Thursday, April 2, 2020

Jim Harrison—National Poetry Month 2020

Grizzled is the word that comes to mind for reclusive poet Jim Harrison in his last years.

Poet and novelist Jim Harrison was an outlier—semi-reclusive, curmudgeonly, prone to profound melancholy and ecstatic joy in nature.  “Someone has to stay outside,” he told his friend and admirer Dean Kuipers who wrote “by which he meant both outdoors and outside academia. He felt writing programs turned people into copyists.”

Harrison was a prolific and versatile writer publishing over three dozen books in several genres including poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and children’s literature. He also wrote screenplays, book reviews, literary criticism, and published essays on food, travel, and sport. He published 24 novellas during his lifetime and is considered America’s foremost master of that form.

His first commercial success came with the 1979 publication of the trilogy of novellas, Legends of the Fall, two of which were made into movies including the 1994 epic historical western drama directed by Edward Zwick and starring Brad Pitt, Anthony Hopkins, Aidan Quinn, Julia Ormond, and Henry Thomas.

 Harrison's work has been translated into multiple languages including French, Greek, Chinese, and Russian.  He was the recipient of multiple awards and honors including a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1969, the Mark Twain Award for distinguished contributions to Midwestern literature in 1990, and induction into the American Academy of Arts & Letters in 2007.  He wrote that “The dream that I could write a good poem, a good novel, or even a good movie for that matter, has devoured my life.”

But he maintained that of all his writing, his poetry meant the most to him. 

Harrison with his daughters Jamie and Anna.

Harrison was born on December 11, 1937 to a county agriculture agent and his wife in rural Grayling, Michigan.  At the age of seven he was blinded in one eye in an accident which deeply affected his life and outlook.  He graduated from high school in 1956. In 1959, he married Linda King, with whom he had two daughters. He was educated at Michigan State University, where he received a BA in 1960 and a MA in comparative literature in 1964. When he was 24, in 1962, his father and sister Judy died in an automobile accident, a severe emotional trauma for him.  After a single year as an Assistant Professor of English at Stony Brook University in 1965–‘66, he permanently abandoned academia and turned to writing full time. 

Much of Harrison’s writing is set in sparsely populated regions like Nebraska’s Sand Hills, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Montana’s mountains, and along the Arizona–Mexico border. He lived in both Patagonia, Arizona, and Livingston, Montana.

His wife left him a widower in 2015 after he tendered her failing health.  As he predicted to a friend with nothing to live for, he followed on March 26, 2016at age 78 .  In his final original book of poetry, Dead Man’s Float he contemplated aging and death.

Seven in the Woods

Am I as old as I am?
Maybe not. Time is a mystery
that can tip us upside down.
Yesterday I was seven in the woods,
a bandage covering my blind eye,
in a bedroll Mother made me
so I could sleep out in the woods
far from people. A garter snake glided by
without noticing me. A chickadee
landed on my bare toe, so light
she wasn’t believable. The night
had been long and the treetops
thick with a trillion stars. Who
was I, half-blind on the forest floor
who was I at age seven? Sixty-eight
years later I can still inhabit that boy’s
body without thinking of the time between.
It is the burden of life to be many ages
without seeing the end of time.

—Jim Harrison

Old Man

An old man is a spindly junk pile.
He is so brittle he can fall
through himself top to bottom.
No mirror is needed to see the layers
of detritus, some years clogged with it.
The red bloody layer of auto deaths
of dad and sister. Deaths piled like cordwood
at the cabin, the body 190 pounds of ravaged
nerve ends from disease. The junk pile is without
sympathy for itself. A life is a life,
lived among birds and forests and fields.
It knew many dogs, a few bears and wolves.
Some women said they wanted to murder him
but what is there worth murdering?
The body, of course, the criminal body
doing this and that. Some will look
for miraculous gold nuggets in the junk
and find a piece of fool’s gold in the empty
cans of menudo, a Mexican tripe stew.

—Jim Harrison


Most of my life was spent
building a bridge out over the sea
though the sea was too wide.
I’m proud of the bridge
hanging in the pure sea air. Machado
came for a visit and we sat on the
end of the bridge, which was his idea.
Now that I’m old the work goes slowly.
Ever nearer death, I like it out here
high above the sea bundled
up for the arctic storms of late fall,
the resounding crash and moan of the sea,
the hundred-foot depth of the green troughs.
Sometimes the sea roars and howls like
the animal it is, a continent wide and alive.
What beauty in this the darkest music
over which you can hear the lightest music of human
behavior, the tender connection between men and galaxies.
So I sit on the edge, wagging my feet above
the abyss. Tonight the moon will be in my lap.
This is my job, to study the universe
from my bridge. I have the sky, the sea, the faint
green streak of Canadian forest on the far shore.

—Jim Harrison

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