Another dawn in the village by the river
and I'm jealous of the 63 moons of Jupiter.
Out in the yard inspecting a lush lilac bush
followed by five dogs who have chosen
me as their temporary leader. I look up
through the vodka jangle of the night before,
straight up at least 30,000 feet where the mountains
are tipping over on me. Dizzy I grab the lilacs
for support. Of course it's the deceitful clouds
playing the game of becoming mountains.
Once on our nighttime farm on a moonlit walk
the clouds pushed by a big western wind
became a school of whales swimming hard
across the cold heavens and I finally knew
that we walk the bottom of an ocean we call sky.
– Jim Harrison (1937-2016)
(from Songs of Unreason. Port Townsend WA, Copper Canyon Press, © 2011)
I thought I was going to do a feature on Harrison under the 'I Wish I'd Written This' label, but am sad to discover he died of a heart attack in March 2016. I've only recently discovered him as a poet.
I once tried to read one of his novels (I forget which) and didn't last long. I disliked it intensely for both style and subject matter, and it quite put me off trying any others.
Aside: I also loathed the movie of his best-known fictional work, Legends of the Fall. (I thought it was Anthony Hopkins's least fine hour; and I have never considered Brad Pitt attractive in any way ... except in Thelma and Louise, even though the character he played was a rat-fink.) It's not entirely unfair of me to say this; Harrison was involved in writing the screenplay.
Well, you can now clearly see, I am not treating you to objective works of scholarship in these articles, so much as opinion!
I didn't know Harrison was a poet too until I read the blog of a woman who was writing poems based on his Songs of Unreason. (Who was that? Someone well-known in our blogospheric poetic family – if not Poets United, one of our sister or cousinly communities – but I can't for the life of me recall now.) I was so intrigued that I thought I must get the book.
When I did, I found that I love his poetry! And I was gratified to find out that he himself regarded it as his real calling, 'the true bones of my life', and the novels as a means to support himself as a writer.
Off and on I've had this dangerous golden touch
like a key to a slot machine streaming 20-dollar
gold pieces. It was so easy to buy expensive
French wine that purges the grim melancholy
of livelihood, the drudgery of concocting fibs.
(from 'Corruption', a poem in Songs of Unreason)
He wrote even more poetry than fiction – and he was a prolific fiction writer. His poetic vision strikes me as a blend of the surreal and the mystical. I love that he loves birds, dogs and rivers, with a deep love and true. He says, of his elderly dog, Mary:
'In the evening I lift her onto the couch despite her brush with a skunk, and we speak a bone-deep language without nouns and verbs, a creature-language skin to skin.'
So yes, I love this poet and I'm sorry he is dead already (at 78) and also glad that he obviously had a life he loved. (How often the word 'love' is coming up in connection with him.)
And why this poem? As with many others, I like the mix of heightened language with the simultaneously down-to-earth, immediate and colloquial. I like the quirky tone (I adore quirky). The phrase 'vodka jangle' might have done it for me all by itself. And most of all, I thrill all over at that unique, magnificent ending.
There are details about Harrison's life at Wikipedia and Poetry Foundation and in his New York Times obituary, but I think the liveliest and most thorough account of his life and work is the Guardian obituary.
This Google page will lead you to his poetry online and reviews of his work.
It was hard to find pictures of him free of copyright, so to show you what he looked like, I'm including two of his book covers which display his face: a memoir and – yes! – a book on food. Apparently he was a noted essayist on food, as well as everything else he did. A versatile writer indeed! As for the memoir, I'm sure I want to read that as well as his poetry.
You can find all his books at his Amazon page.
Material shared in 'The Living Dead' is presented for study and review. Poems, photos and other writings and images remain the property of the copyright owners, where applicable (older poems may be out of copyright)