Jim Harrison

Michigan Writers on the Air: Commentaries on Poetry

Jim Harrison
November 2011
Review of Songs of Unreason

Aaron, as I was reading Jim Harrison’s new book called Songs of Unreason, I thought of a poem by W.S. Merwin I’d like to quote for you here. It’s called “Worn Words”
The late poems are the ones
I turn to first now
following a hope that keeps
beckoning me
waiting somewhere in the lines
almost in plain sight
it is the late poems
that are made of words
that have come the whole way
they have been there

Merwin is 84; Harrison is ten years younger, but both poets’ words have “come the whole way,” which I’m sure is part of why I respond to them both the way I do.

We all know Jim Harrison around here. He was born in Grayling and lived in Michigan for years before he moved to Montana, and now also Patagonia, Arizona. The world knows Jim Harrison. His books have won all sorts of awards and have been translated into 22 languages. His novels have been made into movies.

He’s great fun to write about. He chain-smokes, American Spirit cigarettes, even between courses at dinner. He’s a gourmet cook of his own wild game. Even with his recent diabetes, we’re told he downs a glass of vodka every afternoon. He is mostly blind in one eye, which gives him a kind of wild, cock-eyed expression. He keeps a poem next to his desk by the 14th century Zen Buddhist poet Muso Sokeki: “It would be merciful for people not to come calling and disturb the loneliness of the mountains, to which I have returned from the sorrows of the world.”

Harrison, in spite of all the money and fame he’s gotten from his fiction, considers himself first of all a poet. In the Introduction to The Shape of the Journey, a collection published in 2000 which draws from his first eight books of poetry, he writes: “This book is the portion of my life that means the most to me. Poetry is totally uncontrollable. You don’t have any idea when its going to emerge, and when it’s not going to emerge. I’ve never stopped writing it….You can put off a novel for a while but you can’t not write a poem because that particular muse is not very cooperative.”

As I was reading Songs of Unreason, which just came out from Copper Canyon Press, I was thinking about where Harrison’s poems have come, where along the “whole way” they seem to be. His collection before this one, Saving Daylight, is full of his usual rich conversation between the natural world—rivers and wolves and egg yolks, and the transcendence they contain.

I’d say nothing has changed in the new book except that the light of awareness that’s infused all of Harrison’s work is brighter, here. What do I mean by that? I mean that the poems—as the title implies—are “Songs of Unreason”—they are singing more than they’re telling stories, and they have taken an even more deliberate step off the cliff of reason. That doesn’t for a second mean that he’s not holding us in mind as readers. He’s too authentic to play with language that leaves us behind. “The world is too grand to reshape with babble,” he says in one poem.

I’ll give you a poem to show you what I mean by the singing, by the step off the cliff. Here’s the first poem in the book:


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, and return to the cemetery
in evening and wind through the stones
a slow dance of your name visible only to birds.

There are so many ways to talk about this poem! The visit to the dead father after just making love—it appears that if we’re going to really live, we need to dwell among what we thought were opposites. And we must do it, we must really live—buy our bottle of wine and sweep out everything that is getting in the way of our clear perception, getting rid of even our own self, our own name. We need to dance in the cemetery.

Okay, that’s the blank slate, or swept-out space, that he starts with. The long sequence that immediately follows is called “Suite of Unreason.” which is printed in a different type-face on the unnumbered verso of the pages and goes on for the rest of the book, except for the final poem. So you have named poems on the octavo pages and these short little poems on the verso, little bits of unreason breaking in on the other. Here’s an example of a couple of these:

The moon is under suspicion.
Of what use is it?
It exudes its white smoke of light.

and another
Late October and now I wear a wool
cap around the clock, take three naps a day.
I’ve no clear memory of why this happens,
something about the earth tilting on an axis.
Yesterday twenty-three sandhill cranes flew north. Why?

These little poems are very much like the ones in Braided Creek, the 2003 conversation in poems that Harrison and Ted Kooser wrote back and forth to each other. They’re aphoristic, sometimes, and sometimes more like haiku. They mirror moment by moment the movement of the mind.

But I don’t think we want to take these poems and the ones on the numbered pages opposite as counterpoint to each other. And here’s where I want to talk about the flavor of this book as a whole: this book is an evaluation. It evaluates the issue of death, the way we see death, not death itself. It does not wish to solve the problem of death and it doesn’t mean to provide a guide for those coming along. The poems just look at death with Harrison’s clear, compassionate eye. Here’s a poem:
Dan’s Bugs
I felt a little bad about the nasty earwig
that drowned in my nighttime glass of water,
lying prone at the bottom like a shipwrecked mariner.
There was guilt about the moth who died
when she showered with me, possibly a female.
They communicate through wing vibrations.
I was careful when sticking a letter
in our rural mailbox, waiting for a fly to escape,
not wanting her to be trapped there in the darkness.
Out here in the country many insects invade our lives
and many die in my nightcap, floating and deranged.
On the way to town to buy wine and a chicken
I stopped from 70 mph to pick up
a wounded dragonfly fluttering on the yellow line.
I’ve read that some insects live only for minutes,
as we do in our implacable geologic time.

There we are, in the middle of implacable geologic time, living only for a minute in comparison. Harrison just looks at this, just brings this to awareness, along with our awareness of the life around us.

And the more we see, the more we see damage—the damage done to us and the damage we’ve done. Here in this late collection, everything is forgiven, or, rather, there’s nothing to forgive. Here’s a poem about that:


Like Afghanistan I’m full of corruption.
My friend McGuane once said, “I’d gladly
commit a hundred acts of literary capitulation
to keep my dogs in Alpo.” The little ones needed
dental braces and flutes, cars and houses.
Off and on I’ve had this dangerous golden touch
like a key to a slot machine streaming 20-dollar
gold pieces. It was so easy to buy expensive
French wine that purges the grim melancholy
of livelihood, the drudgery of concocting fibs.
I know a man, happily married, who bought
a girl a hundred-dollar pair of panties. I was stunned.
For this price I buy a whole lamb each fall.
Now lamb and panties are gone though the panties
might be on a card table at a yard sale.
Right now a wind has come up and there’s a strange
blizzard of willow buds outside my studio.
I’m on death row but won’t give up corruption.
I’ve waterboarded myself, I’m guilty of everything.

This would be a good place to say something about Harrison’s sense of humor. it’s always there, that bemusement. It seems as if that’s the only way we can see both the dark and the light and love them both.

The final poem of the book is called “Death Again.” It begins:

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……

The first poem in the book might lead us to misunderstand, and think that when we sweep out everything, we get to live in some kind of woo-woo world of the spirit. But the poems never for a moment allow us to float off into the stratosphere. Harrison drags us back here, over and over. We have to live here, where everything happens.

Always when I look at a poet’s late poems, I”m asking “Has the poetry come along? Has it turned toneless and flat, does it repeat itself, has the poet created a caricature of himself? In this collection, Songs of Unreason, I want to say—in the words of the poet D. H. Lawrence, “Look, we have come through.” These are beautiful poems that scrape raw bone and at the same time move into the secret spaces that words only know how to point to. Harrison’s language is sure and ordinary. It’s the language of a man who knows where he’s stepping, and each step is not so much deliberate as it is led by all he has been and is, now. I am deeply grateful for Jim Harrison’s poems.