Terry Tempest Williams on the Loves (and Appetites) of the Great Jim Harrison

“He was kind and gracious and terrifyingly astute in all manner of his perceptions.”

“These simple rules to live within—a black
pen at night, a gold pen in daylight. . . .
He crumples as paper but rises daily from the dead.”
*

Jim Harrison was in love with the world. He was a man of big appetites not only for good food and fine wines but also for tasting, smelling, hearing, feeling, and seeing what Nature, both human and wild, had to show him about living and dying and locating a sliver of light in so much darkness. Writing poems was Harrison’s spiritual practice—following that line of light—walking the path of poetry in crepuscular hours when wolves howl and ravens fly. His book of poems, Jim Harrison, is a pilgrimage through a dedicated life of a writer who dared “to give up again this human shape” and see beyond our own solipsism and human exceptionalism. “On your walks in the backcountry get to where you’re going, then walk like a heron or sandhill crane. They don’t miss a thing.” He exhorts us: “Listen to the alarm.”

In “After Ikkyū” he writes:

Everywhere I go I study the scars on earth’s face,
including rivers and lakes. I’m not playing God
but assessing intent. In the Patagonia Mountains
you think, “small mines, pathetic deaths.” In Cabeza Prieta
men boiled in their own blood, ground temperature 170°F.
Contrails of earthen scar-tissue stink of sulfur.
Gold & copper to buy the horse that died, the woman who left.

Harrison acknowledges in the same book the sentience of other species and their comprehension of truths:

I confess that here and there in my life
there is a vision of a great brown toad
leaking words of love and doom through his skin,
excrescences that would kill anyone, given time,
his words tinged as they are with the shapes
of death, one drumbeat, a heartbeat, the skins
of gods a rug spread beneath our feet.

We are nothing without metamorphosis. We are changelings on a changing Earth.

Jim Harrison marked the transformations in the landscapes he called home, from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to the Sonoran Desert of Arizona to the Northern Rockies on the edge of Yellowstone in Livingston, Montana. His poems are checkpoints on the map of his soul.

“It doesn’t really matter if these poems are thought of as slightly soiled dharma gates or just plain poems. They’ll live or die by their own specific density, flowers for the void,” he writes. “To write a poem you must first create a pen that will write what you want to say. For better or worse, this is the work of a lifetime.”

In 1945, Jim Harrison lost the use of his left eye. He was eight years old. In an interview he said, “I probably wouldn’t have been a poet if I hadn’t lost my left eye when I was a boy. A neighbor girl shoved a broken bottle in my face during a quarrel. Afterward, I retreated to the natural world and never really came back.”

“To write a poem you must first create a pen that will write what you want to say. For better or worse, this is the work of a lifetime.”

I believe him. The fact that the broken glass that took his eye was part of a “laboratory beaker” makes this a story of alchemy. With half his vision gone, his ongoing fear that he could lose his other eye, becoming blind to the world, inspired him to pay fierce attention to the Garden of Earthly Delights reminiscent of Hieronymus Bosch’s own alchemical vision: the iconic triptych of heaven and hell and the garden of sensual pleasures that resides between the two panels. In Harrison’s passionate play with language and his own erotic life of the senses, he enlists what Virginia Woolf calls “the divine specific”—essential to any writer who moves through their days with wonder, inquiry, and imagination.

If we read Jim Harrison’s Complete Poems as a query into a more conscious way of being, then we can begin to believe “the solstice says ‘everything on earth is True.’” Harrison tells us insight begins in that place of standing on the precipice of darkness and light. Being human means being stretched between the known and the unknown: the longest day of summer is also a move toward winter, the longest night in winter is a turn toward brighter days. We bow to time and the cycles of change that are beyond our control. Light will come. Darkness will come. We are held in the numinous hours of grace before dawn and after dusk.

*

To have reverence for life
you must have reverence for death.

I first met Jim in 1989. I was at work on a book called Refuge, which is about the rise of Great Salt Lake and the death of my mother from ovarian cancer. Our friend Doug Peacock phoned to say he and Harrison were driving through Salt Lake City en route to Tucson.

Peacock asked whether it was okay if they spent the night at our house in Emigration Canyon. Of course we said yes. I put away my manuscript where no one would see it.

What I remember is how nervous my husband, Brooke, and I were to have Jim Harrison stay with us. His reputation was as a hard-drinking, food-loving, lecherous, literate, Midwesterner-turned-Westerner wild man. They arrived. He was jolly and unnerving, his left eye looking beyond you while his right eye focused intensely on every word spoken. He was kind and gracious and terrifyingly astute in all manner of his perceptions. Our first conversation was an interrogation into who we were and what we cared about. The men talked about bears and trout while drinking a bottle of Bandol, brought along as a house gift. We gave Jim our bedroom out of respect. Peacock slept outdoors while Brooke and I slept on the floor of our study, down the hall from the bedroom. Sleeping lightly, I noticed that the light in Jim’s bedroom was on most of the night.

