Reading Ray Carver’s ‘Ultramarine’ on Christmas Eve


I received my own pre-Christmas present today – a gift, of sorts, I ordered for myself – though it has only become a festive one because it took so long to arrive, having been bought online from the States on the 4th December. It is Ray Carver’s collection of poems Ultramarine, not a Random House first edition from 1986, but a 1987 First Vintage Books Edition so a little special in that sense, and I know many of the poems already from his selected poems In a Marine Light.

It is always so easy to read Carver, whether his short stories or poems, both sharing so many similarities in their directness, storytelling, the lyricism of a natural voice, depiction of pain and some pleasure. I never forget what a superb writer he is, but I always love being reminded when reading again and again.

This is the briefest of celebrations of Carver as writer and this poetry book. Anyone knowing my own writing and/or reading this blog will know of my love of list poems, and this Ultramarine collection contains the one I believe was my introduction to its simple style, The Car [though I had read it first in his selected]. The power of the style is in its repetitions – that is an aural effect/impact, if handled well – but also, and more importantly, in the mixing of tones – put simply, the literal with the emotive, for example,

The car with a hole in the muffler.
The car with no muffler.
The car my daughter wrecked.

There is a darker list poem of his, Fear, and this can be found in his selected.

There is in this collection the poem Mother that I initially thought I could write about today, Christmas Eve, with its opening line,

My mother calls to wish me a Merry Christmas

yet it is too dark for the moment, but it ends with the following lines that are wonderfully ironic in their rhetorical, emotive tease, because of course he has in this poem ‘explained’ to the reader even though it is ostensibly about the inability to explain to his mother on the telephone,

….It snows and snows
as I hang on the phone. The trees and rooftops
are covered with it. How can I talk about this?
How can I possibly explain how I’m feeling?

Carver writes about simple, everyday events, most from the past and how these invade the present as memories, filtered through time and subsequent experience, though he rarely uses that experience to judge. Instead, he reports. The poem The Projectile [for Haruki Marukami] could have been a pretentious reflection on one author talking to another,

We sipped tea. Politely musing
on possible reasons for the success
of my books in your country

but this is exactly what it is, the matter-of-fact account of a moment where, as the poem then immediately shifts, Carver thinks back to an incident when he was 16, driving a car and getting involved in a snowball fight, and this memory becomes the content of the poem, ending,

Why remember that stupid car sliding
down the road, then turning the corner
and disappearing?
We politely raise our teacups in the room.
A room that for a minute something else entered.

Like all truly good storytellers, Carver usually doesn’t provide conclusions. The Autopsy Room is a poem about a job he once had cleaning up [yes, a euphemism] and we can imagine the wealth of events/episodes this experience could provide a writer. And it does, but not quite as we’d expect. Its ending reminds me of the conclusion to his short story Neighbors where, put briefly, a couple go into their absent neighbours’ apartment to feed Kitty, and water the plants but increasingly intrude into their friends’ private lives [dressing in their clothes and so on…]. One night the woman has been in the apartment, nosing around again and finding even more private details, some ‘pictures’, but on returning to her own flat remembers she forgot to feed the cat and water those plants. However, when the couple want to return to sort, the woman realises she has left the key behind, in the apartment, and probably left signs of the couple’s regular intrusiveness. The story finishes without our discovering the consequences of this, and I will never forget the impact of that ending on a first read in its simple power of expectation,

They stayed there. They held each other. They leaned into the door as if against a great wind, and braced themselves.

It helps to have read the story to appreciate this! And that is a long preamble to get back to The Autopsy Room where this poem does present, naturally, details of the ghoulish nature of the job, including a reference to a left-behind, severed leg, and returning home to his wife that night, in the story of the poem, Carver is caressing her leg at which point the narrative could be macabre, but Carver doesn’t deal in those morbid connections in this way – though I suppose we do at first instinctively as readers – because the poem concludes,

was happening. Everything was happening. Life
was a stone, grinding, and sharpening.

This isn’t deconstructing but rather, I accept, decontextualising. The point is the poems often work as simple surprises that are also apocalyptic because they are real and ordinary – that paradox Carver captures as a writer.

One of the most poignant of all Carver’s poems is Gravy from his final collection A New Path to a Waterfall. Reflecting on surviving ten years after a diagnosis of lung and brain cancer, a drunk now sober, finding love with his partner Tess Gallagher, and finding success late in life as an author, he writes at the end of this short poem,

……”Don’t weep for me,”
he said to his friends. “I’m a lucky man.
I’ve had ten years longer than I or anyone
expected. Pure gravy. And don’t forget it.”

This is put even more movingly in the observation from the last poem in that same collection, Late Fragment,

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 this earth.

I refer to these two emotive favourites because the final poem in Ultramarine is The Gift, dedicated then to Tess who he was soon to marry, and it is similar in its overall sentiment. This poem concludes in another typically tender, wholly honest observation and I was again moved to read this today,

As if we knew what the other was feeling. We don’t
of course. We never do. No matter.
It’s the tenderness I care about. That’s the gift
this morning that moves and holds me.
Same as every morning.

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