Caught by the River

You Really Should Get Out More

31st August 2007

The reviews of this book and accompanying articles have caught my attention this week. I hadn’t come across the fella before. Looking forward to reading it. Still got several hundred pages of Jon Savage’s “Teenage” to go first though. That’s one serious book. Really interesting stuff.

It appears Robert MacFarlane was very close to the hugely inspirational Roger Deakin, someone that I came to only recently, and whose books “Waterlog” and “Wildwood, a Journey Through Trees” are great reads. Whilst reading up about him today, I came across this from The Guardians site. I love Raymond Carver and really like this;

Back to the source

Raymond Carver was a late convert to the transcendent power of nature, writes Robert Macfarlane

Saturday April 9, 2005
The Guardian

Moving water, mountain air, sea skies: these are not what we think about when we think about Raymond Carver. We know him as an urban writer – the laureate of what one critic called “Hopelessville”. His habitat is low-rent suburban: motels, back-yard sales, gas stations, night cafés. The indifferent white glare of the drinks fridge opened at night: this is Carver’s light, not the high blue light of the ocean. The reek of cigarette ash: this is Carver’s smell, not the resiny tang of a pine wood.

Article continues

Yet, as those who have read Carver’s late work will know, during the last 10 years of his life he wrote poem after unexpected poem about river, sea and forest. That final decade, indeed, was an unexpected one for Carver: he called it his “second life”. By early 1977, alcohol – whisky, mostly – had corrupted Carver’s family, his writing, and his liver. On June 2, somehow, he stopped drinking. “I guess I just wanted to live,” he said later. Four months after giving up, Carver met a poet called Tess Gallagher, also a fugitive from a wrecked marriage. In 1978, they began living together, first in New York, and then in the Pacific North-West. In the 10 years left before Carver’s death, they published 25 books between them.
Rivers ran through this extra decade of Carver’s life. After he went dry, they rehydrated him. “I have a thing for this cold swift water,” he wrote in a late poem, “Just looking at it makes my blood run / and my skin tingle … It pleases me, loving rivers. / Loving them all the way back to their source. / Loving everything that increases me.”

And cold swift water was all around Carver. From 1984, he lived in what Gallagher called her “sky-house”: a custom-built property perched above the Juan de Fuca Strait, on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington state. Most days, Carver wrote in Gallagher’s glass-walled study, looking out over the Strait. He also walked and fished the rivers and streams that ran off the Olympic Mountains. Gallagher remembered how she and Carver would often wander:

“along Morse Creek, sorting out the end of a story. Always we found release and comfort in noticing – that pair of herons, ducks breaking into flight upriver, the picked-over carcass of a bird near the footpath – the very kinds of attentiveness which bind his poems so effortlessly to our days.”

The unexpected excellence of such instants, their unstinted beauty, bowled Carver over. In “The Phenomenon”, out river-walking, he describes experiencing a “sudden swoop of feeling. / Once more I’m arrested with the beauty of this place. / I was lying if I ever said anything to the contrary.”

Carver’s early poetry took earth as its element: the dirt roads and wheat-stubble fields of central Washington, where he grew up. Later came Fires (1983), the collected poems of the middle drinking years, poems “alternately hell-bent and penitential” as the critic William Stull finely described them. And then, eventually, the late collections: riparian, oceanic. Their titles tell of the sea-change: Where Water Comes Together With Other Water (1985), Ultramarine (1986), and A New Path To The Waterfall (1989). In the course of his writing and his life, Carver left earth behind, passed through fire, and ended in water – and of these elements water was the greatest.

It seems to have been the autonomy of moving water that most moved Carver. Time and again in the poems of those last volumes, water’s non-conformity, its independence from predictable patterns of human design, calls out happiness in Carver, or at least the hope of happiness. This should not surprise us. Water remakes itself constantly. Its textures – silk, foam, varnish – ceaselessly vary. This versatility is water’s most distinctive quality, and why it is bound up with baptism, with rebirth, and above all with hope. And hope was a concept that increasingly fascinated Carver as he neared death.

What is distinctive about hope, theologically speaking, is the special manner of its origin. It is an infused habit, which is to say it comes from outside the individual, rather than being the outcome of effort on the individual’s part. Hope is given, and not earned. It can be thought of as a movement of the will towards a future good which, though hard to attain, is possible of attainment. Put simply, hope is a given glimpse of a better way of being. It is for this reason that hope is so important as an ethical idea, for it solves one of the great paradoxes of morality – namely that in order to become good it may be necessary first to imagine oneself good.

Millions of people have found hope not in God but in landscapes. So it was for Carver and his rivers. Being near water offered him brief hints of alternative states of feeling: states towards which he could then move. In “For the Record”, he writes of how he and Gallagher saw “two herons sift down the Cliffside / as they did for us earlier in the season / so we felt alone and freshly / put here, not herded, not / driven.” Places like the rivers, creatures like the herons, prompted in Carver those efforts of imagination which have such important cumulative results.

In 1987, Carver was diagnosed with lung cancer. It did not come as a surprise to a man who once described himself as “a cigarette with a body attached to it”. Two-thirds of a lung was removed. The cancer spread to the brain, and then in June 1988 recurred in the lungs. He and Gallagher travelled to Nevada, and got married “in high tacky style” in Reno, before going on a three-day gambling binge. Then they returned to the sky-house, to put together Carver’s A New Path To The Waterfall in the weeks that remained.

The poems of that last book are fearful, but never self-pitying. Water recurs as a substance that both consoles and entices Carver. “Oh how I wish / I could be like those Chinook salmon,” he writes, devastatingly, in “Those Days”, “Thrusting, leaping the falls, / Returning! Not chunks and flakes and drift / drift”. He noted down Czeslaw Milosz’s line that “when it hurts, we return to the banks of certain rivers”.

After he died, Gallagher wrote a memoir which she called Carver Country (1991). If we were to spend time walking in that country, we might come back having understood the following lessons. That we should accept beauty freely when it is given by a landscape, but never demand it. And that certain landscapes can, in ways that are difficult to articulate but unmistakable to experience, offer us hope, and help us to reconsider ourselves. We might also have jotted down the lines from Carver’s poem “The Fields”: “I can stand there quietly / under the great balanced sky, motionless. / Amazing! to walk that opened field– / and keep walking”.

Near to his death, Carver marked out a passage in Milosz’s Unattainable Earth (1988), where Milosz wrote of a “philosophy of freedom” he had come to espouse, a philosophy “which consists in being aware that a choice made now, today, projects itself backwards and changes our past actions”. This was what the water, with its ripples, eddies and unpredictable turbulence, taught Carver – that we can, if we are lucky, not just atone for, but remake our earlier selves. That we can work back against the current, and in so doing find a new path to the waterfall