the winter is closing. What are other people's expectations of his death? He doesn't know or care, and encourages the reader to go barefoot rather than wear a constricting shoe. Play in life, make things count, and don't let the world suffocate your beauty. It's a startling and powerful conclusion to one man's life.

I've been a little afraid of death's poems, many of them only coming from funerals or large-scale tragedies. Yet they release a light in us--one that hopes completely in our ability to love sacrificially now and die trusting that our souls are well:

"The Gold-Black Sky" original

Now that the TV is off we relish silence,

crystalline air carrying breath and light

and not much more.

Slits upon windows curtail midnight blue

and orange-gold crevices asleep

after the rain.

Though the flesh may rot in our sweaters

our voice and passion

will echo even stronger in a casket.

You miss what's not available

to what immediately surrounds you

for minutes uncounted.

A perfect stranger rubs your belly

and outraged the countdown

to a better existence begins.

Instead of the nuances traded

there can be subtleties

collected and coddled like children.

And eventually freed like gardens on wind.

We fight for so much all day long, and I repent of the things I've battled for: ego, selfishness, attention. What I long to fight for is the joy and compassion of embracing eternity and swimming excitedly in NOW's waters. Reading excellent poetry is just one way to satiate this.
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