In the morning, Jim emerged with a huge smile on his face. “Well, Tempest, I found your manuscript in your underwear drawer and read the whole damn thing. It’s about the two things I love the most—Death and Birds.”

I didn’t know which was more horrifying: that Jim Harrison had gone through my underwear drawer or that he had read my manuscript. During a long breakfast on the patio, I shared with him the letter I had just received from my editor who had matter-of-factly said that my book had “failed on every level.” And that if I still wanted to continue with the project, I should try again, beginning with page 494—that left six pages he approved of in a 500-page manuscript.

“Well, Tempest, I found your manuscript in your underwear drawer and read the whole damn thing. It’s about the two things I love the most—Death and Birds.”

“They’re fucking with your imagination,” Jim said. “Write the book you want to write.” He paused. “Write the book you have  to write.”

I did.

Jim taught me that “Nature withholds and hides from us until we try to learn her languages.”

This was the first of many conversations—always about birds, a love we continued to share, especially when Jim was writing his novella “The Beige Dolorosa,” his fictional project to rename all the birds of North America.

Once, arriving at his home in Patagonia, Arizona, we were greeted by a hastily painted sign nailed to the fence: “The Fucking Bird Is Dead!”

Turns out, a blue mockingbird had been sighted in a particular thicket exactly where Jim was living and writing through the winter. Enthusiastic birders put it on the Rare Bird Alert sponsored by the American Birding Association. Busloads of birders were now coming to his window to see this “rare vagrant” that he sharply reminded them was endemic to Mexico, only eighteen miles away. Word got out the writer had a shotgun; adding the blue mockingbird to one’s life list might not be worth the risk.

Contrast this behavior with Harrison’s lovely instructions, “Notes on the Sacred Art of Log Sitting,” and you witness the weather system of a tightly refined nervous system:

Approach the log cautiously with proper reverence as if you were entering a French cathedral or the bedroom of your lover.

If it’s over 60 degrees, inspect the lower sides of the log for Mohave rattlesnakes.

Now examine the log closely for the most comfortable place to sit, usually away from the sun.

Sit down.

Empty your mind of everything except what is in front of you—the natural landscape of the canyon.

Dismiss or allow to slide away any aspect of your grand or pathetic life.

Breathe softly. Avoid a doze.

Internalize what you see in the canyon: the oaks and mesquites, the rumpled and grassy earth, hawks flying by, a few songbirds.

Stay put for forty-five minutes to an hour. When you get up bow nine times to the log. Three logs a day is generally my maximum.

And then, these last lines:

I can readily imagine buying a small ranch I’d call “The Log Ranch.” I’d truck in thirty-three logs and arrange them on the property like the Stations of the Cross. This could soothe me during my limited time in the twenty-first century, which has been very coarse indeed.

This is just one of the reasons why I loved Jim Harrison. He was alive, charismatic, and good-humored, a large spirit you felt privileged to know, because you had to keep up with him if you had any self-respect as an intellectually engaged human being. He was predictable and unpredictable at once—loving at times, cranky and cruel, at times, taking liberties not his to take; and he took those liberties, repeatedly, with women, with friends, and I imagine with family.

He crossed a line with me one night, as we were about to go onstage at the Herbst Theatre. I was young and intimidated to be in conversation with him at the prestigious City Arts & Lectures series in San Francisco. He was known, I was not. Standing in the wings of the theater, we listened to the introductions. We were about to walk onstage when Jim, standing behind me, licked my ear and whispered a vulgarity. Call it trash-talking your opponent before a sporting event; call it harassment. It knocked me off-center and scrambled my mind. I lost my focus and didn’t speak while Jim and the interviewer talked brilliantly. I finally reclaimed my composure with only minutes left in the hour.

On that night, Jim Harrison created a revolution in me, a recovered memory of when women were birds. We can fly away or fight. I found my voice by having lost it. It was a defining moment for me. Powerful men fuck with your imagination. Jim Harrison fucked with mine. I later wrote him a letter. “You spoke. I became mute. Every woman in that audience recognized my silence as their own.” He wrote me back and apologized. We never spoke about it again.

Like most of us who are writers, Jim could be self-absorbed—until he wasn’t, and that was usually when his heart broke over what becomes lost and cannot be retrieved:

Where’s my medicine bag? It’s either hidden
or doesn’t exist. Inside are memories of earth:
corn pollen, a bear claw, an umbilical cord.
If they exist they help me ride the dark
heavens of this life. Such fragile wings.

Jim Harrison was a poet writing from the future as much as the past. “To see behind the clarity of my glass / the birth of new creatures / suffused with light.” His line-breaks allow us to enter his poetry with a double vision—the blind eye turned inward and the bright eye focused outward, which is the way Jim met the world in darkness and light.

I remember taking Jim and Peter Matthiessen on a walk in the Tetons to see a venerable goshawk on her nest in an aspen grove. Harrison was taken by the ruby-colored eye flashing on the side of her face as she guarded her young. Matthiessen remained quiet but never took his eyes off hers. We stayed briefly so as not to disturb her and warrant her legendary wrath. Both Jim and Peter were thrilled by her majesty perched above them. I watched each man quietly bow, paying his respect to this feathered god. Here were two of America’s great writers, sons of wild Earth who chose to use their sizable gifts of perception and influence on behalf of the natural world.

