When Raymond Carver was diagnosed with terminal Stage IV lung cancer, he kept on being Raymond Carver. He kept writing and he kept reading, finding some comfort or meaning in the stories of Chekhov. A New Path to the Waterfall is his last book; a collection of poems edited by his partner Tess Gallagher, most written in the last year of his life. Carver’s work had always been direct and unflinching and neither his outlook nor his voiced changed as his life came to an end. The poems in here are sometimes funny but always insightful, always speaking to the larger truth of the reality in which we live.
The prevailing motif here is the poetry within prose. Carver’s poems are often narrative, short vignettes that offer a glimpse into some life, usually in the midst of suffering. In this vein, each of the six sections feature excerpts of Chekhov’s prose, removed from their context and lineset as poetic verse. While most of these pieces function just fine as poetry, they were the least engaging part of this book for me. Carver’s original work always wins hands down.
Contemporary poetry (this collection is from the 80s, but that’s still close enough to the present day for me to label contemporary, more on that later) has always been challenging for me. Lots of open mic nights have soured me with bad amatuer readings and the obsession with innovation as an end in and of itself is offputting, but there’s something incredibly powerful about the oral voice that seems to be the common denominator of almost all good poetry. It has to be read aloud, or “read aloud” in one’s mind. Good poems are not just meticulously constructed and edited, they’re composed. There’s a music in those lines. There’s something deep in our shared experience that responds to our oral tradition as it presents itself in poetry. It’s too bad more people don’t read the good stuff.