Jim Harrison is one of the twenty-first century’s most stunning, original, and introspective poets. His poetry, while extremely tactile, is not quickly apprehended but yields vast rewards. Reading through any Harrison collection is a bit like traveling through a museum of the subconscious filled with pungent, piercing, beautiful, sexually charged, and tortured imagery drawn from the natural world and human experience. Using the natural world as a springboard, he infuses it with mystic correspondences, Zen allusions, and multiple layers of meaning. His preferred forms are the lyric, the haiku, the suite, and the ghazal, all of which involve loose assemblages of stanzas that are related largely by free associations. Hence, what may appear to be arbitrary suspensions of narrative sequences are, instead, highly crafted movements through the poet’s preconscious mind.
Harrison is an iconoclast whose thought patterns, even in his more traditional narratives, tend to be elliptical. In the suites and ghazals, this tendency culminates in violent disruptions of linear connection and the compounding of discordant images. His poetry requires that the reader transcend the limits of the rational mind and follow the poet on his personal explorations, which have their own indigenous logic. Harrison is reaching directly for the experiences he is rendering in verse.
Plain Song is Harrison’s first published collection and an underrated book that attempts more than is readily apparent. Donald Jones, one of the few reviewers to treat the book apart from other collections, aptly applies the concept “numinous surds” to convey the craftsmanship of the best of these poems. What is most striking about this volume is Harrison’s capacity to fuse his northern Michigan sensibility with an almost mystic sense of cosmic unity and a host of old European, Central American, and modern allusions. What reviewers see as his devotion to “the thing-in-itself” is but the surface of the work. Behind all of these poems is an organic consciousness unfettered by logical dictums and intent on immersing the reader in the elemental flux.
Plain Song begins with a modest ars poetica, “Poem,” which reveals Harrison’s poetic credo and his affinity for the natural world. Using the woods as a correlative for poetic form and a stalking bobcat to represent content, Harrison pictures structures as mere backdrops that, by definition, “yield to conclusion they do not care about or watch.” In “Word Drunk,” Harrison explains that poems are living creatures “suffused with light,” essences yielding their “own dumb form—weight raw, void of intent.” Herein lies the source of Harrison’s predisposition toward suites and ghazals; both facilitate experimentation with form and transport the reader into “another field, or richer grain.”
Already evident in these early pieces is his attention to sensory detail. Quite overtly in such poems as “Exercise” and “Park at Night,” Harrison invites the reader to hear the almost muted sounds of nature: grass moving to create passageways, soil shifting, and fire selecting new wood. It is a keen ear, indeed, which can, as Harrison does in “Sounds,” communicate the “loud weight of birds” capable of drowning out the carpenter’s hammer, and can, in “February Suite,” convey the sounds of soldiers breaking “like lightbulbs in a hoarse cry of dust.” In other poems, such as “Northern Michigan” and “Returning at Night,” he transforms what a casual observer might see as unkempt properties into wildlife sanctuaries. Often, as in “Dusk,” what emerges is a gestalt of the visual, the olfactory, and the auditory.
The dominant point of view, rather too baldly stated in “Trees,” is that people’s utilitarian perspective senselessly discounts that which is superfluous to their materialistic ends. Clearly, Harrison’s sentiments lie with the victims of civilization’s onrush. This is most obvious in his depiction of the wolf in “Traverse City Zoo” and his wry commentary in “Fox Farm,” but also present in “Kinship,” which captures the nobility of the senile Uncle Wilhelm.
Harrison’s romantic attachment to the woods and wilds is balanced by his capacity for irony and self-mockery. In “Lisle’s River,” for example, after establishing a resonance with the surroundings, he reverses himself, recounting a drunken violation of the spirit of place. In a very different vein, the persona that emerges from “Sketch for a Job Application Blank” is simultaneously self-abasing and proud. Compounded images of childhood and ancestry culminate in a series of oxymorons that transform sex into sacrament and darkness into a medium for growth. This tendency to shift gears and undercut his own affections is what saves Harrison from sentimentality.
Elemental images of darkness and death play a prominent part in these poems. The young boy in “David” can see through the antiseptic haze of words and the profusion of flowers that surround his father’s casket and can confront the reality of death. In “John Severin Walgren, 1874-1962,” a muted elegy to his maternal grandfather, Harrison describes death as an inevitable process “when the limit’s reached” and yet captures the terror of “the blood of the young, those torn off earth in a night’s sickness”—a terror that leads to the pronouncement of a bitter nihilistic credo in “New Liturgy” and a similarly virulent renunciation in “Malediction.”
