Though his reputation owes much to his fiction and memoirs, Jim Harrison, who died this past March at the age of 78, regarded the 14 volumes of poetry he published between 1965 and 2016 as the essence of his work as a writer. Poetry was “this fantastic invocation,” he wrote; his fiction “sometimes strike[s] me as extra, burly flesh on the true bones of my life.” He received his first major recognition as a writer for his poetry, a Guggenheim award in 1969, and he approached his work as a poet with humor and reverence informed in part by his Buddhist practice. “To write a poem you must first create a pen that will create what you want to say,” he wrote. “For better or worse, this is the work of a lifetime.”
That working lifetime for Harrison the poet spanned 50 years and hundreds of poems. Joan Reardon called the great food writer and gastronome M.F.K. Fisher a “poet of the appetites.” Harrison could rightly share the distinction. His poems frequently draw on his knowledge and enthusiasm at the table. A section from the title poem of his 1989 collection, The Theory & Practice of Rivers, consists of such detailed descriptions of food that it’s practically a cross between a recipe and an elaborate menu. “Early Fishing,” from In Search of Small Gods (2009), recalls a simple meal his father prepared for the two of them after a fishing trip, and “Vallejo,” from the same volume, laments the poet César Vallejo's impoverished diet. These moments in Harrison’s poetry distill the matters that preoccupied him in his acclaimed book of food essays, The Raw and the Cooked (2002). During his final years, he wrote a column on his culinary fixations for the Canadian literary journal Brick.
Yet Harrison’s hungers extend far beyond food, to weather, color and light, flesh, laughter, and all the beauty and variety of the natural world. This commitment is evident from his earliest published work, Plain Song (1965). In “Poem,” Harrison features “a bobcat padding through red sumac” and a “dead, frayed bird” with “beautiful plumage, / the spoor of feathers / and slight, pink bones.” That precision and specificity in writing about nature quickly became hallmarks of Harrison’s poetry. Yet his early work often registers as grave and spare, a bit restrained, as in poems such as “David,” again from Plain Song:
He is young. The father is dead.
Outside, a cold November night,
the mourners’ cars are parked upon the lawn;
beneath the porch light three
brothers talk to three sons
and shiver without knowing it.
Plain Song also finds the subject of “Dead Doe” “curled, shaglike, / after a winter so cold / the trees split open.” There are lyrical glints and moments of mystery elsewhere in the book, as in “Return,” in which Harrison writes of “A spring day too loud for talk / when bones tire of their flesh / and want something better.” In “Suite to Fathers,” he writes, “In the night, from black paper / I cut the silhouette of this exiled god, / finding him as the bones of a fish in stone.” In the context of Harrison’s body of work, such poems are more akin to gesture drawings than fully executed canvases.
Three books later, with the poems in Letters to Yesenin (1973), Harrison’s sensibility assumed its full dimensions. In “North American Image Cycle,” we find Harrison dispensing advice to President Nixon:
More mad dogs and fewer streetlights, Mr. Nixon. That advice
will cost you a hundred bucks, has been billed for that amount ...
The mad dogs
can be gotten from Spain, cheap. And everyone loves
to throw stones at streetlights.
The poems in Letters to Yesenin were born in the wake of Harrison’s doubts about his ability to create the life he wanted for himself. He found ways to earn a living, but as he noted in his memoir Off to the Side, “the most obvious economic lesson of all became obvious: survival work requires your entire life.” That meant stifling himself as a poet and facing the accompanying depression at his inability to find a suitable balance. Harrison had struggled with depression for years, remarking in Off to the Side that he’d “clocked seven depressions in my life that might qualify as ‘clinical,’ beginning at the age of fourteen.” Now, during the most trying period he’d yet faced, he contemplated suicide. As a means of coping with his own crisis, Harrison turned to the life and work of the Russian poet Sergei Yesenin, who committed suicide at age 30. He wrote prose poems to Yesenin daily, and the practice gradually brought him a new equanimity. Afterward, it was as if Harrison had stepped from the darkness with a new balance, an affirmation of his purpose. In Letters to Yesenin, he paired reflective moments with a generous dose of humor, sometimes wry, sometimes absurd. Consider this moment, in which he finds an unexpected plot of wild mushrooms a tonic for the world’s disinterest in him and his work:
The mushrooms helped again: walking hangdoggedly to the granary
after the empty mailbox trip I saw across the barnyard at the base
of an elm stump a hundred feet away a group of white morels. How
many there were will be kept concealed for obvious reasons.
