Out on the Strait the water is whitecapping
as they say here. It's rough, and I'm glad
I'm not out there. Glad I fished all day
on Morse Creek, casting a red Daredevil back
and forth. I didn't catch anything. No bites
even, not one. But it was okay. It was fine!
I carried your dad's pocketknife and was followed
for a while by a dog its owner called "Dixie."
At times I felt so happy I had to quit
fishing. Once I lay on the bank with my eyes closed,
listening to the sound the water made,
and to the wind in the tops of the trees. The same wind
that blows out on the Strait, but a different wind, too.
For a while I even let myself imagine I had died -
and that was all right, at least for a couple
of minutes, until it really sank in: Dead.
As I was lying there with my eyes closed,
just after I'd imagined what it might be like
if in fact I never got up again, I thought of you.
I opened my eyes then and got right up
and went back to being happy again.
I'm grateful to you, you see. I wanted to tell you.
I know Raymond Carver primarily as a writer of short stories, as I imagine do most of you. He played a significant role in reinvigorating the genre in the mid 1980s, and his frank, unadorned style gave us glimpses into difficult lives. He engenders empathy, not sympathy, which I feel is an important distinction often overlooked by authors meaning us to identify with their characters. The specific attention to experiential detail in this poem give us a concrete sense of feeling, and rather than feeling for the narrator, we feel with them.
By my reading, I get the impression that the character of this poem has skipped out on difficult work in order to spend the day wasting time. I would say fishing, but he seems fairly unconcerned to have not caught anything. Pleased, even. The two references the narrator makes to "the Strait" make me think he works at sea, perhaps as a fisherman or some sort of deck hand. He remarks how glad he is to not be there, on the rough seas. The whole poem is delivered, as if talking to the titular Tess. Clearly, this is a person close to the narrator. After all, he has Tess' father's pocketknife with him.
That sort of small detail invites into the poem a type of intimacy. We're experiencing what feels to me like the peculiar melancholy of a man who is bad at expressing himself. By the end of the poem we get there, but first we meditate on death. That the narrator goes so quickly from his feigned, carefree, fishing induced euphoria to laying down and wondering what it would be like to be dead shows that there's some sort of deep disturbance in his heart. Just when he thinks it wouldn't be so bad to be dead, really, he remembers Tess. Upon her remembrance, he sits right up, happy again.
What are we to make of this? To me, it feels as though the narrator carries great respect for Tess. H says as much in the devastatingly clear last line, "I'm grateful to you, you see. I wanted to tell you." This makes me wonder; why could he not tell Tess but in a poem? Is she gone? Moved on to a new romance, or beyond the grave? Who can say? I find the direct expression of gratitude after a long meandering thought process to be refreshingly brave. Its directness touches me. I know that there are many people in my life to whom I wish I know how to so directly admit my gratitude, or love, or apology. I'm sure if we examine our feelings and relationships, we can all feel that in some way.
I love that in Carver's poetry and prose. He finds a way to cut right to the heart of things, to make you feel with rather than for. The poem may be For Tess, but it serves as empathetic experience for us all.