As a first volume, Plain Song is important; at its best, it reveals Harrison’s ability to forge connections between objects. It also hints at the techniques and philosophies that have come to characterize his work. It is not, however, a representative collection in that he seems to rein in his imagination and content himself with presentation rather than probing.
The nascent strengths found in Plain Song come to fruition in Locations. Movement and process are dominant in these poems. Gone is even a residual tendency to focus on the “thing-in-itself”; instead, a single act or object is introduced and its implications unfolded through a process of accretion. “Walking,” for example, fuses memories and immediate stimuli in such a way as to capture the incessant natural rhythms that enable nature to renew itself and humans to perceive even the familiar as notable. That “Walking” calls to mindHenry David Thoreau’s essay is not surprising; throughout the book Harrison is, effectively, reconquering the land much as Thoreau suggested that the saunterer must.
The three poems labeled “suites” in this volume are most representative of Harrison’s means of building on the significance of an image. Just as “Suite to Fathers” employs an ambiguous and shifting sense of “fathers,” “Suite to Appleness” and “War Suite” convey multiple levels of meaning associated with the dominant image. The effect in all three cases is not to convolute, but to clarify through transmutation.
“Suite to Fathers,” which constitutes a tribute of sorts to past masters in the field of arts and letters, is framed by two references to night as a “blind woman” and as a woman staring with a “great bruised eye.” The “countless singulars” that the poem unveils are coupled with a pervasive sense of gothic horror culminating in the image of the poet’s brain as a “glacier of blood, inching forward . . . silt covered but sweet.” A similar movement pervades “Suite to Appleness,” which transforms the destruction of an apple into a working metaphor capable of suggesting the callousness that induces war atrocities, suicides, ecological disruption, and “all things bruised or crushed as an apple.” This thread is continued in “War Suite,” which interweaves references to various orders and kinds of wars, not to equate them but to distinguish those that are propelled by necessity and those that are gratuitous and often fought out of vanity. The slaughter of whales and hawks that is lamented in “Natural World” is clearly in the latter class.
“The Sign,” though structured in a way similar to the suites, is less intense. Harrison indulges in a dream-induced reverie over the astrological significance of having been born under the sign of Sagittarius, situated between the eagle (Scorpio) and the seagoat (Capricorn), and contemplates the patterned luminosity that somehow makes the infinite black more poignant. Significantly, however, these are indulgences permissible only at night, and he therefore concludes this meditation with the sobering realities of digging a well and the certifiable majesty of a stag “bounding away into his green clear music.”
“American Girl” is similarly playful and freewheeling. Beginning with references to Helen of Troy and other temptresses, Harrison shifts his focus to his own rites of passage, which dispelled his idealism and revealed that media’s images of women were “calcined, watery, with air-brushed bodies and brains.” The experiential elements in this piece as well as in “Night in Boston” and “Locations” are rendered with a levity absent in much of Plain Song, suggesting that Harrison has achieved a needed distance.
What lies at the heart of Harrison’s perspective is a respect for the natural world. The majesty of the red-tailed hawks in “Cold August” has the capacity to restore his spirits despite the metallic cast that has transformed the once verdant fields. This and other poems demonstrate that he is keenly attuned to seasonal variations as they are manifest in both landscape and animal life. While in “Cold August” and “Thin Ice,” he uses a single phenomenon as a touchstone against which to measure the change, in “A Year’s Changes,” he provides a catalog of sense experiences and registers the sounds and silences that characterize the various seasons.
Outlyer and Ghazals
Outlyer and Ghazals marks a turning point in Harrison’s poetic career. The first seven poems (the outlyers) continue themes and techniques found in the earlier volumes. The remainder of the pieces (the ghazals) are groundbreaking and infectious. The title of the opening piece, “In Interims: Outlyer,” suggests the point of view employed throughout this volume. “Interims” suggests the breaking space needed to contemplate those phenomena that are too easily dismissed as peripheral, while “outlyer” can be translated as a reference to the poet who has the task of contemplating buried connections. There is also the sense of the poet as the marginal man inhabiting the proverbial outback in the company of the aborigines. With such a frame, it is not surprising to find the epigraph drawn from Guillaume Apollinaire, another innovator and iconoclast.
“In Interims: Outlyer” properly sets the tone for the volume; it testifies to the poet’s refusal to take aim at institutional pretense, asserting the need for a higher ordering of principles. Most overtly in this poem, the poet is charged with celebrating the bittersweet in order to resurrect the animistic spirit, the “Numen of walking and sleep,” an end that he accomplishes in “Hospital,” which captures the archetypal sounds of agony, and “Awake,” which transforms a catalog of various anxieties and complaints into a workable backdrop against which to graft his ax-hewn wood metaphor.
