WIDOW’S WORK : Poet Tess Gallagher and Short Story Writer Raymond Carver Were a Celebrated Literary Couple. In the Three Years Since He Died, She Has Tended His Legacy and Finally Found a Way to Make Poetry of Her Own Grief.
The gunmetal-gray Mercedes pulls up in front of an old house, not much more than a shack. As the turbo-diesel idles, the driver, a woman at middle-age, scans a scene far different from what she remembers. The brown paint on the house is faded, an old refrigerator sits on the front porch, bedsheets hang in the windows as curtains, and an ancient rowboat lies in the overgrown grass.
While several sets of eyes peer out of a front window, a woman in her 20s, in old clothes and quite pregnant, comes out the front door. Poet Tess Gallagher gets out of the Mercedes, walks up to the woman, extends her hand.
“I grew up in this house,” she says.
The disbelief on the pregnant woman’s face disappears as Gallagher points out what was once her bedroom window and describes how she “used to crawl in and out of there at all hours.” Soon, the two are talking excitedly about the house and the mill down the hill and the view of the water just beyond.
Gallagher has come past this house with many visitors who have sought her out in Port Angeles, Wash., since her husband died in 1988. All have come hoping to hear her memories of Raymond Carver, a writer whom obituaries called “the American Chekhov,” and their numbers have included two newspapermen from Japan, a TV crew from the British Broadcasting Corp., another from PBS and a graduate student from Italy.
Gallagher continues her tour in Carver’s Mercedes while her own Jeep Cherokee remains parked at home. The car moves slowly past the storefronts along 1st Street, a main drag that holds many memories for Gallagher: the store where she got her first pair of shoes; the bank where she opened her first account. She takes a left turn at the end of downtown, where huge stacks of Olympic Peninsula timber await shipment to Japan, and she heads up the steep hillside, then turns west. She pulls to a stop at a cemetery on a bluff overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca, where she and Carver loved to fish for salmon.
It is sunny, with a light breeze blowing in from the salt water, much like the August day when Carver, only 50, was buried here in a casket of burnished pine. Gallagher takes some supplies from the trunk of the car and soon busies herself cleaning Carver’s gravestone, where her own name is already inscribed. She stoops down and brushes away dead flowers from the vast slab of black granite; she polishes it until she has removed all the marks left by the rains and the dust.
Even friends have questioned the size and scope of this memorial, its decorative iron stand supporting wind chimes; its granite bench, where visitors can sit and consider two pieces of Carver’s poetry inscribed in the stone. But mostly, friends have wondered about Gallagher’s willingness to stake a claim on her grave so soon, when she presumably has so much of her own life ahead. What if she were to remarry, some have asked. And doesn’t this memorial display--only the date of her death needs to be added--doesn’t this seem foreboding somehow or make her uneasy?
“It gives me a sense of peacefulness, of rightness,” the 48-year-old Gallagher replies. “I will be proud to be next to Ray.”
Tess Gallagher, people are learning, has her own way of life and of death and grief.
The sudden loss of a loved one leaves a scar on the soul that is slow to heal, and Gallagher’s period of adjustment to her life without Carver has been particularly acute. For 11 years they had been not only friends and lovers but also writing partners--each other’s best editor and sounding board, the inspiration to try forms of writing they abandoned long ago: poetry in Carver’s case, short stories in Gallagher’s. They shared growing acclaim, had works published to raves both in this country and abroad, won prizes and fellowships, gave popular readings in the United States, Europe, Argentina and Brazil. It was a life of artistic consequence that came together against daunting odds.
Carver and Gallagher met at a writers’ conference in Dallas in 1977 and started their relationship in El Paso a year after that. They were hardly the best of prospects for each other, they knew. Both were products of hardscrabble childhoods in the Northwest, the offspring of fathers who labored in the lumber mills and drank away much of their meager paychecks. When they first met, Gallagher had two marriages behind her. The first, to a Marine fighter pilot, became a casualty of their separation during the Vietnam War. The second was to another writer. She’d fallen in love with his poems, then with him, only to discover that he was an alcoholic. Carver also was an alcoholic when they met, although he had recently quit drinking after doctors’ warnings that it would kill him; he had a rapidly crumbling marriage, two unhappy children, two bankruptcies, a body ravaged by years of menial labor and the bottle, and he had not written anything in ages.