There’s Harrison’s literal appetite here, but he also demonstrates that a poet of the appetites must live at the ready, open to the next opportunity that awakens the senses. When he spies a high school graduation ceremony on his way to the bar, he writes, “June and mayflies fresh from the channel fluttering in the warm still air.” Harrison bears down and offers a coda: “After a few drinks I felt jealous and wanted someone to say, ‘Best of / luck in your chosen field,’ or ‘The road of life is ahead of you.’”
This is the same poet who, on the previous page, observes:
we must closely watch any self-
pity and whining. It simply isn’t manly. Better by far to be a cow-
boy drinking rusty water, surviving on the maggots that unwittingly
ate the pemmican in the saddlebags.
This is humor as a complementary element, humor as seasoning, an essential ingredient in Harrison’s work.
Harrison grew up in rural Michigan, honing his love of the natural world as the son of a county agricultural agent. If there’s a single, defining episode from his childhood, it’s the loss of an eye at the age of seven. He had a “quarrel with a neighbor girl near a cinder pile in a woodlot behind the town hospital,” he writes in his 2002 memoir Off to the Side. “She had shoved a broken bottle in my face, and my sight had leaked away with a lot of blood.” In the wake of his compromised vision, Harrison seems to have redoubled his efforts at taking in the world around him. He speaks to this focus in “The Golden Window” (2009):
With only one eye I've learned
to celebrate vision, the eye a painter,
the eye a monstrous fleshy camera
which can't stop itself in the dark
where it sees its private imagination.
He pairs that attention to detail with a sense of openness and wonder, as evidenced in “Tomorrow,” which begins, “I'm hoping to be astonished tomorrow / by I don’t know what.” Beyond his attention and perceptiveness, Harrison’s eye—his literal eye—gradually emerges in his poems as a motif, both regulating his vision and serving as the object of playful references. Consider “Counting Birds” (1989):
As a child, fresh out of the hospital
with tape covering the left side
of my face, I began to count birds.
At age fifty the sum total is precise
and astonishing, my only secret.
Harrison understood exaggeration as more than simple untruth. He used it as a form of possibility as well, a malleable, speculative element. Sometimes what’s said pales next to what could have been said or, better still, should have been. “Of course, the reader should be mindful that I'm a poet, and we tend to err on the side that life is more than it appears rather than less,” he writes in a preface to After Ikkyū & Other Poems (1996). Still, he reliably knows when to opt for an extra stitch and when to apply one in a bolder color.
His years of Buddhist practice helped him cultivate humility and restraint. Those readings and meditation also informed his changing attitudes toward mortality. Whereas the younger Harrison took a somber view of death, in “After Ikkyū,” he writes “Time gets foreshortened late at night. / Jesus died a few days ago, my father / and sister just before lunch.” Though his early portrayals of death are notable for their concrete detail, as he aged, Harrison approached the subject with a sense of wonder bordering on mystical, as in “Insight,” in which he writes from the perspective of the recently dead, observing that mourners “are singing but the words / don’t mean anything in our new language.”
“The cost of flight is landing,” Harrison writes in “The Present.” Such low-key philosophical moments anchor much of his work. It’s also fitting that a man with such outsized appetites should consider the costs attached to the choices available to him. Those calculations never impinge on Harrison's essential gratitude, though, for all life has offered, or the large heartedness that underpins his work.
Years before the end of his life, Harrison imagined the occasion on which he would reveal the secret number of birds he had tallied over the years, in the aforementioned “Counting Birds”:
On my deathbed I’ll write this secret
number on a slip of paper and pass
it to my wife and two daughters.
It will be a hot evening in late June
and they might be glancing out the window
at the thunderstorm's approach from the west.
Looking past their eyes and a dead fly
on the window screen I'll wonder
if there’s a bird waiting for me in the onrushing clouds.
O birds, I’ll sing to myself, you’ve carried
me along on this bloody voyage,
carry me now into that cloud,
into the marvel of this final night.
How lovely to picture Harrison singing himself to the end, preparing for his next journey. He always did travel well.
John McIntyre is the editor of Memorable Days: The Selected Letters of James Salter and Robert Phelps. His writing has appeared in Brick Magazine, The American Scholar and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among other publications.