jim harrison | five poems

5 01 2012

POETRY DISPATCH No. 362 | January 5, 2012



Editor’s Note: I just trashed a lead-in piece, essay, on Harrison that I spent too much of yesterday (and the afternoon of the day before) writing. I liked where it was going, but after a trip to town, after a cup of coffee and reflection, after I came back to the desk here in the coop, I was tired of the piece, tired of what we’ve done to Harrison, maybe even more tired of what Harrison has done to himself.

Success in American writing means the making of the myth. Then living up to it till it eventually kills you, spiritually if not physically. I don’t want to get started on this or I’ll spend another day or more writing that piece. I don’t want to be reminded of how many times Harrison has been compared to hard drinking, hard living, hard loving, hard writing Hemingway. And how the myths sometime converge. But…

Fuck it! (I’m angry). Harrison may be our Hemingway of today (he may have even preened himself for this distinction through time…including what seems his present, ‘heroic’ road to self-destruction), but he is not Hemingway. He is Harrison. In some ways, a better writer than Hemingway. Certainly a better poet. Certainly a fuller grasp of the narrative of the natural landscape of America (the Midwest in particular), how it speaks, what it says, how it saves us from ourselves…how it shapes Harrison’s words far beyond the Nick Adams Stories.

Forget the myth. Forget the photographs. Go to the work. There you’ll find him. — Norbert Blei


Back in the blue chair in front of the green studio
another year has passed, or so they say, but calendars lie.
They’re a kind of cosmic business machine like
their cousin clocks but break down at inoppormne times.
Fifty years ago I learned to jump off the calendar
but I kept getting drawn back on for reasons
of greed and my imperishable stupidity.
Of late I’ve escaped those fatal squares
with their razor-sharp numbers for longer and longer.
I had to become the moving water I already am,
falling back into the human shape in order
not to frighten my children, grandchildren, dogs and friends.
Our old cat doesn’t care. He laps the water where my face used to be.

[from IN SEARCH OF SMALL GODS, Copper Canyon Press, 2010, $16, pb.]

I Believe

I believe in steep drop-offs, the thunderstorm across the lake
in 1949, cold winds, empty swimming pools,
the overgrown path to the creek, raw garlic,
used tires, taverns, saloons, bars, gallons of red wine,
abandoned farmhouses, stunted lilac groves,
gravel roads that end, brush piles, thickets, girls
who haven’t quite gone totally wild, river eddies,
leaky wooden boats, the smell of used engine oil,
turbulent rivers, lakes without cottages lost in the woods,
the primrose growing out of a cow skull, the thousands
of birds I’ve talked to all of my life, the dogs
that talked back, the Chihuahuan ravens that follow
me on long walks. The rattler escaping the cold hose,
the fluttering unknown gods that I nearly see
from the left corner of my blind eye, struggling
to stay alive in a world that grinds them underfoot.

[from IN SEARCH OF SMALL GODS, Copper Canyon Press, 2010, $16, pb. ]


I’m hoping to be astonished tomorrow
by I don’t know what:
not the usual undiscovered bird in the cold
snowy willows, garishly green and yellow,
and not my usual death, which I’ve done
before with Borodin’s music
used in Kismet, and angels singing
“Stranger in Paradise,” that sort of thing,
and not the thousand naked women
running a marathon in circles around me
while I swivel on a writerly chair
keeping an eye on my favorites.
What could it be, this astonishment,
but falling into a liquid mirror
to finally understand that the purpose
of earth is earth? It’s plain as night.
She’s willing to sleep with us a little while.

[from IN SEARCH OF SMALL GODS, Copper Canyon Press, 2010, $16, pb. ]


To remember you’re alive
visit the cemetery of your father
at noon after you’ve made love
and are still wrapped in a mammalian
odor that you are forced to cherish.
Under each stone is someone’s inevitable
surprise, the unexpected death
of their biology that struggled hard, as it must.
Now to home without looking back,
enough is enough.
En route buy the best wine
you can afford and a dozen stiff brooms.
Have a few swallows then throw the furniture
out the window and begin sweeping.
Sweep until the walls are
bare of paint and at your feet sweep
until the floor disappears. Finish the wine
in this field of air, return to the cemetery
in evening and wind through the stones
a slow dance of your name visible only to birds.

[from SONGS OF UNREASON, Copper Canyon Press, 2011, hb, $22]

Death Again

Let’s not get romantic or dismal about death.
Indeed it’s our most unique act along with birth.
We must think of it as cooking breakfast,
it’s that ordinary. Break two eggs into a bowl
or break a bowl into two eggs. Slip into a coffin
after the fluids have been drained, or better yet,
slide into the fire. Of course it’s a little hard
to accept your last kiss, your last drink,
your last meal about which the condemned
can be quite particular as if there could be
a cheeseburger sent by God. A few lovers
sweep by the inner eye, but it’s mostly a placid
lake at dawn, mist rising, a solitary loon
call, and staring into the still, opaque water.
We’ll know as children again all that we are
destined to know, that the water is cold
and deep, and the sun penetrates only so far.

