Jim Harrison is one of those writers, like Sherman Alexie and Roberto Bolaño, who is far more known to readers for his fiction (novels, and in Harrison’s case, novellas) while self-identifying more as a poet. What I have liked, especially about Harrison’s poetry, is that, despite being an old white man (which many would argue puts him in the Literary Gated Community), Harrison has actively tried to remain (as he said in an interview/feature in Outside magazine a few years back) “on the outside” of the literary world, outside of literary schools or movements. Also critiquing. Not quite a court jester, because that would mean having to be in the court, but more like mythological figure The Green Man, who he honors with a poem here, and who lives in the woods, drinking and fucking and generally enjoying being away from civilization. There’s a little of that critique here in Dead Man’s Float, in “Poetry Now”:
Poetry stinks with ten thousand poets
pissing in the same overflowing bowl.
We must go it alone, swimming at night
down the River of No Return.
At dawn we’ll see unknown animals
on the bank, and unknown women, some
without faces. We’re now sure that we
have both leprosy and gangrene, outcasts.
Outsider-ship claimed, one thing seemingly contradictory thing I have always felt uncomfortable about in (some of) Harrison’s writing is his love of upper-class indulgences, like good wine, good food and good (younger) women. I admit, it’s at least in part because of jealousy: I too want those things. But, and yet, his poetry also has, and embraces, a certain simplicity, a certain buddhist non-caring about, or at least non-attachment to, other material things in life, like cellphones and cities. And politics. And people.
So finding poems in Dead Man’s Float about money (like in the poem “Money”), and worrying about it (“Books”), are a surprise. Not a disappointment, though I feel a certain….gloom. Intentional or not, Harrison seems to be chronicling the squeeze on the middle class here in America, and the uncertainty we all feel about growing old. Will we be cared for? The first section of this book is about Harrison’s serious health problems, and his near-death hospital stay, like in “Hospital”:
Each night I sang along with a bedsore cantata from the endless halls, the thousand electronic gizmos beeping, and also people entering my room for “tests.” I was endlessly sacrificed at the medical gizmo altar. There was no red wine and no cigarettes—only the sick who tore at the heart.
“Hospital” is a prose collage poem that could/does read more as an essay, and one of the best in the book, I think because despite his own suffering, as the last line in the excerpt above shows, he seems more hurt by the pain of others, which I think is what poetry, and the humanities in general, teach us: empathy and compassion for others. Still, in our seemingly winner-takes-all economy, is the middle-class getting sacrificed? He doesn’t make the explicit connection, but surely we all know that one big hospital bill is enough to put any of us in bankruptcy.
Is that the stuff of poetry? Maybe. I think any more explicit and you’d have to go for essays. But Harrison returns to his simplicity, in subject matter and form, in his post-hospital poems, like with another prose(ish) poem, “Notes on the Sacred Art of Log Sitting,” relevant excerpt here:
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.
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.
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.
What we have here are meditation instructions, Green Man style. The japanese zen poet Ikkyu would be proud. Harrison models a way to turn something bad (perhaps permanent weak health) into an opportunity for introspection, and perhaps some much needed mental health. And a way to let go of activities/things in life as we get older. Harrison is sad at not being able to bird hunt anymore, but he’s gaining the ability to be content. Which is the best we can hope for.
I’ve actually seen Jim Harrison read more times than any other poet, three quarters of them way back when both of us still lived in Michigan. I don’t like everything he’s done (and for more poetry, check out The Shape of the Journey: New and Collected Poems), especially in his fiction when his older male protagonists have sex with eager young women, but I’ve always seen Harrison as one of the wise men teachers I never found in real life. I mean, at his best, Harrison can capture all of our human hopes and disappointments in just one line, like “The price of flying is landing.”