Review: A New Path to the Waterfall by Raymond Carver Print

carver_gallagher(San Diego Union-Tribune June 30, 1989)

Farewell Ray

When Raymond Carver died in 1988, America lost one of its great writers.

He was widely admired as a master storyteller, his five collections clearly expressing the ambiguities of modern existence.

His characters, usually working-class people, often waged an inner, seemingly passive battle with life.

Their triumph—and Carver's brilliance—shone in the communicative potential that his men and women found in themselves when trouble ruled. But it was with poetry that Carver began his literary career.

And we have also lost, in this less familiar guise, a poet of honesty, enigma and craft. His final book, A New Path to the Waterfall, reflects mostly the last things to occupy him, so irresolution is acutely present.

There is foreboding mixed with acceptance, suddenness courting eventuality, fear and hope holding hands.

Farewell is uppermost, a door closing softly. The poet Tess Gallagher, who was Carver's companion for 11 years and wife during the final months, describes in an affecting introductory essay their collaboration in arranging these poems.

Curious are the many short prose passages included from Chekhov, a writer from whom Carver found much "spiritual accompaniment."

With Carver and Chekhov co-habiting, the tone is thoughtful and sad. The first poems touch on his past, uneasy truces he has with his family and his failed marriage.

In "The Kitchen" Carver recalls a humiliating day as a boy where he first loses his pole to a fish and then discovers his father "with a woman not his wife."

His shame becomes "anguish that poured from my raw young mouth." There are short lyrics and long narrative poems.

The latter are powerful and disturbing, like his fiction, but also moving portraits of often desperate characters who usually understand their shortcomings once Carver finishes scrutinizing them.

From the many darker poems to the last, lighter ones, weights loosen, and the spirit rises. Indicative of his more tragic yet benign view of living is "Miracle," a poem about a drunk couple Carver observes aboard an airline flight.

Carver wonders, as he watches the wife pummel the husband, bloodying him with a vengeance, "who could have foretold any of it years back."

Such are the unpredictable scourges of life most of us limp through. What commingles between them, though, must always be more known than mysterious.

They touch.

"She lets him. She even takes his hand . . . It's now/ they have to account for, the blood/ on his collar, the dark smudge of it/ staining her cuff."

Carver had the distinction of being a famous heavy drinker and a famous ex-heavy smoker (his death came from lung cancer). His 10 years off the wagon is celebrated in "Gravy."

"Alive, sober, working, loving and/ being loved by a good woman ... He quit drinking! And the rest?/ After that it was all gravy."

Carver's life, whether racked by memories and alcohol or appeased by love and work, was more the experience of being alive, to use Joseph Campbell's line, than a search for its meaning.

His fullest experience was loving Tess, poignantly told in a handful of final verses.

"Proposal" begins, "I ask her and then she asks me. We each/ accept. There's no back and forth about it."

In "Cherish," smelling a rose Tess brings him, "My hand on her wrist to bring her close,/ her eyes green as river-moss. Saying it then, against/ what comes: wife while I can, while my breath, each hurried petal/ can still find her."

In "Late Fragment" Carver says yes, he got what he wanted from life: "To call myself beloved, to feel myself/ beloved on the earth." Carver himself seems surprised at the quiescence that he finds while singing his farewells.

Sustained by life's ending, things are clarified. Still water—no wave of bitterness or self-eulogy.

Such peacefulness is his legacy, but we do wish he could have lasted longer.

Storyteller and poet, our gain and our loss, indeed.