Harrison is most effective when he discards the tough hunter-outdoorsman persona and allows his mystic sensibility to merge with his ironic wit. It is this that allows him in “She Again” to recast what was at best a simpering machismo in “Cowgirl” and “Drinking Song” into a gestalt of emotions that is winsome and lyrical. This combination also gives him the distance to explain that “in interims all journeys end in three steps with a mirrored door, beyond it a closet and a closet wall.” Death is accepted as a constant, not as something to fear; it is celebrated as the completion of the circle and the prerequisite for the next procession.
At his best, Harrison’s sense of relationships allows him to forge analogies that are surprisingly appropriate. Incongruities are blended in such a way that the shift from the “diamond head caught in crotch of branch” to his sister who died in an automobile accident debases neither phenomenon. This ability to relate dissimilar objects and events lies at the heart of the ghazals that dominate the book. In these sixty-five poems, Harrison gives his mind’s eye full rein and repeatedly surprises his reader into taking a second look. Whether he is describing the screams of ecstatic stones becoming thinner, as in the opening poem, or exploring the implications of non-Euclidean geometry, as in the forty-fifth, his vision is always fresh and clear.
Ghazals, Harrison points out in his prefatory note, are essentially lyrics dating from the thirteenth century. They are akin to suites in that both proceed by means of metaphorical leaps of faith, but they are considerably shorter than suites, being limited to twelve couplets. Both the brevity and the couplet form serve Harrison well, allowing him “to regain some of the spontaneity of the dance, the song unencumbered by any philosophical apparatus, faithful only to its own music.” Throughout the volume, poetry is equated with music, “scattered, elliptical, needing to be drawn together and sung,” and thus it is appropriate that in the twenty-first ghazal, Harrison assembles a series of universal sounds into a consciously orchestrated medley that is dissonant but captivating. Insisting that “Poetry must die so poems will live again,” Harrison is constantly experimental, pushing back the strictures of his chosen form.
The tempo of these poems is brisk and the tone lilting. He fuses together the lyric and the gothic and ruthlessly burlesques human foibles in order “to be finally sane and bow to all sentient creatures,” as he explains in the thirty-second ghazal. However, he recognizes that “Apollinaire fertilizer won’t feed the pigs or chickens” and that poetry “won’t raise the dead or stir the living or open young girls’ lips to jubilance.” Hence, he is often self-mocking, calling himself, in the second poem, “a poet and a liar,” saying, in the sixth, that he “writes with a putty knife and goo” and lamenting, in the thirty-fourth, that the “modal chord I carried around for weeks is lost for want of an instrument.” It is this kind of circumspection that prevents him from taking himself too seriously and disarms the reader.
Again, the tightest of these pieces are securely moored to rural embankments. The rural emerges not simply as a purifier but as an essential antidote to the rapacity of the urban. He does not romanticize the rural, rejecting what he terms the “befouled nostalgia about childhood” and launches more than an occasional barb at the provincialism and hardships of rural life. In the second poem, he imagines what might happen if there were poetry competitions at the county fairs, and in the third, he captures the wearisome lot of a country girl who is hired out in the off-season.
These poems are replete with references to the slaughter of predators and other wild creatures; with quiet irony, Harrison debunks the logic of the rancher and the hunter alike. In the sixteenth poem, he neatly understates the plight of the “tamed” bear strapped to a bicycle “with straps of silver and gold straps inlaid with scalps.” This image signals his overall moral stance, which prompts him to envision Spiro Agnew, vice president during Richard Nixon’s administration, “retired to a hamster farm” and the wild animals “spying on the geologists” in the fourteenth poem and to complain about “vicious horses kicking when I bite their necks” in the twenty-seventh.
He relentlessly lampoons the world of politics. Art becomes, in the fifteenth poem, a miracle needed “to raise those years which are tombstones carved out of soap by the world’s senators,” and, in the sixteenth, the drama of “civic theater” emerges as “interminable with unconvincing geometric convulsions.” In the eighteenth, the pathos of the migrant worker functions as a concertina, undercutting the pretense of literary groupies and the perniciousness of the Department of Defense. Still, Harrison eschews activism, refusing to become another “tremulous bulls-eye for hog fever” or “a poisoned ham in the dinner room of Congress.”
As part of a disaffected generation, Harrison is wary of all institutions and, in the final analysis, holds nothing sacred other than the human capacity for wonder. Thus, religion emerges as a target because it has become institutionalized. Gone are the legends that were once central to an understanding of the cosmos. He rues the loss in both the fifty-second and...
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