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.)
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 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)