[from SONGS OF UNREASON, Copper Canyon Press, 2011, hb, $22 ]



31 responses

5 01 2012
Doug Draime

Bravo for these motherfuckers! They dig into you like a shovel. It doesn’t get any better than this

5 01 2012
David Dix sr

‘A mammalian odor you are forced to cherish.’

Means a lot to me.

6 01 2012
Alice D'Alessio

Wow! How have I missed this? I’ve read mostly his prose before. Love this. Love his tough gnarly sensibility. Another book to buy – after telling myself I had enough (yes, I know. Silly, silly). He certainly is showing the effects of his hard living…

6 01 2012
Ralph Murre

Thanks for posting these good words. Having read most of what the man’s written (but not Songs of Unreason, yet), I think it’s useless to try to compare him with anyone, particularly with any other living North American. He’s not so much a magic realist as a workaday surrealist. Common sense out of nonsense and back again. Harrison will live himself to death, sure, but he will have lived, and I think his novellas and his poems will live for a long time after, though they’re unlikely to make it on to many university reading lists, because they talk to, and about, real (non-academic) people living real (non-academic) lives.

14 03 2012
Michael Koehler

Harrison is a force of nature, no matter what form of poetry you prefer, his poems bowl you over.

6 01 2012
John Bennett

I like Norb’s intro and I like very much Harrison’s poems. I don’t have any use for myths and I dislike the way they intrude into any fine piece of writing; it’s irrelevant how a great and true poem got that way, and Harrison’s poems are great and true.

6 01 2012
Robert M. Zoschke

Harrison and his creative work would not exist if not for the Guggenheim Grant World and Harrison’s Academician World fellow Teacher and Administrator friends who have GIVEN him the money he certainly did not earn from the public buying his books. All of those GRANTS have enabled to enable the fable of his Hemingwayesque Being. Anyone unaware of this reality has simply not read Harrison’s memoir, where he admits to all of that, where, in fact, he admits that he was such a hopalong-to-nowheresville that he would have been belly-up without even a teaching gig good enough to provide for his family if an old friend of his suddenly connected to The Guggenheim Foundation didn’t make it a personal mission to get a Grant Application completed for Harrison “in the nick of deadline time” to GIVE Harrison the money his writing was not earning in the marketplace. All of this meaning, he is a far cry in comparison terms to Hemingway, who lived his life on the proceeds of entertaining the multitudes so well that they paid for his writing and paid for his writing and paid for his writing, most gladly.

6 01 2012
Ralph Murre

Rob, I have indeed read that memoir, and while what you say is not explicitly wrong, I think it is implicitly full of shit. Harrison writes circles around most anybody out there because he has lived the life, and what’s so much more important for a writer, he has observed and written about the life and lives going on around him. Hemingway wrote about Hemingway. While Harrison indeed owes a great deal to some people connected with academia, he’s sure as hell not their little goodboy, and he bailed out of that life at the first opportunity. I think too, that we might remember that Hemingway did his writing at a time when people actually BOUGHT books, so making a living off of writing then was a little different gig.

5 07 2013
Bill Metzger

Harrison is in a league of his own. As a former (recovering) Hemingway apologist except for “The Sun Also Rises” Ernest can’t touch my new hero Harrison.

21 10 2016
Oscar Houck

We can only assume you’ve been denied some GRANTS along the way. Why else this obsession silly enough that you’d make a fool of yourself over someone whose work and life you know so little of? Hemingway was Hemingway and Harrison was Harrison. Thank God for both of them. As for getting paid for writing, you have to be willing to do it for free, for as long as it takes, before anyone might notice you and pay you for it. There are artists and then there are hacks praying for grants to validate them. Thankfully, Harrison was singing for the sake of the song, from day one until the day he died with pen in hand. He’d be the first to tell you that art has nothing to with getting paid, as you so grotesquely put it. Most of the best writers in America have to teach to make a living. Harrison was lucky enough to stay on the outside of academia, by dint of a work ethic few can imagine, much less match. To imply that he didn’t pay his dues or deserve every penny that came his way is not only just plain wrong, it’s shameful. Read his “A Domestic Poem for Portia.” If you are so inclined, look it up in his wonderful collection, The Shape of the Journey. The poem encapsulates the early, lean days of his career and also serves as a reminder of his affirmation of life and his determination to keep writing, against all odds, because he loved the work. “This is all there is.” If you can read this poem and the rest of the book, and still hold on to the crazy notion that anyone handed him anything he didn’t fully deserve, God bless you.

6 01 2012

Have been reading Harrison’s novels all winter and the poems are a distillation that sometimes recall different scenes in DALVA, THE ROAD HOME, TRUE NORTH. His words send me off on explorations, large, small, within, without. Haven’t read his autobiography, didn’t know about his personal life,and am not attached to who paid, how, or weighing what the price fluctuations might be for a human soul. In DALVA, a Cree Indian asks, “What do stories do when they are not being told?”

