Jim Harrison’s poems often pierce me. He wrote with a clarity and bravery that cut to the Shimmering Center. Whenever I bring some of his poems into a high school classroom, the students embrace them. And when I show the kids a photo of Harrison in old age, they’re usually riveted. There’s grizzled, slightly frightening Harrison, his hair a bit wild, one eye squinted, he’s standing behind his truck somewhere in southern Arizona, one of his happy dogs in the background. The man looks like he just shot a rattlesnake with his rifle, which he probably did.
When he was seven, Harrison was playing with a neighbor friend in the woods off behind his house in northern Michigan, and they got into a quarrel. The girl pushed a broken bottle into his left eye, which blinded him for life. That event sent him into the woods each day after school, into his church, and he later said it was why he became a writer. In most of his work, the natural world infuses the lines. There’s an earthy spirit.
In a nearly fifty-year career, Harrison published forty-some books. Novels, essays, novellas, poems. For years he wrote a food column for Esquire. But he saw himself first as a poet, and he walked his talk. The man wrote and wrote, and kept on writing, staying attuned to the real world of nature. Staying awake to life.
For the past few weeks I’ve had his Complete Poems here on my desk. The book is massive. I’ve mainly been reading some of his later poems each morning, as part of my routine, and I often find myself needing to lower the book and let the lines reverberate through me.
Lines such as these, from “Xmas Cheeseburgers,” which I’m using as an epigraph for a novel I’m working on:
The world that used to nurse us
now keeps shouting inane instructions.
That’s why I ran to the woods.
Or these, from “Horses”:
In truth each day is a universe in which
we are tangled in the light of stars.
And these from “Sunlight”:
In the Salt Lake City airport eight out of ten
were fiddling relentlessly with cell phones.
The world is too grand to reshape with babble.
Jim Harrison died almost six years ago at the age of seventy-eight, and on that day we lost one of our good-humored sages. One of our life-loving, tenacious artists who brought a rare attention to the world, a deep love for the land and the animals and plants on it. A deep love, too, for the pleasures of life, from good food to good friends. Though he worked hard on his writing, he also made sure to get out for a walk each day and feel the weather and notice the rhythms of life. The so-called small things. He still had the one functioning eye, and he had all of his other senses, which he’d kept sharp almost his entire life. And of course he also had a lifetime of reading that had shaped his brain into something formidable and deft.
You’re in a wide field of being when you read Harrison’s poems.
In this era when it’s so easy to sit and click on something that in no way truly nourishes, I want to keep Jim Harrison’s way of living more in mind. I should pin that photo of him on my wall.
After I finish the work today, I’ll get the dog out for a walk, phone put far away, and we’ll see what’s what.