Jim Harrison Complete Poems

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Jim Harrison’s Complete Poems: Both Great and Outdoors

In “The Whisper,” one of the last poems he wrote before death finally caught up with him, Jim Harrison wrote: “But birds/lead us outside where we belong./Around here all the gods live in trees.

If you don’t get outside as much as you should (and, chances are, you don’t), you can at least get the vicarious thrill (and I would say a convincing argument) by reading the 900-plus paged Jim Harrison Complete Poems.

Though Harrison loved food, drink, and women, his first and most enduring love was the great outdoors. His poetry shows it. Among his gods, he shows greatest devotion to birds, fish, and dogs. And a keen eye for weather, land, and water. Harrison names things with a guide’s eye, and though any lifetime collection of poetry will be uneven, the reader can’t help but appreciate the voice, strong and friendly, that acts like Virgil guiding us through the book. Better yet, the voice only gets stronger as it wends its casual way to the end, too.

Many of the poems are built on memory. A good example is this tale of Harrison’s grandfather:

 

What He Said When I Was Eleven

 

August, a dense heat wave at the cabin

mixed with torrents of rain,

the two-tracks become miniature rivers.

 

In the Russian Orthodox Church

one does not talk to God, one sings.

This empty and sun-blasted land

 

has a voice rising in shimmers.

I did not sing in Moscow

but St. Basil’s in Leningrad raised

 

a quiet tune. But now seven worlds

away I hang the cazas-moscas

from the ceiling and catch seven flies

 

in the first hour, buzzing madly

against the stickiness. I’ve never seen

the scissor-tailed flycatcher, a favorite

 

bird of my youth, the worn Audubon

card pinned to the wall. When I miss

flies three times with the swatter

 

they go free for good. Fair is fair.

There is too much nature pressing against

the window as if it were a green night;

 

and the river swirling in glazed turbulence

is less friendly than ever before.

Forty years ago she called, Come home, come home,

 

It’s suppertime. I was fishing a fishless

cattle pond with a new three-dollar pole,

dreaming the dark blue ocean of pictures.

 

In the barn I threw down hay

while my Swede grandpa finished milking,

squirting the barn cat’s mouth with an udder.

 

I kissed the wet nose of my favorite cow,

drank a dipper of fresh warm milk

and carried two pails to the house,

 

scraping the manure off my feet

in the pump shed. She poured the milk

in the cream separator and I began cranking.

 

At supper the oilcloth was decorated

with worn pink roses. We ate cold herring,

also bluegills we had caught at daylight.

 

The fly-strip above the table idled in

the window’s breeze, a new fly in its death buzz.

Grandpa said, “We are all flies.”

 

That’s what he said forty years ago.

 

As he ages, Harrison grows more philosophical and tangos frankly with the more apparent subject of death. It only adds greater depth to his wisdom, nature being the perfect metaphor for the birth-death-birth cycle that so fascinated him.

 

Midnight Blues Planet

 

We’re marine organisms at the bottom of the ocean

of air. Everywhere esteemed nullities rule our days.

How ineluctably we travel from our preembryonic

state to so much dead meat on the ocean’s hard floor.

There is this song of ice in our hearts. Here we struggle

mightily to keep our breathing holes opened

from the lid of suffocation. We have misunderstood the stars.

Clocks make our lives a slow-motion frenzy. We can’t get

off the screen back into the world where we could live.

Every so often we hear the current of night music

from the gods who swim and fly as we once did.

 

Though he wrote novels, novellas, and essays, Harrison considered himself first and foremost a poet, making this lifetime collection that much more important to his legacy. Some compare him to Charles Bukowski (who had less of a connection with the natural world) and Ernest Hemingway (who lacked Harrison’s humor and gentle empathy), but neither comparison is fair. Harrison is Harrison, a one-eyed sage of the flower and fauna, river and ruin. Here is an example of his dark humor:

 

 

Poet Warning

He went to sea

in a thimble of poetry

without sail or oars

or anchor. What chance

do I have, he thought?

Hundreds of thousands

of moons have drowned out here

and there are no gravestones.

 

And here one of love for his wife on the occasion of their 50th anniversary. As is true with many of his works, he approaches subjects tangentially before hitting on this topic – the sort of thing a teacher of poetry would warn you against. Note, too, how he mines some of the same material as “What He Said When I Was Eleven,” only this time, being decades later, with a more mature approach.

 

Our Anniversary

 

I want to go back to the wretched old farm

on a cold November morning eating herring

on the oil tablecloth at daylight, the hard butter

in slivers and chunks on rye bread, gold-colored

homemade butter. Fill the woodbox, Jimmy.

