Lifesaving Poems: Raymond Carver’s ‘Prosser’

I first read ‘Prosser’ in the bookshop in Northwood, where I grew up, on my way into work and back from it. This was a time in my life which I associate with beginning to put writing at the forefront of everything I thought about and did. But it was not easy. I had met one other person who wrote, a colleague. I did not belong to any writers (or readers) groups. There was certainly no internet to play with.

In those days I travelled to London, on the Metropolitan line, to a church hall behind Euston station where the group of people I worked with would run workshops in arts-based domains for ‘at risk’ groups in North London: old people’s homes; psychiatric day-centres; reminiscence groups and so on.

I quickly learned that mornings did not always start on time at the centre. So on the way to the tube I would sneak into Northwood Books and read pages of Raymond Carver’s Fires: Essays, Poems, Stories. In truth I gulped these pages down, devouring them in secret, replacing the book each day in a slightly different place so that no one else would find and then buy it.

Eventually I gave in, of course, and took it home. And everywhere else.

This was the first place that I had found any advice for writers (‘On Writing’, ‘Fires’, ‘John Gardner: The Writer As Teacher’). It was also the first time I had the sensation of finding a voice that was talking directly to me. It is now commonplace to comment that Carver’s stories, built with simple sounding language, have a clear poetic aspect: ‘He could hear her ragged breathing over the sound of the air that rushed by outside.  He turned off the radio and was glad for privacy’ (‘The Pheasant’).  And I can still remember barely being able to breathe when I finished the story ‘So Much Water So Close To Home’ for the first time: nothing I’d read before had given me such an intensely physical reaction.

I feel very much the same about his poems, and it is these I go back to most often.  I find myself turning to poems like ‘Morning, Thinking of Empire’, with its flat relation of events, offhand use of metaphor and deadpan humour:

Our future lies deep in the afternoon.

It is a narrow street with a cart and driver,

a driver who looks at us and hesitates,

then shakes his head.  Meanwhile,

I coolly crack the egg of a fine leghorn chicken.

The first time I read that line about the chicken I nearly burst out laughing, so surprising was it and rendered with such relish.  The egg is not just cracked but cracked ‘coolly’; and it is not any old egg but one from a specific breed, which also happens to be ‘fine’.

The way the poem ends, however, took my head off completely:

Even the flies are still.

I crack the other egg.

Surely we have diminished one another.

I admire and love the way these lines move from natural symbol, to simple action, to emotional discovery (a nice example of showing, showing and then telling).  It is like watching a film of an ordinary domestic scene which begins in hope-masked anxiety (‘we press our lips to the enameled rims of the cups’) but ends with a distinct atmosphere of foreboding. Somehow the two cracked eggs are crucial to this atmosphere being created. We may never know how he achieved this.

(Other poems I make sure I re-read on my visits to Carver country include ‘Luck’, ‘Looking for Work’, ‘Your Dog Dies’, ‘Photograph of my Father in his Twenty-Second Year’ (my candidate, with Don Coles’s ‘Photograph in a Stockholm Newspaper For March 13, 1910‘, for the least corny photograph-poem ever) and ‘At Night the Salmon Move’.)

Of all the poems in Fires it is ‘Prosser’ I love the most. From the joke at the end of the first stanza to its apparent artlessness and barehanded emotion, I relish how it captures that preverbal monosyllabic state of utter exhaustion when driving late at night. I have always liked real names in poetry; the name of Prosser here is imbued with startling power, I think.  Partly this is through repetition.  Also, this happens in a figurative sense because it becomes a symbol of what is memorable, both spoken and not, between father and son.

Finally it is to do with the craft of the poem, in particular the poet’s handling of sounds to create mood and atmosphere.  The final stanza is dominated by ‘i’, ‘e’ (‘wheat’, ‘fields’, ‘windshield’), ‘l’ and ‘t’ sounds.  In the first line ‘nights’ chimes with ‘driving’ which chimes with ‘miles’; these are picked up in ‘shining’ and ‘tired’.  The hard ‘t’s’ of ‘that’, ‘town’, ‘heater’, ‘rattling’, ‘still’ and ‘squinting’ enact the material, the relentlessness of the journey and the need to stay awake.

Part of this music is set up with rhyming or chiming pairs of words: ‘hills’/’still’; ‘smell’/’barely’; ‘smell’/’still’; ‘gunpowder’/ ‘fingers’; ‘see him’/ ‘squinting’.  ‘Prosser’, with its eiderdown ‘o’ ,‘s’ and ‘r’ sounds works in opposition to all of these and is placed deliberately at the end of the poem, calling attention to its difference in terms of sound, but also to itself as goal or destination.  It is not impossible that the ‘difference’ between the two men, symbolised in a small-town name, is integral to the poem’s meaning.

Quoting an Isaac Babel short story in one of his essays on writing, Carver says ‘No iron can pierce the heart with such force as a period put just at the right place.’  That’s the way I felt about ‘Prosser’ when I first read it, and the way I still feel about it now: pierced.  I sensed, as Seamus Heaney says of Robert Lowell, ‘a whole meaning simultaneously clicking shut and breaking open, a momentous illusion that the fulfilments in the ear spelled out meanings and fulfilments available in the world.’  (This is also another Lifesaving Poem that is worth going back to.)

Prosser

 

In winter two kinds of fields on the hills
outside Prosser: fields of new green wheat, the slips
rising overnight out of the plowed ground,
and waiting,
and then rising again, and budding.
Geese love this green wheat.
I ate some of it once too, to see.

