On the last day of September, 2015, I cooked a simple pomodoro pasta for writer Jim Harrison at his house near the Yellowstone River in Montana’s Paradise Valley. I chopped tomatoes grown by his wife, Linda, and I could see the little garden out there as the cottonwood trees released the last of the summer light. She was gravely ill, and while Harrison and I were talking she had called from the hospital to tell him he’d better come in the morning because she was near the end.
I was thinking about this night as I read the new posthumous collection, Jim Harrison: The Essential Poems (Copper Canyon, May 2019). In this unforgiving literary moment, we must deal honestly with his life and work, as they are inextricable in a way that is not true of other poets. Harrison was a man of gluttonous appetites for sadness, for food, for a 1982 Petrus, for full immersion (if not reclusion) in nature, for the legs of a young woman not his wife that he could throw his arms around and declare that he’d found a reason to go on living. His resonant, necessary poems are even hungrier, and more demanding of proof that living matters. These poems bear-crawl gorgeously after a genuine connection to being, thrashing in giant leaps through the underbrush to find consolation, purpose, and redemption. In his raw, original keening he ambushes moments of unimaginable beauty, one after another, line after line. Harrison digs in the dirt and finds the stars.
At nineteen I began to degenerate,
slight smell of death in my gestures,
unbelieving, tentative, wailing…
so nineteen years have gone. It doesn’t matter.
It might have taken fifty. Or never.
Now the barriers are dissolving, the stone fences
in shambles. I want to have my life
in cloud shapes, water shapes, wind shapes,
crow call, marsh hawk swooping over grass and weed tips.
Let the scavenger take what he finds.
Let the predator love his prey.
–from “Returning to Earth,” 1977
“Tell me about your bride,” Harrison said to me on that evening in 2015 in his wild, quavering growl. It was just him and me and the wind. “Are you in love?”
I was engaged to be married in the summer and I told him, yes, I was crazy in love.
“Good,” he said, and poured more wine from a magnum he’d finish easily. “We’ve been married for 55 years. Can you believe it?” He told me the first time he saw Linda, “she was a teenager. On a horse.” He was worried that if Linda died, he would lose the will to live. He was very matter-of-fact about it. Maybe she was the proof he needed every day that he could be forgiven. But as we talked, it also became clear that he was simply in love with his wife. He wanted details about where my fiancée and I met, what I loved about her, what draws two people together. He just wanted to know that the day lilies in the ditch would continue to bloom. I had been conducting an interview, but our huge and sloppy dinner turned into two guys talking about the real thing called love, one at the beginning and one at the end.The challenge of these poems is dizzying because they condemn us even as they feel beautiful in your mouth.
Harrison told me once, “Someone has to stay outside,” by which he meant both outdoors and outside academia. He felt writing programs turned people into copyists. He taught one year at Stony Brook after his first book came out, 1965’s Plain Song, and never again. He thought people should work, like he did, laying bricks. For a brief moment he got rich from his novels and looked and acted like the hegemony—hanging with Jack Nicholson, stuffing himself with Mario Batali—but he squandered a lot of it and spent most of his career on his back, raking the belly of the industry and the canon with his long hind claws, tearing at its guts. He became irascible. He scratched out a living close to the earth, dependent entirely on you and me, the readers.
The Essential Poems, selected by his longtime and best reader, Joseph Bednarik, demonstrates perfectly why we should turn to Harrison again. He lived and breathed an American confrontation with the physical earth, married himself to a universe of bodies and stumps and birds, did not try to shuck his grotesque masculinity and stared hard with his one good eye (the left was blinded when he was 7) at the inescapable, beckoning finger of death.
These poems are arguments and conversations that America should be having with itself right now: what have we done to the earth? What does it mean to be a human being now? The challenge of these poems is dizzying because they condemn us even as they feel beautiful in your mouth. Harrison wrote in the voice of a man who’d walked off his family farm in the cold northern climes of Michigan, with its profusions of life, and dared to wonder aloud what there was to live for. Dared even further to declare that maybe the stars, or success, or family weren’t enough. And then went on living.
A few lovers
sweep by the inner eye, but is 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 “Death Again,” from Songs of Unreason, 2011
Harrison wrote free verse, but now again harnessed himself to a form, as with his spectacular book of ghazals, an Arabic and primarily Persian style. A lapsed Calvinist, he thrived under a bit of discipline:
I passed away in my sleep from general grief and a seven-
year hangover. Fat angels wrapped me in traditional mauve.
A local indian maiden of sixteen told the judge to go
fuck himself, got thirty days, died of appendicitis in jail.
I molded all the hashish to look like deer & rabbit turds
and spread them in the woods for rest stops when I walk.
–from “LVI,” from Outlyers & Ghazals, 1971Love drives you to share a secret place in nature, which you might ordinarily keep to yourself because its authenticity helps you stay alive.
You feel the enormous leaps, the storyteller’s urge to shove the story forward, to push through the connective tissue of silence to get to the next astonishing image. Harrison lingers longer in one of his most affecting works, 1973’s Letters to Yesenin, “this homage that often resembles a suicide note to suicide,” as he calls it, a month of daily epistles to one of the most popular Russian poets of the 20th Century, Sergei Yesenin, who allegedly hung himself in a hotel room in 1925. In it, Harrison asks over and over if he himself should die, what it’s like in the ground, how it would be possible when you have young children. Finally, in the last lines of the Postscript, he adds:
You didn’t die with the dignity of an animal. Today you make me want to tie myself to a tree, stake my feel to earth herself so I can’t get away. It didn’t come as a burning bush or pillar of light but I’ve decided to stay.
In the end, death cannot match life. Not in Harrison’s mind or probably anyone’s, if they are honest. Nature will shame you. Looking into the eyes of a raven is like looking back through a tunnel in time to the beginning of everything. “Since my brother died / I’ve claimed the privilege of speaking to local rocks, / trees, birds, the creek,” he says in the poem “Adding It Up.” At some point in our discussion of love and my wife-to-be that night, we got into a discussion of Dalva, his novel about a half-Sioux woman who returns to a family ranch in Nebraska to find the son she gave up, which I consider to be one of the greatest of the great American novels. He told me he spent a lot of time out in the Sand Hills researching that book.
“You should take your bride to the Sand Hills!” he suddenly shouts at me, his rheumy good eye suddenly sparkling with honeymoon cheer. “It’s one of the most beautiful places in the world!”
This is Harrison. Love drives you to share a secret place in nature, which you might ordinarily keep to yourself because its authenticity helps you stay alive. How many people would say, “Go to the Sand Hills on your honeymoon”? Not many. They are probably worth listening to.
Linda died two days after our dinner, and Harrison was right about losing the will to live. For all the women he had worshipped from near and afar, and the ravens atop his writing shack that he felt mattered as much or more than the paper-thin lives of humans, his heart was hers and a few months later it stopped. He died at his desk, mid-line.
If someone asks why they should care about some old drunken, fly-fishing heretic named Harrison and his poems about our place in the natural world, maybe read to them from “The Theory & Practice of Rivers”:
The days are stacked against
what we think we are:
after a month of interior weeping
it occurred to me that in times like these
I have nothing to fall back on
except the sun and moon and earth.
I dress in camouflage and crawl
around swamps and forest, seeing
the bitch coyote five times but never
before she sees me. Her look
is curious, almost a smile.