Clots of cream in the coffee, hiss and crackle

of woodstove. Outside it’s been the hardest freeze

yet but the heels still break through into the earth.

A winter farm is dead and you want to head for the woods.

In the barn the smell of manure and still-green hay

hit the nose with the milk in the metal pails.

Grandpa is on the last of seven cows,

tugging their dicklike udders a squirt in the mouth

for the barn cat. My girlfriend loves another

and at twelve it’s as if all the trees have died.

Sixty years later seven hummingbirds at the feeder,

miniature cows in their stanchions sipping liquid sugar.

We are fifty years together. There are still trees.

 

 

Harrison is what is known as an “approachable” poet in that his style and topic matter is earthly. He is not one to tackle style or form. Rather, free verse is the lingua franca of his land. Don’t be fooled, however. His allusions have deep roots. Harrison read the best and used their names and experiences to leaven his own poetry. In these collected works, you will meet the likes of Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Frederico García Lorca, Apollinaire, Rimbaud, Virgil, W.C. Williams, René Char, Ikkyū, César Vallejo, Octavio Paz, Su Tung P’o, and, famously (thanks to his collection Letters to Yesenin), Sergei Yesenin.

Whether you read this hefty book cover-to-cover or use it as a side-dipper while reading others, you will feel, at the end, like you are saying farewell to a good friend and, in doing so, saying hello to your own approaching end. Thinking about his boyhood days, Harrison finishes the poem “Seven in the Woods” with these words: “It is the burden of life to be many ages/without seeing the end of time.” And in “The Present,” he meditates on birds yet again before ending on this note of a lifetime: “The cost of flight is landing.”

Alas, Jim Harrison has landed, but reading his collected work in the genre he considered most important, we can only give thanks for what he learned during his long, migratory flight.

Tempted to Give Up? You’re Not Alone

 

It’s on everybody’s lips: These are dark days, especially between the pandemic and politics. I’m of two minds, torn between the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other. One preaches activism, the other isolation. One says get more involved. The other says quit while you’re behind. Trouble is, I can’t tell which is advocating which.

By way of explanation, here’s a little context: Thirty years ago, my wife and I rented a cottage on a lake with our young children. A pine cabin, it stood on concrete blocks and was equipped with electricity and running water thanks to a pump drawing water from the lake.

When vacationing there, we did not bother with a television or newspapers. For two weeks, we simply read books, played cards and board games, had conversations, swam in the water, dozed on the sun-drenched dock, and listened to the occasional Red Sox game on AM radio.

In effect, there was no “out there.” The world as we knew it was put on hold. Instead, it simply consisted of lake, woods, and a cabin seemingly ignorant of time. No politics. No crime. No national or international news. This isolation was a balm for the soul – and what’s good for the soul is good for the body.

If stress is so bad for us, it can be argued that turning in and logging off is a great strategy for healing and staying healthy. Thoreau, I’m sure, would approve. Yet for all his walks in the woods and stays in a cabin by Walden, Thoreau was also an activist fighting hard for the abolitionist cause and a man who spent time in jail for civil disobedience.

That’s why, as soon as I get comfortable with the warm blanket of escapism, I wonder about being a better Citizen of the World. Or, even more difficult, about my own country. If the Republic we all grew up pledging allegiance to is in trouble, don’t we owe it to the Founding Fathers to get involved? To speak up? To do something about saving it before all hell breaks loose and we fall into “soft fascism” á la Hungary – and all because of one man’s untreated psychological problems and a cable “news” channel that is doing Russia’s dirty work by spreading misinformation and division (thank you, Comrade Carlson)?

It’s questions like this that invite cloud cover over memories of those halcyon days at the lake. On one side I get an earful: Wouldn’t it look selfish and foolish to make like an ostrich and bury your head in the sand just because you just can’t deal with it anymore?

Then, in the other ear, another: If Covid wars, culture wars, and history repeating itself to the refrain of the 1930’s are only shortening your life, don’t you owe it to yourself to pull back from it all and breathe, Zen-like?

I don’t have any answers. I hear both figures on both shoulders, but sometimes it’s unclear who has the halo and who has the pitchfork, who advocates for the light and who for the dark. Nothing is obvious, and on any given day, my thoughts lean gray as dawn and dusk.

Here’s a Maggie Smith poem that speaks, in its own poetic way, to our assumptions about right and wrong being as easy as light and dark. In a way, it reminds me of the light and dark plying my ears!

How Dark the Beginning

All we ever talk of is light—

let there be light, there was light then,

good light—but what I consider

dawn is darker than all that.

So many hours between the day

receding and what we recognize

as morning, the sun cresting

like a wave that won’t break

over us—as if light were protective,

as if no hearts were flayed,

no bodies broken on a day

like today. In any film,

the sunrise tells us everything

will be all right. Danger wouldn’t

dare show up now, dragging

its shadow across the screen.