And wheat stubble-fields that reach to the river.
These are the fields that have lost everything.
At night they try to recall their youth,
but their breathing is slow and irregular as
their life sinks into dark furrows.
Geese love this shattered wheat also.
They will die for it.

But everything is forgotten, nearly everything,
and sooner rather than later, please God—
fathers, friends, they pass
into your life and out again, a few women stay
a while, then go, and the fields
turn their backs, disappear in rain.
Everything goes, but Prosser.

Those nights driving back through miles of wheat fields—
headlamps raking the fields on the curves—
Prosser, that town, shining as we break over hills,
heater rattling, tired through to bone,
the smell of gunpowder on our fingers still:
I can barely see him, my father, squinting
through the windshield of that cab, saying, Prosser.

Raymond Carver, from Fires (Picador, 1986)

Lifesaving Poems

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9 comments

  1. Nicholas Sack

    Anthony – I much admire your forensic analysis of ‘Prosser’, which has been one of my very favourite Carver poems for many years. I requested it for ‘Poetry Please’ on Radio 4 in 2006 – and it was read, along with several others of his, on 16 February 2014, repeated on 22 February.

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    • Anthony Wilson

      Thank you so much for your kind comment.
      I love Carver’s poems, even the less successful ones. Prosser is my favourite I think.
      As luck would have it I heard the broacast last week. I was lost in flooded fields in Herefordshire, a rare moment of radio coming together with life in perfect unity. It made my week.
      You had to wait a long time to wait to get it broadcast. Hats off!
      With best wishes and deep thanks,
      Anthony

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      • Nicholas Sack

        Anthony – It’s a real treat for me to read an insightful analysis of ‘Prosser’ written by you, a highly experienced expert; you confirm many of the facets that I intuited but was simply unable to articulate. I like your phrases “apparent artlessness” and “barehanded emotion” – and as a photographer I appreciate “apparent artlessness” in a visual sense, too. Sometimes it serves us well to subdue our learned technique and to respond from the gut. I also like your declaration: “I love Carver’s poems, even the less successful ones” – his very brief ‘Drinking While Driving’ is casually off-hand, yet it stops me dead in my tracks. I shall now seek out your poetry, Anthony.

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      • Anthony Wilson

        Thank you so much for your kind reply. I love Drinking While Driving. From memory it contains the phrase ‘working on a pint of Old Crow’. Marvellous. Also something about not being able to concentrate on reading. These things speak to me. As ever with best wishes Anthony

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      • Nicholas Sack

        You almost had it, the only rhyme, and a thudding one: “and drinking from a pint of Old Crow. / We do not have any place in mind to go,” And the marvellous last line: “Any minute now, something will happen.” The writer A.L. Kennedy wrote a lovely appreciation of Carver’s short stories in the Independent a good few years back, delighting in his thrillingly abrupt endings. I wonder if it’s online…

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  2. Pingback: In a Marine Light: the poetry of Raymond Carver | absenceclub
  3. Jim Hopkins

    I came across this post/your blog while searching for the text of Prosser. You have the SEO thing down as this was the first result for “Raymond Carver Prosser”. Thank you for posting it—I enjoyed your discussion.

    I first read Raymond Carver in a Short Fiction course in high school (his works along with Flannery O’Connor, Chekhhov and Eudora Welty comprised the bulk of the material). Prosser, however, was a unique discovery for me.

    Sometime in the Summer of 2007 or 2008, when I was in college, I went with my sister and my mother to visit my Great Uncle (my maternal grandfather’s brother). He was a retired priest who’d done missionary work in China amidst the Communists rise to power (when he was nearly killed but thankfully just expelled) and spent most of his life in a poor part of Aiken, South Carolina.

    Anyway, he had somewhat recently moved to this care center for retired priests in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia, and he cheerfully gave us a tour when we visited. By the windows at the end of one hallway we came across an old man in a wheelchair. He said hello to us, complimented my Great Uncle and briefly mentioned his own work in Panama. I did not listen to him so closely because my eye caught the top of a paper that was wedged somewhere in the middle of the big stack of articles on his lap. It said “Raymond Carver Prosser”. As a fan of Carver’s work from high school, I was struck. Before I realized it, our tour was already moving away from the man and back toward my Great Uncle’s room.

    A few days later I made a point of determining where I could read Prosser. I don’t believe I could find it anywhere online then, but I was able to determine that I could find it in “Fires”. I bought a copy from Borders and was similarly blown away by most of what I read.

    Prosser, though, was by far my favorite thing in the collection—and not, I don’t think, just because of the context of my discovery. However, it struck me as a pretty powerful thing for an old priest, not far from death and presumably without his own son, to have in his stack of papers. When we left my uncle that afternoon, he stood in the doorway and watched us walk all the way to our car. I know because I half-turned to see him still standing there.

    As the memory of visiting my great uncle and seeing the poem in the other priest’s stack of papers fades, I’m tempted to doubt that “Prosser” was ever there. Still, I know that it was.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Anthony Wilson

      Dear Jim, thank you for taking the time to comment on my post and for your extraordinary story. If I may say so there is something very Carveresque, even Chekhovian, about it, a unique and haunting short story -about a story. I’m thrilled that you have shared it here, and I know others looking for Prosser will get a tingle from it too. I read somewhere once that Prosser was one of Carver’s own favourites. Don’t we have good taste?
      As ever with good wishes and many thanks
      Anthony

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