Even though I’ve met Jim Harrison a couple of times, I don’t really know him, except through his work. Nonetheless, I feel as though I do know him — or he knows me, so strongly do the poems in this new collection reflect my own thoughts and feelings. We do share a common background in some respects: We’re close to the same age, we both have fond memories of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, we both love the Livingston/Paradise Valley area, we both enjoy our evening cocktails — and we both seem to be reflecting on many of the same topics at this point in our lives. He’s just so much better able to express those reflections than I am! And while I’ll take his advice of not trying to inhabit another’s soul (“A Part of My History”), I will share some of the lines in this book that spoke most loudly and clearly to me.
In “Mary the Drug Addict,” one of the few short prose pieces he includes in this book, he writes lovingly of an old dog who was mistreated in her early life, much like the old dog in my house, and now has to have her daily “drugs” to get through the day. “She sleeps a lot, eats kibble without interest and craves meat tidbits with the pleasure making her wiggle. Outdoors, her eyes wide to the open she acts with exuberance, our lost birthright. Like all beautiful women she has become beautifully homely. In the evening I lift her onto the couch despite her brush with a skunk, and we speak a bone-deep language without nouns and verbs, a creature-language skin to skin.”
He returns to this dog in a poem titled simply “Mary”:
How can this dog on the cushion
at my feet have passed me
in the continuum of age, a knot
in our hearts that never unwinds?
. . . she moves in sleep slowly into the future
. . .The question still is how did she pass me
happily ahead in this slow goodbye?
In a short untitled reflection, he writes a message to those of us in his age group — one that makes instant sense to those old enough to understand the speaker’s final question:
After a long siege of work
I wake to a different world.
I’m older of course, but colors and shapes
have changed. The mountains have moved a bit,
our children are older. How could this happen?
In another reflection, Harrison recalls a visit to the Yucatan:
I go away then come home but the jungle’s
birds and snakes are with me in the snow.
You carry with you all the places you’ve ever been.
Just a few pages later, he ponders what he calls “the basic question of life”:
Again I wonder if I’ll return.
. . .Does Robert Frost know he’s dead? His Yankee wit
a dust mote. God’s stories last until no one hears.
And in the poem on the adjoining page, he further explores the question of death:
Death takes care of itself like a lightning
stroke and the following thunder
is the veil being rent in twain.
. . .In age we tilt toward home.
We want to sleep a long time, not forever,
But then to sleep a long time becomes forever.
Another turn of the page, and he ends the poem “Debtors” with the question “Would I still love the creek if I lasted forever?”
While Harrison ponders the mortality of himself and those around him, be they animal or human, in many of these poems, he does so so gracefully and so tenderly that this is not a depressing read at all. Rather, it reminds us of all life has to offer — and has offered, and, as he says in the last poem in the book, “Let’s not get romantic or dismal about death.”
And even as he reflects on his own — and his readers’ — eventual demise, he reminds readers that “of course it’s a little hard/to accept your last kiss, your last drink, /your last meal about which the condemned/can be quite particular as if there could be/a cheeseburger sent by God,” but still, “We’ll know as children again all that we are/destined to know. ...”
There is much to ponder and much to enjoy in this latest of Harrison’s many works of prose and poetry. And, like the best of wines, as he ages he just gets better, and he pleases the reader’s taste for poetry that can be both thought-provoking and playful — and always powerful.
Sue Hart is an author and a professor of English at Montana State University Billings. With Valerie Hedquist, she co-wrote “Fra Dana: American Impressionist in the Rockies,” a finalist for this year’s High Plains Book Award in art and photography.