Sunday Poetry: Morning, Thinking of Empire, by Raymond Carver

Morning, Thinking of Empire

We press our lips to the enameled rim of the cups
and know this grease that floats
over the coffee will one day stop our hearts.
Eyes and fingers drop onto silverware
that is not silverware. Outside the window, waves
beat against the chipped walls of the old city.
Your hands rise from the rough tablecloth
as if to prophesy. Your lips tremble …
I want to say to hell with the future.
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.
Your eyes film. You turn from me and look across
the rooftops at the sea. Even the flies are still.
I crack the other egg.
Surely we have diminished one another.

– by Raymond Carver

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This poem goes against most of what I like about poetry, but, still, I love its audacity. There is no rhyme and no meter – the poem is carried by the narrative of what he is saying, not how he is saying it.

The final line is a Carver classic – a dramatic opposition to the “You complete me” version of love that Hollywood sells us. The opposition is set up in the third line – hearts are something that clog with grease, not beat in burning unison.

One poetic tradition that is upheld in this poem is allusion. Carver’s short poem refers to several other famous poems dealing with the topic of love. My favorite poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock“, shows up in the hands and prophecy. “Dover Beach” is conjured by the beating waves. I’m sure there are more references rushing past, over my head.

What empire is Carver thinking of in the title? Is it whichever empire produced the old city with narrow streets? Is it the metaphorical empire of love poetry? Or is it simply a contrast to the diminished couple eating breakfast?

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