City Lit Theater Company

I had a baffling dream a few weeks ago. I found myself waiting for an airplane with Raymond Carver and his lover, the poet Tess Gallagher. We chatted a bit, she made a little joke, and I woke up wondering what on earth they were doing in my dream. I hadn’t been thinking about them, and it had been a couple of years since I’d read any of Carver’s stories.

I began to understand their presence in my dream as I watched the City Lit Theater Company’s exquisite production of The Hero’s Journey: The Poetry of Raymond Carver. The show is an adaptation of the poems in Carver’s last book, A New Path to the Waterfall; but by drawing on Gallagher’s introduction as well, adapter Mark Richard has created a deeply moving exchange between these lovers during the final months of Carver’s life. That may sound unbearably sentimental and maudlin, like the plot of some corny old movie, but it isn’t here.

The title of the show is well chosen, for in these poems Carver is a hero, someone who faces death–as well as his own sordid past–with quiet courage. The Hero’s Journey shows that by the time Carver died in 1988 he had achieved Freud’s equation for happiness–the ability to work and to love. In the final 11 years of his life, after he’d conquered his near-fatal addiction to alcohol, Carver wrote constantly, establishing himself as a master of the short story. He also moved in with Gallagher, and began the richly rewarding love affair that culminated in their marriage shortly before his death. That is why Carver called his final years “gravy.”

“No other word will do,” he wrote in the poem called “Gravy.” “Alive, sober, working, loving and / being loved by a good woman.” Even after discovering he was dying of lung cancer he maintained, “I’m a lucky man. / I’ve had ten years longer than I or anyone / expected. Pure gravy. And don’t forget it.”

Carver wasn’t just trying to resign himself to a premature death. Born into a working-class family, the son of a hard-drinking father, Carver got his girlfriend pregnant when he was 18 and married her. They had another child immediately and settled into a life of relentless poverty and frustration; at times Carver retreated to the family car to find the quiet and solitude he needed to write. In one of the prose interludes that provide the mortar for the narrative in The Hero’s Journey, he tells the audience: “When Henry Miller was in his 40s and was writing Tropic of Cancer, he talks about trying to write in this borrowed room, where at any minute he may have to stop writing because the chair he is sitting on may be taken out from under him. Until fairly recently, this state of affairs persisted in my own life. For as long as I can remember, since I was a teenager, the imminent removal of the chair from under me was a constant concern.”

He took to drinking “full-time” when his children were adolescents. In one poem during Hero’s Journey, “On an Old Photograph of My Son,” he erupts in rage all over again as he gazes on “the contemptuous expression of the wise guy, / the petty tyrant. . . . / I look at your picture and my stomach cramps. / I find myself clamping my jaws, teeth on edge, and / once more I’m filled with despair and anger. / Honestly, I feel like reaching for a drink.”

When he was drinking, he left a “wasteland” behind him wherever he went. “Let’s just say, on occasion, the police were involved, and emergency rooms and courtrooms,” he says, sidestepping some obviously painful memories. The drinking became so bad that when he was 38, a doctor told him he would be dead in six months unless he stopped.

And he did. He immersed himself in writing. His short stories–plainspoken, emotionally subdued chronicles of working-class people–were published and praised. While living with Gallagher, he returned to poetry, too, with a new zeal. As she tells the audience in The Hero’s Journey, poetry became a “spiritual necessity” for him, a way of seeing more deeply into his own experience: “He was not “building a career’; he was living a vocation.”

Carver made poems out of commonplace experiences–a story he’d heard about a carpenter grieving for his dead son; a violent fight between a drunk husband and his wife; the sight of his lover combing her hair. The language is simple too, often verging on poetic prose rather than prose poetry.

But Carver also leaps to striking associations, transmuting the commonplace into revelation. In “The Toes,” for example, he rails at his “terminal digits,” which are causing him pain as the cancer progresses. “They even look zonked out / and depressed, as if / somebody’d pumped them full of Thorazine. They hunch there / stunned and mute–drab, lifeless / things.” But his toes are merely the focus for Carver’s unspeakable grief over losing his health. “But there was a time / they used to strain / with anticipation / simply / curl with pleasure / at the least provocation, / the smallest thing. / The feel of a silk dress / against the fingers, say. / A becoming voice, a touch / behind the neck, even / a passing glance. Any of it! / The sound of hooks being unfastened, stays coming / undone, garments letting go / onto a cool, hardwood floor.”

Carver’s poems, built out of perceptive observations and striking metaphors, contain their own internal drama. Richard, who not only adapted the poems but portrays Carver and directs this production with Arnold Aprill, lets the words do the work. He does not dramatize the man himself. Instead, like a character in one of Carver’s short stories, he moves from scene to scene with a minimum of fanfare. Kelly Nespor, who plays Tess Gallagher, does the same; she too is intensely responsive to the poetry. When she reads “Hummingbird,” for example, one of Carver’s final love poems, tears well up in her eyes: “Suppose I say summer, / write the word ‘hummingbird,’ / put it in an envelope, / take it down the hill / to the box. When you open / my letter you will recall / those days and how much, / just how much, I love you.”

This quiet but powerful connection between the lovers, which Richard and Nespor depict so well, helped me understand why I put Carver and Gallagher in my dream. These two mature lovers, whose gray hair and lined faces were so vivid to me, represented postneurotic happiness. For them, age did not diminish their capacity for work and for love. On the contrary, maturity–and the specter of death itself–made them more open to life and to their own uncensored perceptions. Instead of clinging to neurotic strategies that create the illusion of power and control, they accepted their pitiful vulnerability, and thereby developed the ability to love. Who doesn’t dream of achieving that?

The final poem in the book–and in the show–is called “Late Fragment,” and although it is a dying man’s retrospective on his life, the contentment expressed makes it a poignant guide for the living:

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.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Roger Lewin–Jennifer Girard Studio.