I am pleased to have my friend, Florence Ng as guest reviewer (and hope I will be able to persuade her to do more in the future). I have learned a lot about Carver because of the following review and was interested to learn about the connection with Murakami Haruki (who is also one of my fav. authors) Thanks Flo 🙂
Raymond Carver’s All of us: The collected poems published by Vintage
— reviewed by Florence Ng
As someone outside America or the English speaking world, I first heard of Carver through his fan, the popular Japanese writer Murakami Haruki. It was natural I read Carver’s short stories before I read his poems. But when I am reading his stories, I think I am reading poetry, while many of his poems, like the first one ‘Drinking while driving’ in the collection, ‘To begin with’, ‘Hope’, etc can be read as short stories in the poetic form.
Don’t get me wrong, that doesn’t make him less a poet or a short story writer, nor does it make his works less enjoyable. He was born a poet and a story teller, perhaps more a poet.
Carver was not form-conscious. He was, as Alice Oswald once mentioned in an interview when asked about the difference between British and American poetry, using poetry to think. It seemed that when he did the thinking, he didn’t consider what form to think. Poetic devices are secondary to moods and stories. In his poetry one can easily see a casual flow of melancholy and happiness. This is what makes his poetry conversational, confessional and daring. What adds to the readability is that his poetic stories are told unflinchingly, in the most sincere and heartfelt way, he didn’t hide himself behind experimental or surreal tricks. Here are last seven lines from the opening poem ‘Drinking while driving’:
we are just driving.
If I closed my eyes for a minute
I would be lost, yet
I could gladly lie down and sleep forever
beside this road.
My brother nudges me.
Any minute now, something will happen.
As in his short stories, Carver always made readers expect something was going to happen, like a relationship was going to keel over, someone was going to die. I don’t doubt that this moment of driving was real. It is not an imagery. Unlike Frost’s experience of stopping by woods on a snowy evening, Carver didn’t philosophize or romanticize his experience. It was depicted as it was. You can take his words for it.
And here is a lonely moment from ‘The party’. The rhythm flows so beautifully and the emotion is so deftly handled that I want to cite the whole poem:
Last night, alone, 3000 miles away from the one
I love, I turned the radio on to some jazz
and made a huge bowl of popcorn
with lots of salt on it. Poured butter over it.
Turned out the lights and sat in a chair
in front of the window with the popcorn and
a can of Coke. Forgot everything important
in the world while I ate popcorn and looked out
at a heavy sea, and the lights of town.
The popcorn runny with butter, covered with
salt. I ate it up until there was nothing
left except a few Old Maids. Then
washed my hands. Smoked a couple more cigarettes
while I listened to the beat of the little
music that was left. Things had quieted way down,
though the sea was still running. Wind gave
the house a last shake when I rose
and took three steps, turned took three more steps, turned.
Then I went to bed and slept wonderfully,
as always. My God, what a life!
But I thought, I should explain, leave a note anyhow,
about this mess in the living room
and what went on here last night. Just in case
my lights went out, and I keeled over.
Yes, there was a party here last night.
And the radio’s still on. Okay.
But if I die today, I die happy—thinking
of my sweetheart, and of that last popcorn.
Death was always looming there, as alcoholism ran in his family. He wrote a heartbreaking plea to his daughter in ‘To my daughter’:
It’s too late now to put a curse on you—wish you
plain, say, as Yeats did his daughter. And when
Okay, telling you. Sure, our family was made
to squander, not collect. But turn this around now.
You simply must—that’s all!
Daughter, you can’t drink.
It will kill you. Like it did your mother, and me.
Like it did.
So poetry to him was also a way to talk to his loved ones. Why not? ‘Show don’t tell’? Who cares when talking earnestly? His poetry is an art of talking, to himself, to his family, to us.
I have always believed that if a writer has enough stories to tell, as Carver did because of his eventful life, his / her works will be powerful enough without caring much about artifice. I admire how Carver played with the ‘crow’ image in his signature way in the short poem ‘My crow’:
A crow flew into the tree outside my window.
It was not Ted Hughes’s crow, or Galway’s crow.
Or Frost’s, Pasternak’s, or Lorca’s crow.
Or one of Homer’s crows, stuffed with gore,
after the battle. This was just a crow.
That never fit in anywhere in its life,
or did anything worth mentioning.
It sat there on the branch for a few minutes.
Then picked up and flew beautifully
out of my life.
The crow is nothing mythical, moralistic or prophetic. It is just like you and I. Plain and commonplace? Yes, but it stands out and is unforgettable. It is life in its purest form.
Reading these more than three hundred poems, I can almost
visualize a poet who was holding his cigarette, his typewriter before him, who turned a deaf ear to the literary argument and experimentation in his time, paying no heed to the poetry police because he knew what is right. The fountain inside him simply spurted, it was unstoppable and unreined. And it shouldn’t be.
Florence Ng has written poems in both Chinese and English and self-published a collection. One of her poems was longlisted for 2015 Oxford Brookes International Poetry Competition. She and her friends have founded Kubrick Poetry in Hong Kong, a club which holds activities regularly for poetry lovers.
All of Us: The Collected Poems by Raymond Carver at Goodreads