“I did feel Ray did need me, that there were things even I could help,” Gallagher remembers. “But I think what I did was threaten him. I said I didn’t want somebody with bad luck, so he had better change his luck. I was ready to not be involved in any more bad-luck stories.” And they found that “the wrong turns had been a good foundation for us. We learned the hard way how not to live.”
Gallagher provided the footing for much of what they built together. She can seem playful, even theatrical, with her outfits of dramatic purples and reds, her pencil-thin eyebrows and pale face that in some ways recall a Kabuki mask. But right behind such appearances lurks what Gallagher concedes is a fierceness that was often put to use in her years with Carver. She untangled his disastrous business affairs and kept them in order; protected him from the bill collectors and con artists who had dogged his steps and found him such an easy mark; improved his dress (buying him a leather jacket so he would look like Camus on their trip to Paris); even cut his hair.
Gallagher brought a strong strain of self-sacrifice to the relationship, perhaps from having been an eldest child and perhaps from the burdens and terrors of having survived in an alcoholic family (“the household was perpetually on the verge of dissolving,” she has written). Carver received most of the attention when they were together, and she voiced no jealousy, at least in public; stories centered on him, mentioning only in passing that she was “also a writer.” And self-sacrifice even ruled when they discussed having children.
“I decided that Ray had not had enough peace in his life,” she says. “I would have loved to have had his child, but we needed to concentrate on our relationship; that was the first real calm he had ever had.”
Between them, they completed 11 books in 11 years. In many ways, it seemed almost too good to last.
“I think I learned to live more swiftly in my days with Ray,” Gallagher says. “Ray was great at sticking to what mattered, avoiding other kinds of commitments, which is always a problem for a writer. And I learned to play from Ray. Ray brought me into his way of play, the repartee, the little jokes. We loved to celebrate.”
Or as Carver often liked to tell friends, “I didn’t have a nice, happy childhood, but I’m really making it now.”
Raymond Carver’s wake was held in the living room of one of their two Port Angeles homes, the one called Ridge House, a spacious Northwest contemporary. The couple’s bed had been moved to a corner of the living room, and Carver’s body lay there in repose. Each of the small group of mourners took turns talking about how Carver had affected their lives. Some, like Richard Ford and Mona Simpson and Marvin Bell, were writers themselves and had benefited from Carver’s graciousness, his generosity; others were artist friends, relatives, neighbors.
Gallagher had been four days without sleep at that time, and she would not get much rest in the weeks and months ahead. “Ray had said to me, ‘When I die, all hell will break loose,’ ” Gallagher remembers, “and I did not know what he meant.”
She sits now at the dining room table, a few feet from where the wake took place, recalling the time after Carver’s death. There were bitter legal battles with Carver’s ex-wife, Maryann, over his estate--lengthy battles that so drained Gallagher’s resources that only her mother’s willingness to give Gallagher her inheritance early prevented the sale of Ridge House. Gallagher also had to repay Carver’s sizable advance for three unwritten books. Some friends provided remarkable support; others dropped from sight.
“Those first six months, I was living day to day in that zone of the very unknown, trying to cope with the lawsuits, while getting up alone, going to bed alone, eating alone, the very strangeness of it,” Gallagher says. ". . . The place of being a widow or a widower is highly emotional territory. You don’t have full adult status; people discount you; to move about in daily life, you almost need a spokesperson. I felt like I would say something lots of times and people would react: ‘She’s so into the loss now, she’ll behave normally later.’ But, in fact, those are true reactions, right reactions that ought to be respected.”
Gallagher’s adjustment was complicated by what she describes as “a demanding, but very loving ghost.” Interest in Carver’s work and life only seemed to intensify with his death. There was so much correspondence about Carver that Gallagher finally hired a secretary. She was asked to consult on television documentaries on Carver’s life being made in Britain and the United States, review Carver dissertations, reject or participate in proposed Carver projects. And she was left to ready Carver’s final book of poems for publication. “A New Path to the Waterfall” had been finished in a determined race with cancer, finished just in time for their “high-tacky” wedding in Reno and their farewell fishing trip to Alaska, with glasses of Perrier raised in toast.
Amid all these Carver demands, what she describes as “her entrustment from Ray,” Gallagher the writer threatened to disappear. “I was being squeezed out,” she says, “by the Carver side of the ledger.” His work was eclipsing hers in ways it had never done while he was alive. She was becoming, some friends worried, “the widow Carver.”
