My partner this morning presented me a rum cake, a little fist-sized something she brought back from her trip to Jamaica while I remained at home to shovel snow, chase the cat, and wander deliberately lost in the world of my notebooks and drafts. Which, in itself, sounds very much like the sort of thing you would have written about (and, indeed, have): a man at home contentedly alone while his wife and family are elsewhere. But it's the rum cake that got me thinking of you.
Because my partner is squeamish, I waited until after we'd finished our bite-size portions before telling her about your rum cake poem. I really tried to build the suspense of it, how you knew it was coming and then it arrived, a gift from a friend in New York aware you'd be spending the holidays alone, how your expectation met the brick wall of reality when you opened the tin and an earwig came scurrying out, rum-drunk and nightmare-writhing across your table to hide beneath a bowl of fruit. Despite her immediate shiver of revulsion, my partner loved how you were willing to grant the earwig amnesty for having traversed our entire continent in order to seek refuge nestled among your bananas and pears. It's the sort of detail that really amps up the finale when you find three more earwigs at the bottom of your cake tin, succumb to the unlanguaged bloodlust of a wolf, and smash them to a pulp, then hunt down the original bug, revoke your clemency, and crush it, too.
Your poem is a fantastic apology to a friend you'd really rather not disappoint (it's hard to indulge in a bug-riddled gift of cake). It's also an echo (quite possibly intentional) of William Carlos William's apology for eating the plums he knew he shouldn't eat. And while recalling to my partner your poem that echoes a poem, I once again became aware of the undoubtedly intentional echo of your writing throughout my own.
I mean, forget that I just paraphrased "Earwigs" to the sole end of titillating my favorite person. Time and again, I've returned to your poems (much more so than your stories) expressly to find the resonant notes that heterodyne with those within myself, creating a new, unique thing. Reading "Luck" for the first time in a cabin along the shores of a Precambrian lake is what allowed me a means of exploring the early sexual exploits and abuses of a character I've been writing about for years. "His Bathrobe Pockets Stuffed With Notes" eventually led to my story about a wash woman coping with the realities of her mother's senility and children's failures at adulthood (which is to say, her failings as a parent). And my story about a woman in recovery laughing on the couch while her wife recounts a dream couldn't have existed without, well, all your pieces about being in recovery or maybe just recovering while lying splayed on a couch. The complete truth is, the example you set by treating language with practical grace and your characters with aching compassion has informed my work in ways so numerous and prevalent I've either forgotten or never knew to notice.
Of course, you are but one among many whom I am equally grateful for and indebted to. W.S. Merwin. Joan Didion. Denis Johnson. Jason Molina. Toni Morisson. Your very Tess. It's pointless to keep going, for not only is the list all but endless, it should kinda be too obvious to mention: I mean, what else is a writer if not the gross and ungainly amalgam of all its influences and experiences, attempting to interpret itself as something genuinely beautiful or, at the very least, less monstrously stitched together? Not one of us is an Autogenes. We can only refine what we find built into our design. You're as much a part of me as Chekhov was a part of you. Without you—without all of you—what of this world I've known could I possibly say? How would I even know how to say it?
So this is as much a letter of gratitude as it is an apology, decades too late and impossible for you to hear. Thank you for having shared yourself—in such abundance, in such vulnerability, a journeyman at work right to the bittersweet end-days of your life—so that I in turn could recognize myself, discover the internal apertures opening into unseen rooms, and from this knotted labyrinth of self return with something of my own worthy of the task. Thank you for having guided me in the work of charting the geography of my voice and my heart, and forgive me for not having done a better job of seeing all the lessons in hurt and mercy you've pointed to along the way. I'm sorry I need you to help find what I cannot find on my own. I'm flawed, Raymond, and easily distracted, and need all the help I can get.
It might have stopped snowing for the moment, but the driveway still needs to be shoveled. The cat insists that she be chased. The last scrap of the rum cake waits for me in the other room. The demands of the world, Mr. Carver, have only so much patience. And while right here is where I want to remain—at this table, with this notebook made by a friend and with Stars of the Lid ringing in bowed swells from the stereo—I've learned as well that each necessitates the other. I cannot live without writing. And I cannot write without living. It's time to get to work.