Suppose I say summer,
write the word “hummingbird,”
put it in an envelope,
take it down the hill
to the box. When you open
my letter you will recall
those days and how much,
just how much, I love you.
Raymond Carver, “Hummingbird”, A New Path to the Waterfall (1989). All of Us — The Collected Poems. Londres: The Harvill Press, 2003.
The poem’s title and dedication are, respectively, the content and receiver of the letter the poem describes; the poem is not the letter.
The letter contains one single word, the written shape of another word the poet says—he says summer and writes “hummingbird”. Everyone’s sufficiently acquainted with the gap between what one says, or thinks, and what ends up being written, but here the gap is fully acknowledged and carries a purpose. With the word “hummingbird”, the poet intends to awake in the receiver of the letter the memory of specific days while also making her remember the poet’s feelings for her.
A letter usually means sender and receiver are apart. Nevertheless, the poet says he will take the letter to the box down the hill, not to a post office. The way he describes her movements implies, on his part, the knowledge of a routine brought by physical proximity: he knows she is away, that she will be back and when she will be back (since he will have enough time to write the letter), and that when it happens she will open the mailbox and see the letter. The distance between them is not of the kind we first surmised.
The sundering that must be subdued may not be physical, but it’s there—if the receiver must recall days past, then present days fall short; the content of the letter aims at reunion: “hummingbird” refers to a particular shared moment, which in its turn corresponds to a feeling that both also recognize. The poet knows the receiver well enough to know his purpose will not be lost on her, without a chance of misunderstanding.
But the poem begins with a supposition. The poet did not say summer or wrote “hummingbird” anywhere else except in the poem itself. No envelope was taken to the box down the hill or opened by the one for whom it was intended. Still, the purpose is attained; not because the receiver will be able to read the poem, but because the poem becomes the realization of the purpose. Sure there will be no misunderstandings, though not due to the superior knowledge the poet possesses of the hypothetical receiver of the letter —there is simply no way the poem allows such a possibility.
The letter relates to the poem the same way summer relates to “hummingbird”; the supposition mentioned in the first line is the letter, the poem is real; the letter would be private, the poem is public. While visiting Paris, Carver and his son, Vance, take a tour of the graveyard at Montparnasse. Spotting a security guard, Carver ushers his son, fluent in French, to ask him what it takes to be buried there. The guard answers the graveyard is full. The anecdote may seem taken out of an “Americans visit Europe” anthology, but Carver could not have been more serious about it. Only the poem could grant him the recognition he craved for—no love letter would get him a place in a Montparnasse with no vacancies.
Helena Carneiro completed her Master at the Program in Literary Theory (University of Lisbon). She works as a redactor and as an editorial assistant at Imprensa da Universidade de Lisboa. People in her life have explained poetry to her. And she does enjoy Phillip Larkin, who, in his tombstone, has described himself as a “writer”.