It was six months before Gallagher was able to write something of her own again. That first piece was a poem called “Red Poppy,” and it dealt, not surprisingly, with Carver’s death, ending in the lines:
. . . By then his breathing stopped so gradually I had to brush lips to know an ending. Tasting then that plush of scarlet which is the last of warmth, kissless kiss he would have given. Mine to extend a lover’s right past its radius, to give and also most needfully, my gallant hussar, to bend and take .
Her own experience has always shaped Gallagher’s poetry; it is an intensely personal vision with a certain stringency (“poetry made out of the grainy things of life,” in Richard Ford’s words). Gallagher says she loves the way poetry demonstrates that “something of consequence can be made to happen in the space of a few lines.” She loves how, at the end of a poem, she is able to “break out a recognition,” twist or turn things so that “a reader may feel calm, a release, or disturbed in an interesting way.”
Gallagher also has always had a particular fondness for dense, difficult, even inexplicable poetry. She prefers poetry that, as she puts it, “comes in the side door.” Carver had threatened that preference during their time together, not in any malicious way, but in his insistence on absolute clarity in writing. Gallagher fought that simplicity (“I still wrote oblique poems, poems he didn’t get”), but she could still see some of Carver’s influence in what she wrote. Now, she admits: “When I pulled back from complexity, I didn’t acknowledge my full intelligence.”
Others could see that, too. Literary critic Harold Schweizer, a Bucknell University professor who has been a friend of both Gallagher and Carver, says: “I think what happened in Tess’ marriage and life with Ray was that she was both furthered by that contact and hindered. She probably came out even, finally. For whatever fame she gained on his coattails also belittled her own talent. The problem was that people cannot but think of a couple with one partner superior to the other. Tess was given that inferior role, which she was gracious enough to accept, but she also has tremendous talent.”
Gallagher may have returned to her own writing with “Red Poppy,” but the new poems did not flow forth easily. She was still reeling from all the demands on her time and the aftershocks of her loss. And these new poems required, as she says, “a very emotionally charged kind of writing; if you are not working on that charge, you get another kind of poem.” But gradually, she began to recognize that the new poems also provided a kind of refuge for her.
“The poems allowed me to slow down,” she says. “A terrible velocity happens to grieving people; a huge machine presses in on them to speed up. Your life seems very public when you feel very much in retreat. The poem allows retreat, allows you to capture the feeling of that moment.”
Gallagher had already written about this effect in a 1984 essay that now seems almost hauntingly prescient. In “The Poem as a Reservoir of Grief,” which was published in the American Poetry Review, Gallagher wrote that poems provide “integrative steps that might be taken to bring the loss into some meaningful consequence in our lives . . . . Poems allow imaginative returns to the causes, the emotions of loss--returns which often do involve regret and longing toward a hoped-for embrace.”
This was not Gallagher writing about some abstract theory. “The Poem as a Reservoir of Grief” had been written after her father died of lung cancer in her arms in 1982, a “strange rehearsal” for her husband’s death six years later. Gallagher admits: “I have had more than my share of violent death in my life. My brother died in a car crash when he was 15 and I was 20. It was pretty rough stuff. And my uncle in Missouri--he was that father you could talk to when you couldn’t talk to your father--he was murdered, shot by intruders, who then set fire to his house. It left his image on the mattress. I saw that myself.”
Turning her spiritual journey after her husband’s death into poetry was Gallagher’s greatest challenge as an artist. “This was the strongest experience in my life,” she says, and she wanted poems that would be achingly real but absolutely free of self-pity, and she was still living the subject matter. But the challenge was also liberating. Gallagher rediscovered the complexity of her earlier poems, the layers of meaning, the startling images:
. . . huts of the Sherpas on a mountain that doesn’t know / it’s being climbed . . . . in one poem, or . . . a marble staircase shorn / of its footfalls . . . . in another.
Gallagher probed deeper and wrote poems that surprised even her. She has always believed that the poet’s role is to “break borders,” and these new poems were soon crossing into seldom-revealed territories of grief. She not only wrote about a final kiss after Carver had taken his last breath; she wrote about climbing into bed with his body:
. . . We were dead / a little while together then, serene / and afloat on the strange broad canopy / of the abandoned world.