We talk so much of light, please

let me speak on behalf

of the good dark. Let us

talk more of how dark

the beginning of a day is.

 

One of my favorite phrases from the Bible is “Through a glass darkly.” These days, I see a lot of things “through a glass darkly” because so much is sinister in a déjà vu kind of way.

Is it selfish to brighten my own life? Might I then be accused of contributing to the dark forces by failing to assist the various causes for good?

Smith’s poem seems to speak to things that have crawled out of dark sewers and into the light of day. They are the new normal, and they are decidedly encouraged by each other and by their newfound freedom to operate with impunity in fresh air and sunlight. They see each other and are emboldened by each other.

That may be far from Smith’s intent, but the reader-writer compact tells us that there’s a gray area between light and dark, not only come dawn and dusk, but come our daily deliberations over how much or little to be agents of change — and at what cost.

 

A Word to the Wise: Jim Harrison Goes Aphoristic

I am wending my way through the late Jim Harrison’s Complete Poems – almost 900 pages of them. A prolific writer, Harrison wrote before his death, “This book is the portion of my life that means the most to me. I’ve written a goodly number of novels and novellas but they sometimes strike me as extra, burly flesh on the true bones of my life, though a few of them approach some of the conditions of poetry.”

Here are a few of the aphoristic stanzas from one of the books, Braided Creek, included in this collection:

All those years

I had in my pocket.

I spent them,

nickel-and-dime.

 

All I want to be

is a thousand blackbirds

bursting from a tree,

seeding the sky.

 

On every topographic map,

the fingerprints of God.

 

The biomass of ants,

their total weight on earth,

exceeds our own.

They welcome us to their world

of small homes, hard work, big women.

 

When Time picks apples,

it eats them with the yellow teeth

of bees.

 

I might have been a welder,

kneeling at a fountain of sparks

in my mask of stars

 

Midday silence is different

from nighttime silence.

I can’t tell you how.

 

Between the four pads

of a dog’s foot,

the fragrance of grass.

 

What if everyone you loved

were still alive? That’s the province

of the young, who don’t know it.

 

I’m sixty-two and can drop dead

at any moment. Thinking this in August

I kissed the river’s cold moving lips.

 

A welcome mat of moonlight

on the floor. Wipe your feet

before getting into bed.

 

I was born a baby.

What has been

added?

 

Treasure what you find

already in your pocket, friend.

Parlez-Vous English?

Thanks to Netflix, I’ve learned that I don’t understand English as well as I thought. I’ve seen more than one British-based show, but the one that’s taking it out of me is the darker-than-dark After Life, starring Ricky Gervais. I admit as much here: At times I’m completely lost and only picking up 40% of what’s being said. Maybe it’s English I speak well and British that gives me fits. Cornwallis’s revenge? I can hear him now: “Tea party that, mate!”

You Carry Your Breath Everywhere, So Why Ignore It?

Recently I’ve been making like George Harrison (one of two departed Beatles) by getting into a book about Indian spiritualism. As a break from reading Fyodor Dostoevsky’s ponderous Brothers Karamazov, I picked up Jay Shetty’s Think Like a Monk

Turns out, monk-like thoughts suit me well. Unlike most self-help books, this one didn’t come across as so much reheated claptrap. Shetty, a British-born Indian, disappointed his parents by passing on becoming a lawyer or doctor and instead flying to India to join an ashram. There he learned a lot about hardship and spiritualism thanks to one of the oldest civilizations in the world. 

Unfortunately, health concerns eventually forced him back to England, where he decided to parlay all he’d learned about himself from various holy men by writing a book. The spin? He shows how a few practices and a more Eastern mindset can be put to good effect in the hustle of modern Western life. Reading it, you realize just how much room for improvement there is when it comes to your spiritual side. First and foremost is dealing with the ego.

Sound easy? Listen again.

 

Into the Fray on Valentine’s Day

February 14th has never been my favorite day. I mean, really. A day to prove your love to someone? Shouldn’t that be every day? And to make matters worse, there’s the flower shortage to confound last-minute shoppers (the ones carrying Y chromosomes, typically). Be prepared to say it with chocolates, gentlemen. Or a backrub. Or a Covid-free restaurant (I’m almost sure one’s out there). 

Into clever word-play, maybe? Try saying it with flour!

Or you can do what I do. Take a page out of Hallmark’s book (and bottom line) by creating your own card. My wife has saved them since time immemorial (also known as “1982”). Not sure what will become of them when the prefix “im-” invades our “permanence,” but that’s OK. I won’t much care by then.