7 01 2012
Beverly Penn

I’ve loved Harrison since the first time I read his work. His voice is unrepeatable; everything is figured through nature, but there is also a hidden strength, perhaps even brutality to it all. Thank you for posting these.

8 01 2012

Some of these ought to be read aloud with Leadbelly wailing gritty songs in the background.

14 03 2012
Michael Koehler

Norb, thank you so much for sharing this. Harrison has been on my shelf many years. His duo with Ted Kooser, “Braided Creek” always fills me with joy.

17 05 2012
A.g. Synclair

He is a remarkable poet. “Broom” is art, pure and simple.

20 05 2012
D. Martin Lanzone

As a point of interest JH made some good money, which bought some good land, from writing screen plays. Grants, Guggenheim and otherwise were a short leg up for a short time – not a leg.

28 05 2012

I have just begun to read Harrison and am bowled over by his narrative imagination, his fresh eye, his agricultural viewpoint, and his pscyhological courage. All of this comes with a certain amount of swagger, admittedly, but then I’m not sure that he could have accessed the rest, particular his imaginative story telling, without the swagger.

I don’t see what the grant money has to do with anything. Some grant money is wasted, some, no doubt, corruptly directed and some, as in Harrison’s case, a great investment. Life is contingent upon many things: ambition and will power, genes, era you live in, diet, parents, dogs you’ve lived with, etc., with grant money fairly far down the list, I’d say.

6 09 2013
Ana Pérez

I am so in love with Jim Harrison’s writing, prose and poetry, that I don’t want to read anybody else. I cannot find anybody to compare him with, he’s perfect and unique in his style; reading him just gives me the greatest pleasure of my life!

17 01 2014
Dale Canning

I’ve lived most of my life convinced that, as someone raised in a far northern New York trailer-park, but compelled to read voraciously and write in an equally earnest fashion, my experience was relatively unique. That was until I was turned on to Harrison. I read The Raw and the Cooked in Esquire Magazine well before I realized who he was, but I was entranced by his style. I love that the same mouth feel comes with much of his other writing. He seems to flavor each story with pan drippings – not so patiently standing over an alder wood fire, scraping the brown specs of life into a delicious and decadent gravy which is to be eaten hot from the pan, perhaps naked and in questionable company, preferably with an ill-gotten bottle of the best wine. Long live this magnificent bastard.

27 03 2016

Reblogged this on R.M. ENGELHARDT and commented:
Some people hear their own inner voices with great clearness. And they live by what they hear. Such people become crazy… or they become legend. ”

~ Jim Harrison RIP

28 03 2016
Ryan Dowling

Great poems. Great poet.


1 06 2016
kenneth lockridge

He’s gone now. Thanks, Jim, thanks to you we can face life, death.

13 06 2016
Revival #4 – ifeOluwa's rambles

[…] Last week, in a mail to I, I wrote: “I’ve spent too much money replacing lost or broken things this year.” Since I sent that, I’ve thought about the sentence sans ‘money’. At the time, I was writing about my lost internet modem, but I could have been speaking about everything else. I’ve lost friends, lost opportunities, lost time. I used to sing Time Is On My Side with confidence after watching Fallen as kid. Not anymore. Now I tell myself time’s a goon and it’s coming for me. These days, someone is always reminding me that I’m not growing any younger. (Today it was WordPress telling me it’s been four years since I registered on the site.) Life would be bleak if everything was logged in the loss column. I’ve gained a lot too—friends, opportunities, almost as much as I’ve lost. But I’m not sure gaining time is what I’m aiming for anymore. I really just want to ‘jump off the calendar’. So, here’s Jim Harrison: […]

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[…] “We’ll know as children again all that we are destined to know, that the water is cold and deep, and the sun penetrates only so far” ~ Jim Harrison from Death Again […]

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[…] We’ll know as children again all that we are destined to know, that the water is cold and deep, and the sun penetrates only so far” ~ Jim Harrison from Death Again […]

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[…] “We’ll know as children again all that we are destined to know, that the water is cold and deep, and the sun penetrates only so far” ~ Jim Harrison from Death Again […]

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[…] “We’ll know as children again all that we are destined to know, that the water is cold and deep, and the sun penetrates only so far” ~ Jim Harrison from Death Again […]

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[…] We’ll know as children again all that we are destined to know, that the water is cold and deep, and the sun penetrates only so far” ~ Jim Harrison from Death Again […]

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[…] “We’ll know as children again all that we are destined to know, that the water is cold and deep, and the sun penetrates only so far” ~ Jim Harrison from Death Again […]

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[…] “We’ll know as children again all that we are destined to know, that the water is cold and deep, and the sun penetrates only so far” ~ Jim Harrison from Death Again […]

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