Gallagher wrote, too, about wearing a path around his grave and talking to her departed husband:
Who knows what’s long enough / when death’s involved. I stand on my love’s grave / and say aloud in a swoop of gulls over / the bay, “I kiss your lips, babe,” and it’s not / grotesque, even though the mind knows what it / knows, and mostly doesn’t . . . .
And she even wrote about gnawing on the sleeve of his favorite leather jacket:
. . . teething like a child on the unknown pressure.
Such images, taken out of context, seem frightfully revealing, tilting toward the sensational. But even in the poems themselves, these images are jolting. Gallagher acknowledges: “These are all taboos. We are never supposed to say we feel these extremities, never to utter these extremities; they are against decorum. But I had these things all happen, and they were very meaningful to me. These are border lines, but I believe strong poems happen at the borderline. . . . The poems remind you of those taboos. When I write of lying next to Ray’s body, the poem, if it works, gives the feel of crossing the boundary, a hint of taboo, but carried past that--to the gain of what you realize in this passage, the discovery. Poetry, to me, is discovery, and I discovered so many things.”
Gallagher pauses briefly, then continues, “One of the things I do love about being an artist is that you have a wonderful freedom if you live as an artist should--as the most-free individual. And I don’t censor myself; that is a tenet of being an artist. If you censor yourself, you have not done your job as an artist. What you should sense in these poems is that freedom.”
Gallagher has already had hints of the extreme reactions that may well be provoked by this new book of poems, “Moon Crossing Bridge,” scheduled to be published next month by Graywolf Press. One editor warned her that “people are going to love or hate this book.” But Gallagher has also seen the response to a much less revealing project, a book of photographs called “Carver Country,” which included her 10,000-word introduction. She had painstakingly rewritten that introduction some 23 times, but what seemed to draw almost as much attention was a single photograph of her kneeling at Carver’s grave, a photograph that prompted the Washington Post to comment: “Grief should be more private than this.”
To which Gallagher responds: “I think it’s easy for grief to be private. There will always be days and days of private grief. These poems are only the tip of the iceberg of the private grief I felt.”
Gallagher is not some talk-show crusader for a new and improved way of grieving. She did not write her poems as a sort of grief manifesto. But she will, when asked, share her beliefs on grief, her Zen-inspired sense that the spirits of the dead are passed on to those left behind, enlarging their experience, enriching their souls, if people are only willing to open themselves up to that. One of her poems in “Moon Crossing Bridge” is “Picking Bones,” with powerful images from Japan, how after cremations there, relatives will sift through the ashes and lift up the bones of their loved ones with chopsticks, one after another, in the process of transferring them into funeral urns.
Gallagher visited Japan last year at the time her only collection of short stories, “The Lover of Horses,” was published there. The trip solidified her own thoughts on death and mourning. “There’s a big difference between American attitudes toward death and those of the Japanese. The Japanese do venerate death; they actually get in touch with the physical bones of their ancestors. Here, it’s as if someone dies and all is black. It’s as if we’re still in the age of Columbus when it comes to death. Then, they believed you could literally sail off the edge of the world. Our views regarding death are similar to that: Someone dies here, and we treat it as though they had dropped off the end of the Earth.”
Gallagher falls silent for a moment, then adds: “I believe in having an ecology of death. I’m not going to throw my important deaths away.”
After a time, Gallagher gets up from the dining room table and passes through the kitchen and the hallways adorned with photos of her and Carver. She heads up the stairs, opens the locked door and takes a visitor into Carver’s study, as she has often done with others in the past. Nearly three years after his death, things still remain undisturbed. The last books that Carver was reading still lie on the coffee table, the portrait of Chekhov still hangs on the wall (“He was the mentor,” Gallagher says), and the Smith-Corona Coronamatic 2500 still sits on his desk, this nondescript little machine that produced so much masterly art. In the bathroom hangs Carver’s white terry cloth robe, the pocket containing a tiny notebook filled with Carver’s hen-scratch handwriting, the first seeds of stories and poems that will now never get written (“those gypsies in and around Yakima when I was a kid” and “how hard this all is, how unexplainable”).
Gallagher has left Carver’s study undisturbed not out of “some weirdity,” she insists, but rather because “there just hasn’t been time to deal with it.” She allows, however, that something more may be involved. There are times when she will come into the study, settle into the big, black-leather easy chair and feel Carver’s presence, the comfort of his closeness, even after all this time.
