Phil Cousineau

Reading your lean stories and your lank poetry makes me want to drop everything and charge outside to change the air filter on my ’82 Mustang. Listening to you tonight inspires me to repaint the patio furniture, go fishing with a down-and-out friend, write seven poems about something I stopped seeing a long time ago, or describe a waterfall to a blind man.

Reenter the real world, as you’d say. Do some truth-telling.

That’s what I heard you talking about when you talked about love in the rain-loud Paris bookstore back in the summer of ’87. That’s what I saw behind that home-from-hell look on your face that late afternoon when you followed your friends Richard Ford and Jonathan Raban to the front of the room and shyly read your poems. Your shyness took me by surprise, though not your wistfulness. You played the crowd like a jazz man, syncopating the moment itself. Ford’s stories had been stiletto-sharp, especially the one about the guy who saw a bear catch on fire. Raban was coyly ironic when he regaled us about bumping into Paul Theroux in a small village along the coast of England—where their rivalry kept them from divulging anything about their journeys to each other.

But you broke open the game. In your poems you were as clear as a trout stream. You spoke as if love were the only force on earth worth talking about, our only chance to defeat death’s hammerlock on our lives. You read as if the long slow alchemy of your recent life had changed life’s wicked disappointments into something else almost palpable—the possibility of transcendence. You described “stupendous changes” as the only thing worth writing about. In a room where the tension of literary anticipation had frozen us unnaturally in our seats, calm soon ruled.

Then you read your stories. Your fingers trembled, as if phantomly flicking away ashes from past cigarettes. We were there with you. On your quest for the real lurking behind the phony, in your world of fractured fables, your stories penetrated the darkness. In those bleak tales of characters gazing over their shoulders, the long slow suicides in faceless suburbs, the seedy menace of things in rustbelt factories, the forlorn world of sawmills, truck stops, diners and bars, I heard the warning bells from life’s dangerous railroad crossings. But I also saw hope for love’s redemptive touch. I imagined changed expectations about shattered lives. I felt the heart’s unruly ways.

Who knows why we do what we do, you humbly reminded me that afternoon, as I listened from the top of the staircase? Who can tell why we carry on after our hearts are splintered? Or why “I’m sorry” are the two hardest damn words to pronounce, and sometimes never make any difference anyway? Or why it’s agonizing to give up the shot glass on the bedside table?

I heard your words as valentines to the utterly lost, messages in a bottle to places where passion was lying low, but lurking just fine behind the FOR SAIL signs advertising old boats on the curbs in front of boarded-up laundromats in the drizzly northwest. I heard an ardent belief in the possibility of epiphany for the emotionally collapsed out there on the asphalt roads of America. I heard that poems and stories should stretch us, as when the inconsolable grief of the unfound dream is finally surrendered, and forgiveness and love begins to thrum in the heart, that there is always a chance for momentary redemption.

These were moments that got past my defenses.

“Get in, get out. Don’t linger,” you recommended to a young Danish traveler that evening who asked for a little advice. “Endow things with immense, startling power,” you said to another earnest poet, then gently reminded her of the necessary fire, for a story with lasting power. “Poke through the ordinary details of life,” you urged to a note-taking professor from the Sorbonne, the worthwhile details of life to be found in the ashes of our lives. We must convince the reader that our characters “have seen things,” as you said softly, with stop-breath sweetness, and the Paris rain purled down the window glass. “That’s the soul of the story,” you said, quoting Chekhov, your voice ringing with laughter and surprising me with your choice of the old touchstone word.

That’s what I heard that night, from my perch next to the bookshelves featuring International Fiction, along with the accents from a United Nations of readers, and the steady pinging of rain on the Paris rooftops. The bookstore was jammed with backpackers, scholars, even waiters from nearby cafés. All of us listening intently to your “wordmusic,” as Tess would say later on, words that revealed your “perfect pitch in the soul and spirit department.” Plain and simple music that expressed your forgiveness of the world’s wicked disappointments.

To the last question, the one all true writers disdain, about the purpose, if any, of stories was, you replied, “Stories are something glimpsed only for the—”

Then your voice trailing off at the end, drowned out by thunder.

Eight years later, I’m reading you again. By the time I finish your story about the blind man describing a cathedral I’m feeling cleaved in half. A long-buried question slowly emerges, the one at the end of your reading that night at the Village Voice. As if it were yesterday, I recall how we all strained to hear your answer through the guttering rain. I go frenetically searching through my undermemory of yellowing notebooks and journals, piled and stacked in the basement. Finally, in an old French blue grid notepad marked “1987,” I find, at the bottom of a coffee-mottled page, the jumbled half-answer. But the last word is indecipherable. Flabbergasted, I squint, shift the notebook under a bright light.

“Music? magic? nuance? numinous?”

I can’t make it out. I feel like a fool.

What’s the word, Ray? What were we supposed to glimpse? What’s the last word on stories?

I read the sentence out loud again: “Stories are something glimpsed only for the—” I reread it for the rhythms, the lunge forward into hidden meaning. I close my eyes and recall that afternoon with its exquisite melody of coffee aroma, pastry smells, and the burbling sound of rain on cobblestone that pervaded the room. I visualize the wolf-like gaze Ford cast toward you, and the owlish wisdom that danced across Raban’s face. Moments that reenter the skin.

Then, as if foaming to the surface from a deep river, a word comes to me: marvel. I check it against the scribble on the notebook.

Somehow it fits: “Stories are something glimpsed only for the marvel.”

The sentence clicks in, the idea makes its way home, as if along “the new path to the waterfall,” that you described that evening, as if in a dream we were all dreaming together on our last night on earth.

Paris, France
September, 1989—August 1997

Phil Cousineau is an award-winning writer and filmmaker, teacher and editor, lecturer and travel leader, storyteller and TV host. His fascination with the art, literature, and history of culture has taken him from Michigan to Marrakesh, Iceland to the Amazon, in a worldwide search for what the ancients called the “soul of the world.” With over 40 books and 21 scriptwriting credits to his name, the “omnipresent influence of myth in modern life” is a thread that runs through all of his work. His books include Stoking the Creative Fires, Once and Future Myths, The Art of Pilgrimage, The Hero’s Journey, Wordcatcher, The Painted Word, The Oldest Story in the World, The Book of Roads, and The Accidental Aphorist.

“Carver in Paris” ©2000 by Phil Cousineau
from The Book of Roads, Sisyphus Press, Berkeley, Ca.
Reprinted with kind permission of the author.

Header photo ©Joanne Warfield
Paris cover photo ©Richard Beban
Photo by Jo Beaton

Notes: Ray Carver, American short story writer and poet, lived from 1938-1988. His widow, Tess Gallagher, also a poet, essayist, novelist, and playwright, lives in Port Angeles, Washington.
Richard Ford and Jonathan Raban are also writers.