He came along in my life when I needed him, even though I didn't know I did. I wanted to write, but I knew little about it really. Some of my new friends, other grad students, told me that Ray Carver was coming to teach. They could barely contain themselves. "You don't know his work?" they said, as if I was born in a barn.
I hightailed it to the bookstore and bought a couple of volumes of his short stories. He never wrote a novel.
On first reading, I didn't know what to make of him, truth be told. His stories had this Bowie-knife sharpness that made me cringe, almost in fear, as if life could be cut us up into bloody pieces that never really went away. Reading a bunch of them together was like coming on a barrel of glass shards, full of unforgettable, yet alarming beauty. They were like nothing else I'd ever read.
That was 1980. Ray Carver was dry at the time, not the dead-and-gone drunk he was for so terribly long in his life. He was working on what most consider today his strongest stories, Cathedral, a collection that included the story "Cathedral," the story, he says somewhere, that changed his life, a story of hope that's in just about every anthology undergrads can buy these days.
He never attempted it, but he climbed Parnassus in the literary world, became a cult figure. Soon, there were thousands of Carvers doing what he did, or trying, writing something people began to call "dirty realism." Me too. Count me among the disciples. I could show you lean and mean stories I wrote back then, Hong Kong ripoffs. Ray Carver taught a generation of fiction writers how to be newly-minted Hemingways, sparse and tight and frightfully close to the bone.
He liked me. And, if you're wondering, yes, there's some considerable idolatry lurking beneath that statement. Consider it a confession. Raymond Carver liked me, liked my writing. The only way I can explain how much that meant to me back then is to say that it means as much to me today as it did 35 years ago.
This morning's Writer's Almanac features a Carver poem from a moment in his life that every Carver-ite recognizes, the moment Ray Carver found out he was going to die from the cancer that wasn't going away. Here's the poem.
What the Doctor Said
He said it doesn't look good
he said it looks bad in fact real bad
he said I counted thirty-two of them on one lung before
I quit counting them
I said I'm glad I wouldn't want to know
about any more being there than that
Don't ask me what a poem is--I don't know. To me, this feels more like prose than poetry, but frankly I don't care because it communicates with a place in my soul few things do. There's more.
he said are you a religious man do you kneel down
in forest groves and let yourself ask for help
when you come to a waterfall
mist blowing against your face and arms
do you stop and ask for understanding at those moments
To say Raymond Carver wasn't a religious man would be sinfully judgmental. If "by your fruits you shall know them" is a rule of biblical thumb beyond nuance, some might say he wasn't. He left a trail of brutal ugliness, after all. But most of us are religious, in one way or another; some are just better at it than others. It's worth remembering this scripture too: not all who cry, "Lord, Lord. . ." are.
"Are you a religious man?" the doctor says. Carver replies with characteristic honesty.
I said not yet but I intend to start today
The doctor is a kind man. Listen to him, to what he tells a dying man.
he said I'm real sorry he said
I wish I had some other kind of news to give you
I said Amen and he said something else
I didn't catch and not knowing what else to do
and not wanting him to have to repeat it
and me to have to fully digest it
I just looked at him
for a minute and he looked back
Ray Carver was not a big talker. Trust me, he was not a stirring lecturer or a classroom stand-up comic. His ways were halting and sometimes even muffled. It was easy to miss some remarks. I never saw him drunk--who knows what he might have become? And, of course, this silent moment in the doctor's office holds the recognition of eternity.
He knows it. Listen.
it was then
I jumped up and shook hands with this man who'd just given me
Something no one else on earth had ever given me
I may have even thanked him habit being so strong
The book that best documents what happened in Ray Carver's soul after this moment is a book of poems he titled A New Path to the Waterfall.
There's just too much in that title and this morning's poem for me not to take heart. No one I know is God although some presume themselves approximates. I don't know the state of Ray Carver's soul. I have no idea of what may have happened on his death bed.
But to me, at least, this morning's poem is a blessed offering I'm greatly thankful to have opened. It's gorgeously arrayed with hope.
And hope, in this world, is something I need.
I'm probably not alone.