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WIDOW'S WORK : Poet Tess Gallagher and Short Story Writer Raymond Carver Were a Celebrated Literary Couple. In the Three Years Since He Died, She Has Tended His Legacy and Finally Found a Way to Make Poetry of Her Own Grief.

January 12, 1992|JOHN DOUGLAS MARSHALL | John Douglas Marshall, a Seattle writer, is the author of an upcoming book, a memoir about his grandfather, Brig. Gen. S.L.A. Marshall, the late historian and columnist

The gunmetal-gray Mercedes pulls up in front of an old house, not much more than a shack. As the turbo-diesel idles, the driver, a woman at middle-age, scans a scene far different from what she remembers. The brown paint on the house is faded, an old refrigerator sits on the front porch, bedsheets hang in the windows as curtains, and an ancient rowboat lies in the overgrown grass.

While several sets of eyes peer out of a front window, a woman in her 20s, in old clothes and quite pregnant, comes out the front door. Poet Tess Gallagher gets out of the Mercedes, walks up to the woman, extends her hand.

"I grew up in this house," she says.

The disbelief on the pregnant woman's face disappears as Gallagher points out what was once her bedroom window and describes how she "used to crawl in and out of there at all hours." Soon, the two are talking excitedly about the house and the mill down the hill and the view of the water just beyond.

Gallagher has come past this house with many visitors who have sought her out in Port Angeles, Wash., since her husband died in 1988. All have come hoping to hear her memories of Raymond Carver, a writer whom obituaries called "the American Chekhov," and their numbers have included two newspapermen from Japan, a TV crew from the British Broadcasting Corp., another from PBS and a graduate student from Italy.

Gallagher continues her tour in Carver's Mercedes while her own Jeep Cherokee remains parked at home. The car moves slowly past the storefronts along 1st Street, a main drag that holds many memories for Gallagher: the store where she got her first pair of shoes; the bank where she opened her first account. She takes a left turn at the end of downtown, where huge stacks of Olympic Peninsula timber await shipment to Japan, and she heads up the steep hillside, then turns west. She pulls to a stop at a cemetery on a bluff overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca, where she and Carver loved to fish for salmon.

It is sunny, with a light breeze blowing in from the salt water, much like the August day when Carver, only 50, was buried here in a casket of burnished pine. Gallagher takes some supplies from the trunk of the car and soon busies herself cleaning Carver's gravestone, where her own name is already inscribed. She stoops down and brushes away dead flowers from the vast slab of black granite; she polishes it until she has removed all the marks left by the rains and the dust.

Even friends have questioned the size and scope of this memorial, its decorative iron stand supporting wind chimes; its granite bench, where visitors can sit and consider two pieces of Carver's poetry inscribed in the stone. But mostly, friends have wondered about Gallagher's willingness to stake a claim on her grave so soon, when she presumably has so much of her own life ahead. What if she were to remarry, some have asked. And doesn't this memorial display--only the date of her death needs to be added--doesn't this seem foreboding somehow or make her uneasy?

"It gives me a sense of peacefulness, of rightness," the 48-year-old Gallagher replies. "I will be proud to be next to Ray."

Tess Gallagher, people are learning, has her own way of life and of death and grief.

The sudden loss of a loved one leaves a scar on the soul that is slow to heal, and Gallagher's period of adjustment to her life without Carver has been particularly acute. For 11 years they had been not only friends and lovers but also writing partners--each other's best editor and sounding board, the inspiration to try forms of writing they abandoned long ago: poetry in Carver's case, short stories in Gallagher's. They shared growing acclaim, had works published to raves both in this country and abroad, won prizes and fellowships, gave popular readings in the United States, Europe, Argentina and Brazil. It was a life of artistic consequence that came together against daunting odds.

Carver and Gallagher met at a writers' conference in Dallas in 1977 and started their relationship in El Paso a year after that. They were hardly the best of prospects for each other, they knew. Both were products of hardscrabble childhoods in the Northwest, the offspring of fathers who labored in the lumber mills and drank away much of their meager paychecks. When they first met, Gallagher had two marriages behind her. The first, to a Marine fighter pilot, became a casualty of their separation during the Vietnam War. The second was to another writer. She'd fallen in love with his poems, then with him, only to discover that he was an alcoholic. Carver also was an alcoholic when they met, although he had recently quit drinking after doctors' warnings that it would kill him; he had a rapidly crumbling marriage, two unhappy children, two bankruptcies, a body ravaged by years of menial labor and the bottle, and he had not written anything in ages.

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