Nature fed and fueled their literary ambitions with an uncommon humility, which saved them from being consumed by their public personas and falling into the fatal mistake of believing their own myths. Awe replaced arrogance.

I witnessed the vulnerability of these men, witnesses and scribes to an unjust world. Pain brought forth their ink. There is a price to opening one’s heart to Beauty.

Later at lunch, I listened to Jim and Peter bare their souls about their struggles with clinical depression, a fact not unusual to creatives. Darkness is always there, it only stands revealed. I witnessed the vulnerability of these men, witnesses and scribes to an unjust world. Pain brought forth their ink. There is a price to opening one’s heart to Beauty.

In “I Believe” Harrison writes:

I believe in . . . 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.

How are we to stay upright at this time, poised as we are to lose so much? Where do we find the strength to remain attentive to what threatens to kill us in this era of climate collapse? I believe Jim Harrison shows us the way by being present in joy and wonder, in grief and despair, and most importantly, partaking fully in the day-to-day pleasures of a living world on this beautiful, broken planet we call home, regardless of what is coming.

Here are five lines I love, from “Returning to Earth”:

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 beginning to end, this single volume of Complete Poems is a book of prayers—born of Harrison’s Christian background that underwent a natural metamorphosis more spiritually aligned with Zen Buddhism. Some of the prayer-poems are polished, some are rough, others feel unfinished, written while on one’s knees or in prostrations, impatient and unresolved; a few are banal, a few indulgent, with many others sighting gratitudes “that hold our 10,000 generations of mothers in the clouds waiting for us to fall back into their arms again.”

Most of these poems I read repeatedly as eloquent petitions to earth and moon and sun, testaments to “rushing, turbulent water and light, convinced by animals / and rivers that nature only leads us to herself.”

I knew Jim as a man who loved his family—a family of women: his wife, Linda, and his daughters, Jamie and Anna, beautiful women, smart women, women who understood this “untrammeled renegade genius” and held him to account as Nature did.

In his last poems, Jim Harrison had the strong sense “that severe weather is coming.” As we begin to emerge out of this pandemic, the closing lines from his poem “Quarantine” caught my attention. It offers us instructions:

There is no time to fool around, the gods said.
They blew my poem with the wind to
the top of Antelope Butte. I can’t walk there
with my cane. Some gods have been dead
a thousand years and need our magic
and music to come back to life.
We owe it to them. They got us started.

If writing poetry was Jim Harrison’s spiritual practice, then reading his poetry can be a spiritual experience. We can follow his conscious admonitions:

Wake up.
Listen to the gods.
They’re shouting in your ear every second.
We disemboweled the earth and die without lungs.
But birds
lead us outside where we belong.
Only the most extreme heat makes us malleable.

*

On March 26, 2016, I learned of Jim’s death. I grieved his passing and celebrated his life. He was among the great ones—an elevated soul in all his unruliness who favored his senses and courted the wild on the page and in the world. His was a storied life that loomed large, and we are the beneficiaries. “Such a powerful wounded poet—wrote as if he had to sing with a cut throat . . . and he did have to sing,” said Jorie Graham.

I lamented that Jim and I had not had one last conversation. But spending much of this year reading and rereading Copper Canyon Press’s landmark edition of Jim Harrison: Complete Poems, I savored the weight of his wisdom and buoyancy of spirit just as I did when we were together. I realized how contemporary his poetry remains. When he writes of his “tears of doubt,” my own tears stream down my cheeks as I wonder what will survive and what will perish in this moment of extinction and climate chaos.

For me, this passage in “After Ikkyū” has become a koan to what still exists:

Way up a sandy draw in the foothills
of the Whetstone Mountains I found cougar
tracks so fresh, damp sand was still
trickling in from the edges. For some reason
I knelt and sniffed them, quite sure
I was being watched by a living rock
in the vast, heat-blurred landscape.

Unbidden hope reached me like rain in the desert. How prescient Harrison’s body of work continues to be in allowing us to feel the full range of what it means to be human, even in drought. “Despite gravity we’re fragile as shadows,” he writes in Saving Daylight. I am grateful for Jim’s disciplined pen that wrote what he wanted to say. Jim Harrison’s life-force as a writer grounded in place will continue to provoke and inspire readers for generations.

The spirit is here. Are you?

Our conversation is ongoing.

_______________________________________

Jim Harrison Completed poems

From Jim Harrison: Complete Poems by Jim Harrison. Used with the permission of Copper Canyon Press. Copyright © 2021 by Terry Tempest Williams.

Terry Tempest Williams
Terry Tempest Williams
Terry Tempest Williams is the author of numerous books of nonfiction, including Leap, Red, and the environmental classic Refuge. She is a fierce advocate for freedom of speech and environmental justice, and her writings appear frequently in journals and newspapers worldwide.





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