[7 October 2009]
Many years ago—it had to be 1989—my sister and I attended a poetry reading given by Tess Gallagher at California State University, Northridge’s Little Playhouse. We were students, new to California and poetry. My sister had a paperback copy of Raymond Carver’s Cathedral, which we’d both read with youthful admiration. We knew vaguely that he’d died, but didn’t really understand the full force of his fame or talent until we unwittingly went to see his widow read.
At 19 and 20, we were by far the youngest attendees, and felt cowed by the obvious wealth of the audience: the women wore soft, expensive garments and large pieces of jewelry—silver brooches, earrings dangling with stones. Some of the men wore berets with total seriousness. We’d never seen people like this before.
We took our seats, and Tess Gallagher stepped onstage. She did not resemble her audience. She wore a red suit and somewhat battered red pumps. Her dark hair flowed untamed down her back. Her figure was voluptuous, defiantly rounded amidst the Californian bone-thinness surrounding us. She wasn’t conventionally pretty, but beautiful in that rare way women are, alluring, certain of herself. She spoke a bit, then began reading.
The poems were all about Raymond Carver. I wish I could tell you exactly which she read. I know some came from Portable Kisses. I remember her reading about the junk food he craved after he stopped drinking, and the shelves filled with half-eaten sugary cereals and sweets left in the house after he died.
I remember her saying friends were pushing her to find a new mate. She gave a half laugh, a wry smile at the folly of such a notion. By the end of the reading, my sister and I had given up on dignity and were openly weeping. The people around us appeared oddly impervious. To this day, I don’t understand why.
Afterward I went out and read everything by Gallagher and Carver I could get my hands on. In 1994, I was accepted to Humboldt State University’s Graduate English program, where Carver himself had briefly studied. The University made much of this, though the truth is Carver drank heavily during his tenure there and didn’t much like the place. Nonetheless, there I was, actually inhabiting what people call Carver Country.
In 1996 I married the man I’d been living with since 1993. He has a rare neuromuscular disease that has, over our time together, slowly eroded his strength. In his early 20s, he began using a cane. In 1998, at age 29, he went into a wheelchair. During that terrible year, I turned frequently to Gallagher’s poetry, reading and re-reading Portable Kisses—“Letter to a Kiss that Died for Us”, “Widow in Red Shoes”, “Precious”, “Glimpse Inside an Arrow after Flight”. I was not a widow, of course, but the wheelchair’s finality was a sort of death I lacked words for, and Gallagher, who had endured a worse grief, lifted the burden of mine.
This very long introduction is my way of saying I feel a deep and perhaps irrational connection to this writer, who is, I think, wrongly maligned in her defense of Carver’s work. Her involvement in his legacy often overshadows her own great talent, and our more prurient instincts (the Lish Wars! Maryann Carver’s memoir!) overshadow Gallagher’s own great talents, much evidenced in The Man from Kinvara.
Kinvara is collected from Gallagher’s two books of short fiction: The Lover of Horses and At the Owl Woman Saloon. Returning to them after many years, I experienced that odd sensation of newly encountering what I’d read as much younger person, reading with the deeper understanding that comes from being older. Life may indeed bash us around mercilessly, but in a slight reward, it makes us better readers.
The stories here—many written long before Gallagher met Carver—indicate how much the couple had in common. Both are Washington state writers, products of the same hardscrabble life that would later produce a young musician named Kurt Cobain. Their people work too hard for too little; they are the loggers and dockworkers of the world, perpetually down on their luck.
Many of Gallagher’s stories center on revenge and its attendant guilt. In “I Got a Guy Once”, the narrator, Billy, goes after Danny Gunnerson, his supervisor on numerous logging crews. Billy is an experienced logger, by his own account the kind of man who can love trees while killing them. But Gunnerson, claiming the company isn’t paying him, isn’t paying his crew.
Billy intercepts Gunnerson’s mail, finding the wayward check. Later, he sabotages one of Gunnerson’s logging jobs. At the time, he feels he is extracting his pound of flesh. Years later he picks up a hitchhiker in the rain—Gunnerson, of course, whose dealings have cost him everything. But the older Billy, recognizing himself in Gunnerson, now regrets his earlier actions.
In “A Box of Rocks”, the childless Arlen and Elida are abruptly asked to care for their young niece, Elmi. The initial shock soon turns to a deep bond between the child and her relatives. Their happiness is shattered when Elida’s sister, Dory, remarries and decides to reclaim Elmi, permanently separating the child from her adoptive parents and creating a rift between the sisters that cannot be mended, even as Elida lies on her deathbed. After Elida’s death Arlen wonders whether he acted correctly in the matter, following what he assumed were Elida’s wishes. He ultimately decides himself correct, though not happily so.
Widows and widowers are another theme. In one of the book’s saddest stories, “Mr. Woodriff’s Neckties” a man befriends his neighbors, a well-known writer slowly dying of brain cancer and his wife, also a writer. Mr. Woodriff, clearly a stand-in for Carver, invites the neighbor into his house one afternoon, where he manages to charm the man into tying a necktie for him: he doesn’t know how to tie them, and this particular tie, a gift from a friend, is to be worn at an upcoming book fair:
“I was his accomplice, and we smiled at each other that day… like we’d just cleaned out a bank and each of us had a pretty woman waiting for us…And we did, too—both our wives still with us then, and that miracle of life itself, too, ours—We had it all.”
Soon afterward, both Mr. Woodriff and the narrator’s wife die from cancer. The neighbor takes to mowing Mrs. Woodriff’s lawn along with his, and the two stand together in the twilight, silently admiring his work.
Emily, the widow of “Coming and Going”, finds herself pulled into a lawsuit over her deceased husband Nyal’s business agreements. After being served with papers by a marshal, who inquires where her husband is, she offers directions to the cemetery, neglecting to tell the man where he’s headed. She then crawls into bed with a gift from her sister—a quilt made in the “Darts of Death” pattern: a widow’s quilt. She lies in bed, expecting to be angry with Nyal, wondering if he had ever been unfaithful to her. But instead:
“She believed that they had loved each other beyond all others…Perhaps it was death, that ultimate release from belonging, which made even the idea of infidelity ludicrous… She wondered if all wives held aside a reserve of forgiveness for unrevealed betrayals, believing their husbands could, in some pull of opportunity, go astray in fact, if not in heart? She had put aside such a reserve, she saw, without really having to know it, until now. Yet: so what?” (italics author’s).
There is, finally, a sense (at least to me, and I may be crazy) that Gallagher is continuing her conversation with Carver. Poems to him still appear in her work [see 2006’s Dear Ghosts, (sic)], and there is the infamous incident of the blind visitor, a friend of Gallagher’s whose visit Carver crafted into the title story of Cathedral. Gallagher wrote an amusingly indignant response in “Rain Flooding Your Campfire”. altering the short story’s author to a coworker, a “Mr. G.”
“Nothing he writes gets published. Does that stop him?... My opinion is, he’ll type till kingdom come, inflicting his stuff endlessly on his unfortunate fellow workers.”
“...he can’t imagine anything unless he gouges himself with the truth, and that makes it hard for those who know what really happened.”
Gallagher sets the record straight, at least to her liking, and we are both the richer and poorer for it—richer for the call and response of two great writers who worked side by side all too briefly, poorer for the loss of one, yet still fortunate: Gallagher suffered her own bout of cancer—the author photo from Dear Ghosts, depicts a bald woman clearly in the throes of chemotherapy—yet she is still here, and we are the richer for it.