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October 22, 2017

The Births of Raymond Carver

On this day in 1938 Raymond Carver was born in Clatskanie, Oregon, the family moving three years later to Yakima, Washington, where Carver grew up. Carver's biographical essay, "My Father's Life," tells about his upbringing what his highly-acclaimed stories tell about others: the grind of poverty, the ruin of alcohol, the permanent worry of cave-in or break-up, the resolve and dignity of those who keep going when their only sure direction is down. Many of Carver's poems are also biographical -- "Shiftless," for example, in which we learn what the Carvers were not:
    The people who were better than us were comfortable.
    They lived in painted houses with flush toilets.
    Drove cars whose year and make were recognizable.
    The ones worse off were sorry and didn't work.
Or "Luck," in which a 9 year-old wakes to an empty house and consumes the leftovers of his parents' party:
    ...And though I went from room
    to room, no one was home.
    What luck, I thought.
    Years later,
    I still wanted to give up
    friends, love, starry skies,
    for a house where no one
    was home, no one coming back,
    and all I could drink.
In his last years, Carver often talked as if his second birthday was June 2, 1977, the date when he stopped drinking for good. That year had seen him receive a National Book Award nomination for Will You Please Be Quiet, Please, but it had also seen four hospitalizations in five months for alcoholism, and a doctor's prediction that he had six months to live. By the end of 1977 Carver would begin his "miraculous second life" with Tess Gallagher. This would last only a decade, when the lifetime of smoking would accomplish what the lifetime of drinking could not, killing him by lung cancer at age fifty.

Most of Carver's characters are alone, usually in anguished and irremediable ways. The poem "Distress Sale" -- like the better, story version, "Why Don't You Dance?" -- describes the front lawn sell-off of a family's belongings. It is one of Carver's end-of-the-line moments, one which "reduces us all" but can't be helped by any, least of all an alcoholic friend:
    ...Some one must show up at once to save them,
    to take everything off their hands right now,
    every trace of this life before
    this humiliation goes on any longer.
    Someone must do something.
    I reach for my wallet and that is how I understand it:
    I can't help anyone.
"Late Fragment," Carver's last-written lines, show him grateful for having found salvation in his last years with Gallagher, though he knew that they too were over:
    And did you get what
    you wanted from this life, even so?
    I did.
    And what did you want?
    To call myself beloved, to feel myself
    beloved on the earth.

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