Poems from Paintings: A Collaboration

In 1994, six years after my husband Raymond Carver’s death, I met Josie Gray. He was the brother of one of my oldest Irish friends, Eileen MacDonagh. In 1986, I’d met Eileen through her youngest sister, Dymphna, who’d been working with me in the “dress circle” of theaters in London, selling programs and chocolates to make a little spare money. At the time, Eileen was raising her four children on the shores of Lough Arrow. My first husband was then in the Vietnam War and I had fled America for England, then Ireland to escape the images of body bags on TV and the sense of a country gone wrong. In fact, one of Eileen’s children, Yvonne, became the first reader of my poems as I drafted them for Under Stars, working in a caravan situated in a field near the Abby Ballindoon — Yeats Country, County Sligo.

Yvonne’s favorite uncle happened to be Josie Gray, though I only learned of Josie after Yvonne’s death many years later. She had passed away at a young age from spinal cancer, leaving behind her husband of one year, along with a bereft family and many friends. Moreover, learning of Josie was inextricably linked to hearing of Yvonne’s death. Josie had caught a beautiful brown trout in Lough Arrow near their home and he had sent the trout down to Dublin where she languished in hospital, unable to eat anything. Her brother Joseph cooked it and carried it to her. She began to eat the fish and she said: “I never tasted anything so good in my life as this trout from Lough Arrow caught by Josie Gray. Tell him for me.”

For me, poems have always been the “brown trout” I’ve tried to send when I wanted to make that intimate connection with myself on behalf of others or with them directly.

It is a small story. Why it haunts me I don’t know. But the magic of the brown trout caught by the favorite uncle and consumed in a hospital room at a time of critical illness moves me. It marks the way in which we try to give the thing we can to make an intimate connection with our beloveds when they need it most.

For me, poems have always been the “brown trout” I’ve tried to send when I wanted to make that intimate connection with myself on behalf of others or with them directly. After Yvonne’s death, I wrote a poem for her that was used on her memorial card. Josie with his trout, me with my poem — ways to accompany Yvonne at a distance. Ways further to make a sign that space and presence can be collapsed, can be transformed through such gifts, through the right gesture, through art.

After our meeting in Ireland, Josie visited me in the Northwest in 1994. He was not a painter at that time. But he was an excellent storyteller, and I began immediately to try to make a written form for his stories. Dan Bourne saw fit to publish some of these in Artful Dodge, and they were subsequently published in Doubletake and The Bellingham Review.

Oil Spot
BY Josie Gray
READ Tess Gallagher’s Poem

When I first met Josie there was the sense that he loved to make discoveries, an ingenuity of spirit that was searching for its form. I took note of his pure enjoyment of light on water, of flowers in the garden, of sky shiftings, of light shattering through clouds, even glowery days that refused rain but hooded us with expectation. He delighted in intensities of color. His eye was hungry, deep, curious, pensive.

Out of these observations came my remark to him one day that he should “try painting.” Little did I know that these two words would launch us into a collaborative venture that would enlarge both our private intimacy and our public, artistic reach. Indeed, along with welcoming and encouraging the paintings as well as finding galleries to show the work, both in Ireland and America, I also helped to title them.

Now, it is sixteen years since Josie began to paint, exploring oil on board and canvas, watercolor and gauche. He settled on this last medium because it allows intensity of color combined with water-based mobility and the possibility to “build up” an effect. And there has been an effect. From the first Josie has had access to “something” as Nick Miller, a British painter in Ross’s Point, put it — a something that goes beyond what many painters who’d gone to school could offer.

At times, Josie’s self-taught landscapes invite us to name them in various unexpected ways, even in Irish, which Josie had grown up hearing from his grandparents. He’d even learned some at school, though half-heartedly. Usually, the phrases were drawn from a phrase book I’d picked up during my travels and sojourns in Ireland since 1968. But other times our titles might come from Japanese words and phrases or even Zen concepts such as with “Moon’s Rainbow Body” — the Rainbow Body being the scant remains (hair and fingernails) of a fully evolved (but usually unassuming) Buddhist practitioner, who at their death returns to the elements in a blast of light, leaving only remnants.

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