Sky House is her house. Gallagher had it built in 1982, based on her own design, a compact contemporary filled with picture windows. It clings to a hillside, an aerie where a bald eagle often circles and freighters pass below in the strait. Lying in her bed in the upstairs loft with the window open, Gallagher often hears the roar of winds through the firs, or the waves on the beach.
Gallagher could settle elsewhere, someplace where she is not so readily recognized. But though she has lived in Syracuse and Tucson and many places in between, she always comes back to Port Angeles. “I get so much from this landscape,” she says. “I’ve been all around the world and there are just not many places I’ve seen with this proximity to both mountains and water. And I also stay here to be close to my roots. I feel a moral obligation to keep in touch with where I came from, the area and the people. I’m from Southern people, Missour-a people, Oklahoma people, people who are clannish. We try to live with each other.”
Gallagher often visits her mother, a woman who, in her late 70s, tends her prodigious iris and rhododendron gardens; Gallagher also sees her brothers--one a logger, the other a longshoreman. They are self-sufficient sorts, from Irish roots mixed with American Indian--Cherokee on one side of the family, Blackfoot on the other. Two of Gallagher’s great-grandparents were full-blooded.
Sky House is only a few minutes from the shack where she grew up, the seven members of the family crowded into that tiny space, but it is a world away, too, one measure of Gallagher’s life journey. She sits sipping her tea, looking out the windows at the smoke from the mill in the distance, and she can easily remember those days long before she had a master’s degree in writing from the University of Iowa, before she had books published in foreign languages (Japanese, Italian, Dutch, Norwegian), before she had a Guggenheim fellowship and an endowed chair at Beloit College. She remembers how she never wore shoes until she went off to the first grade. And how, when she wanted to go to the University of Washington, her father refused to pay tuition because it would be such a waste. A girl would just get married anyway, and what good would an education be then, he told her--a comment that later prompted him to weep. She remembers, too, the jobs she took at various times just to scrape by: picking beans and peas to pay for college, weeding rutabagas, working as a waitress, making chocolate, serving as a children’s librarian, a hospital ward clerk, a police department researcher.
People often talk about how blue-collar types, trapped in lunch-pail lives with withered hopes, inhabit a place called Carver Country, since Raymond Carver gave them such a strong voice in his stories and his poems. But it is Gallagher Country, too, as her hard experience attests.
Gallagher describes herself as being “pretty sturdy in all areas,” and that sturdiness is still being tested these days. Squalls arise and sometimes seem like major storms to Gallagher, at least for a time. Another Carver book comes up, one of those so-called “oral biographies,” the tape-recorded reminiscences of various friends and acquaintances, and Gallagher pulls out of the project at the last minute when she senses the focus turning from Carver, the writer, to Carver, the personality, as often happens in this People magazine age. The editor of the book falls prey to the easy allure of what Carver scholar William Stull of the University of Hartford describes as “trying to reduce Carver’s literature to Carver’s life.” What results also assumes a kind of revisionist bent, elevating the contribution of Carver’s first wife (“I was his lifelong muse,” she insists), amid what Stull considers to be other significant distortions. Gallagher is angry and hurt when a lengthy excerpt of the book is published in the Paris Review.
Carver’s work still makes demands on Gallagher’s time. His uncollected writings--edited by Stull with an assist from Gallagher--are being published in Britain, and then the United States. A film of eight Carver stories by director Robert Altman appears to be moving ahead. But none of these Carver projects seem to threaten Gallagher’s own work, as happened soon after his death.
Completing “Moon Crossing Bridge” was, in many ways, a bridge for Gallagher herself, to her new life, her new work. “It reconfirmed me as a writer,” she says. “In my own right.”
Gallagher’s grief has receded in her newer poems. It has been replaced by a playfulness and sensuality reflected in the titles included in her book-in-progress, “Portable Kisses"--"Some Bandit Love,” “Widow in Red Shoes” and “Why Do They Talk Sex to Me?”
It is late afternoon now. What Gallagher sees outside of Sky House has often figured in her poems, this seascape and landscape of striking images, always changing. Looking out to Ediz Hook at the entrance to the harbor, with its Coast Guard lighthouse, and out beyond that to the waters of the strait, calm now, the poet sees metaphor once again.
“Last year on the anniversary of Ray’s death, I was at a low point, and I thought to myself, here I am back where I was two years ago,” she says. “But a week later, that had all passed, all that hard territory. I feel strengthened by it, like a ship that’s been through hard winds, torrents, and then finally comes to a harbor.”