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Jim Harrison’s Letters To Yesenin
I’m teaching an ambitious, one-semester poetry workshop entitled The (So-Called) Confessional Poets. We’re about halfway through the syllabus. For this week, we’re reading Jim Harrison’s Letter To Yesenin, (originally published in 1973 by Sumac Press, and re-published by Copper Canyon in 2007). The book is a series of 30 letter-poems to the Russian poet Sergei Yesenin, who committed suicide at the age of 30 in 1925. The speaker, seemingly Harrison himself (the space between author and poetic speaker is collapsed), confides to Yesenin his own desire to leave the planet, so, in theory, as we move through the book, the author’s life hangs in the balance. Harrison (in epistle 29) calls the project “a suicide note to a suicide”. An endeavor like this runs the risk of being overly depressing and self-involved. Luckily the author does a good job of cutting the darkness with blasts of self-deprecating humor: “I have the limberness of a man twice my age.” The reader senses Hemmingway, maybe some Richard Hugo in the hard-drinking, lustful, semi-crude speaker that Harrison projects, but the book that most comes to mind for me is Anne Sexton’s Live or Die, which operates from a similar premise: an author trying to decide whether or not to commit suicide. Harrison’s book strikes me as tighter, more compact. The letter-format gives him a lot of room for digression and association, and the direct address to Yesenin serves as an anchor, giving Harrison a focal point to aim his poetic gaze. When writing the book, Harrison was a new father, at the beginning of his writing career, and was having a hard time making ends meet. Maybe this nothing-to-lose predicament allowed him to be searingly honest, showing the reader his struggles with alcoholism, his perverse desires, his anxieties. Harrison, in fact, went on to become a successful novelist; the movies Wolf and Legends of the Fall are based on books he wrote. I don’t know much about Harrison’s other poems; what I’ve read hasn’t grabbed me. But this book is worth cracking open, because even as the speaker plunges face-first into his own vinegar pit, he also gives us plenty of the physical world, often rendered in captivating language, such as “dawn in bleary Paris with a roll tasting like zinc and a girl in a cellophane blouse staring at you with four miraculous eyes”.