Walking the Edge

By William Booth
Sunday, September 16, 2007

RAYMOND CARVER IS BURIED ON A BLUFF ABOVE THE TOWN OF PORT ANGELES, upwind of the smokestacks that stoke the local paper mill. His grave overlooks the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and on sunny days, when the fog curtains part, you can see across the rumbled water all the way to the woolly green islands of Canada.

Some knotty old-timers lay alongside Carver in the lawn at Ocean View Cemetery. The veterans of wars and sawmills, they're buried with missing fingers beside beloved wives and mothers. One lumberjack's headstone includes an engraving of his logging truck. The older families are marked with tree trunks carved in stone. For this is a country of falling timber, where wood puts food on the table.

I was standing there in the twilight. Carver's grave is newer, bigger and more wordy than his neighbors', his bones covered with a slab of black granite. The words read: "Raymond Carver, May 25, 1938 -- August 2, 1988, Poet, Short Story Writer, Essayist." I was thinking, if you like the art, you want to know about the artist. You're supposed to be curious.

So I had driven out to the Olympic Peninsula, out to the edge of Washington state. I drove with all the windows down, past lavender farms and Indian casinos, across rivers plump with fish, through clear-cuts so raw with splintered stumps that the hills look as if they had been shelled. I guess the idea was to visit "Carver Country," which is both a physical landscape (he lived here, he died here) and a way of paying special attention. For a couple of days this summer, I walked around with Carver in my pack. I visited a cemetery, a cafe, a creek. I read his poems, my elbow on a lunch counter, drinking weak coffee. I read his stories with my back against a tree. It was a vacation. Only some of it happened just in my head.

One of the first poems of his I read was etched in full into the stone at his grave. It is called "Gravy," and it begins:

No other word will do. For that's what it was. Gravy.

Gravy, these past ten years.

Alive, sober, working, loving and

being loved by a good woman.

Eleven years

ago he was told he had six months to live

at the rate he was going. And he was going

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