Sympathists

On Raymond Carver’s “Fires”

In 20th c. Literature on January 25, 2009 at 10:20 pm

c10797Matthew Thomas, Kyoto

Raymond Carver is not one of my very favorite writers, but his work is full of resonant nuggets of greatness that linger long after one puts him down. Fires, contains four essays, a number of poems and half a dozen or so stories. Carver has useful things to say about using common language in writing, although he arguably makes a fetish of it. The best things in the book are a handful of poems, and the one standout work seems to be “The Baker.” Other excellent poems include: “Iowa Summer,” “For Serma with Martial Vigor,” “Looking for Work,” “Cheers.” Fires also includes a lengthy poem on Bukowski where Carver appears to be recounting an evening’s worth of Bukowski’s conversation. Good stuff, but not of overwhelming interest except to Bukowski fanatics.

The essays, on his father, on writing, are very sharp. Carver’s prose, as he himself admits, tends to be lean, approaching flat, but accumulates force on that account: “If the words are heavy with the writer’s own unbridled emotions, or if they are imprecise and inaccurate for some reason-if the words are in any way blurred-the reader’s eyes will slide right over them and nothing will be achieved” (“On Writing”). This is fundamentally true and great–the statement has a corollary, if the words are just right, the reader’s eyes will stick, and come back to them for a second look, even though they were taken in the first time.

Little things register. From the title story: “On the other end of the line was the voice of a man who was obviously a black man, someone asking for a party named Nelson. It was the wrong number and I said so and hung up.” Here, decisiveness of language (“and I said so”) fused with perfect choice of noun phrase “a party named Nelson” achieve a remarkable force. Sometime his terms are loaded with meaning because Carver’s paragraphs tend to close where other writer’s would just be beginning: (his motto: “Don’t explain. Don’t complain.”): “I really don’t feel that anything happened in my life until I was twenty and married and had the kids. Then things started to happen.” Fin. What does he mean? does he mean happen, like, “that’s really happening man,” or just happen, as in, flatly events transpired. We are left to guess; the paragraph ends.

Here is “The Baker”:

Then Pancho Villa come to town,
hanged the mayor
and summoned the old and infirm
Count Vronsky to supper.
Pancho introduced his new girl friend,
along with her husband in his white apron,
showed Vronsky his pistol,
then asked the Count to tell him
about his unhappy exile in Mexico.
Later, the talk was of women and horses.
Both were experts.
The girl friend giggles
and fussed with the pearl button
on Pancho’s shirt until,
promptly at midnight, Pancho went to sleep
with his head on the table.
The husband crossed himself
and left the house holding his boots
without so much as a sign
to his wife or Vronsky.
That anonymous husband, barefooted,
humiliated, trying to save his life, he
is the hero of this poem.

A great poem, I think, nearly perfect. The one line that may have been implicit, and didn’t need explication is “both were experts.” Cut it, and see how it reads. Also, the “promptly” is questionable. The action verbs, “hanged,” “summoned,” “showed” establish Pancho beautifully. “Showed Vronsky his pistol”-does Carver mean he showed it off, or showed it to him as a threat? The line works both ways.  He doesn’t let the husband off the hook either; the “humiliated,” at once celebrates his pragmatism and signals his cowardice. Finally, in the second to last line, the additional, grammatically unnecessary, “he” cements the husband as a man, even if a emasculated one. The poem ends unresolved; the husband is “trying” to save his life. We don’t know whether he succeeds.  Carver doesn’t explain.

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  1. Good luck with your assignment and with Carver, Megan. Thanks for stopping by Sympathies.

  2. After reading your review I have managed to find a copy of Raymond Carver’s ‘Cll me if you need me’in my uni library. I think it is a collection of his different writings, and seems to include fires, so I am very much looking forward to reading it. As soon as I get this assignment out of the way first.

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