Shortly after these two met, Carver’s doctor told him that his drinking was certainly going to kill him, and he emphasized sooner rather than later. Raymond’s spirits were notably renewed in Tess’ company and shortly after the doctor’s pronouncement he quit drinking and joined AA. Then, after surviving another eight years of life, a different doctor diagnosed him with terminal lung cancer. Almost two years later, on August 3, 1988, Raymond Carver died at the age of 50.
During those last two years this man, much too young to die, came to grips with the death rising up inside him. He and Tess dedicated themselves to compiling a book of his poetry mixed here and there with other poems, mostly by Anton Chekov. Tess and Raymond managed to finish the content of A New Path to the Waterfall before his death, but the task of compiling it all into book form fell to Tess.
In her Introduction to this small book, Tess Gallagher said:
It seems important finally to say that Ray did not regard his poetry as simply a hobby or a pastime he turned to when he wanted a rest from fiction. Poetry was a spiritual necessity.
His poetry written during these last two years was replete with shadows of his impending death. But at first he wrote with touches of humor as he did in “What the Doctor Said”:
What the Doctor Said
He said it doesn’t look good
he said it looks bad in fact real bad
he said I counted thirty-two of them on one lung before
I quit counting them
I said I’m glad I wouldn’t want to know
about any more being there than that
he said are you a religious man do you kneel down
in forest groves and let yourself ask for help
when you come to a waterfall
mist blowing against your face and arms
do you stop and ask for understanding at those moments
I said not yet but I intend to start today
he said I’m real sorry he said
I wish I had some other kind of news to give you
I said Amen and he said something else
I didn’t catch and not knowing what else to do
and not wanting him to have to repeat it
and me to have to fully digest it
I just looked at him
for a minute and he looked back it was then
I jumped up and shook hands with this man who’d just given me
something no one else on earth had ever given me
I may have even thanked him habit being so strong
What a wry response to being told that he had at least thirty-two tumors on one lung:
“I said I’m glad I wouldn’t want to know
about any more being there than that”
Then, later, through his poems he confronted reality head on. I can imagine “Through the Boughs” as having been written on the day that he came to feel more dead than alive, that inevitable time when fight becomes surrender and the present takes on more worth more than the future.
Through the Boughs
Down below the window, on the deck, some ragged-looking
birds gather at the feeder. The same birds, I think,
that come every day to eat and quarrel. Time was, time was,
they cry and strike at each other. It’s nearly time, yes.
The sky stays dark all day, the wind is from the west and
won’t stop blowing.… Give me your hand for a time. Hold on
to mine. That’s right, yes. Squeeze hard. Time was we
thought we had time on our side. Time was, time was,
those ragged birds cry.
Time is at the heart of what Carver expresses here. But time as what? It is time that was before all things changed; time as any day now, any minute, time of the present which seems to stand still while hands are held; and time viewed naïvely as an ally.
To me it was time cut short. The final silencing of a uniquely talented voice that love had recently strengthened.