A Holy Terror Dancing with Light: On Jim Harrison


On Poetry

Jim Harrison named one of his hunting dogs Joy Williams or perhaps it was just Joy. She was named after me in any case. Jim was perhaps having a bit of fun, knowing my horror of the hunt. She might well have been a gay and avid associate, reveling in the tristesse of falling birds, but I prefer to think of her as reluctant, anguished about such an enterprise, failing to thrill to it. I prefer to think of her questioning the rightness of it, finding the whole bewildering activity loathsome. She adored Jim, of course, but saw the world differently, like Ahab’s whale who sees a different ocean from each side of its massive head. I prefer to think of Jim taking the hunting dog Joy’s feelings into account, for he thought highly of dogs as well as ravens, loons, horses, bears, dolphins (“certainly as dear as people to themselves”), and all manner of creatures, and would dismiss any philosophy that found them unworthy of grace or our concern.

It wasn’t until the sixth century that the Christians
decided animals weren’t part of the kingdom of heaven.
Hoof, wing, and paw can’t put money in the collection plate.
These lunatic shit-brained fools excluded our beloved creatures.

Who could possibly aspire to a heaven so bereft?

I’ve always loved Jim Harrison’s poetry—so full of itself, so direct and hungry and angered and awed. I think of him as a religious poet in many ways and was surprised that he was excluded from Harold Bloom’s anthology American Religious Poems. It seemed quite the oversight.

Perhaps the work was considered a bit too randy? There were too many mentions of women’s lovely bottoms? Too many rivers and wolves? And shit and whiskey and flies and questioning Our Maker about ancillary matters?

Talked to the God of Hosts about the Native American
situation and he said everything’s a matter of time,
that though it’s small comfort the ghosts have already
nearly destroyed us with the ugliness we’ve become.

Too much about our American way of carnage? In a dream the poet pictures a seven-tiered necklace of seven thousand skulls adorning the Statue of Liberty,

an indigenous cast except skulls from tribes
of blacks who got a free ride over from Africa,
representative skulls from all the Indian
tribes, an assortment of grizzly, wolf,
coyote and buffalo skulls

and imagines

                                        her great
iron lips quivering in a smile, almost a smirk
so that she’ll drop the torch to fondle the jewels.

Or perhaps the poem’s reflections fell prey to poesy’s prejudice against poets who write novels, successful lusty singular novels and lots of them. He was a writer and thus could not be considered a genuine member of poetry’s more constrained and anxious tribe.

I can think of dozens of Jim’s poems that would have fit beautifully in Mr. Bloom’s fearsome canon, but I don’t think the rebuff bothered him overmuch, if at all. Poetry was his soul’s refreshment and true bearing, a way of looking “at the World / and into your heart at the same time.” The poems were a necessity.

His early poems had a dignity and clarity to them, a sense of shy restraint. He described himself then as “a solitary buffoon” who “had been eating the contents of world poetry … without any idea of what to spit out.” He wanted

to be a child who wakes beautifully,
a man always in the state of waking
to a new room, or at night, waking
to a strange room with snow outside.

Years—the years, the years!—brought fame, even riches, not from his poetry but from his novellas, a form at which he excelled, his novels and his screenplays. He wrote well and prodigiously and when asked by one interviewer how, exactly, he replied, “Start at page 1 and write like hell.” Or something to that effect. Blinded in his left eye when a child by a playmate wielding a broken bottle (one would think he’d have an aversion to females after such a wounding), he trained the right to devour the world. (“No words have ever been read with” the left eye, he wrote. “Strangely enough, this eye can see underwater.”)

This was the eye that saw the world as it was—a holy terror dancing with light. The eye that saw the crow with his silver harness, sister bear with her huge head on his shoulder (“Privately she likes religion … I hear her incantatory moans”), tarpon leaping covered with oil flames in an oil refinery’s burning lagoon. The eye that once presented to him the “whole picture,”

                      magnificently detailed,
a child’s diorama of what life appears to be:
staring at the picture I became drowsy
with relief when I noticed a yellow
dot of light in the lower right-hand corner.
I unhooked the machines and tubes and crawled
to the picture, with an eyeball to the dot
of light, which turned out to be a miniature
tunnel at the end of which I could see
mountains and stars whirling and tumbling,
sheets of emotions, vertical rivers, upside-
down lakes, herds of unknown mammals, birds
shedding feathers and regrowing them instantly,
snakes with feathered heads eating their own
shed skins, fish swimming straight up,
the bottom of Isaiah’s robe, live whales
on dry ground, lions drinking from a golden
bowl of milk, the rush of night,
and somewhere in this the murmur of gods—
a tree-rubbing-tree music, a sweet howl
of water and rock-grating-rock, fire
hissing from fissures, the moon settled
comfortably on the ground, beginning to roll.

This eye, the poor one, the bad one that rolled in its milky socket like a moon, was accomplice to his visions of commanding dreams as well as the dreams he dreamed awake. It’s a good eye to have for a poet. Necessary in fact, though many don’t have it and can’t perceive the loss.

Jim described his poems as “flowers for the void,” writing them made him “soar along a foot / from the ground.” The super-masculine tough-guy selves, the reckless gourmands and intellectual wild men of the woods and prairies who populated his famous fictions were only a feather’s breadth remove from the genuinely bold, larger-than-life article. So it is that there is still amazement among his readers that he wrote poetry, that he felt that only in poetry had he found “the right pen” to write what he wanted to say.

Jim spent his fifth and sixth decades in determined excess. He wrote eagerly—in the eighties alone he published three novels—and was well rewarded, yet he was still, even increasingly, aware of the “scythe awake / moving through the dark” that he had pictured as a young man. He feared losing the correction and calm of nature. In “The Theory & Practice of Rivers,” he wrote:

Drowning in the bourgeois trough,
a bourride or gruel of money, drugs
whiskey, hotels, the dream coasts,
ass in the air at the trough, drowning
in a river of pus, pus of civilization,
pus of cities, unholy river of shit,
of filth, shit of nightmares, shit
of skewed dreams and swallowed years.
The river pulls me out,
draws me elsewhere
and down to blue water,
green water,
black water.

His next collection, After Ikkyū, was written in a self-described dark period from which he knew he was emerging. He had studied Zen for years but admitted it had been “in a state of rapacious and self-congratulatory spiritual greed.” Now he was dedicatedly reading masters such as Yunmen and Tung-shan. Yunmen disliked people, particularly the pilgrims who sought him out, and was said to have a strong aversion to vulgarity. Jim probably found this quite remarkable. Yunmen wrote, “A true person of the Way can speak fire without burning his mouth.” Having some success with speaking fire, Jim wrote:

                                                           I was writing a poem
about paying attention and microwaved a hot dog
so hot it burned a beet-red hole in the roof of my mouth.

The Ikkyū he professed to follow was even more of an oddball roshi—overly amorous, irreverent—who apparently looked quite unseemly.

Jim was more contemplative in this period closing in on the millennium, in “Geo-Bestiary” closer to finding the humble song in praise of life, getting down to the serious business of becoming “alert enough to live.” Yet still never too serious, still agile enough to avoid the more ponderous steps of the dance. In writing the beginning epitaphs of thirty-three friends he forgoes all lofty sentiments in his exaltations:

O you river with too many dams
O you lichen without tree or stone
O you always loved long naps
O you orphaned vulture with no meat

even, at times, commencing with asking their forgiveness:

Forgive me for naming a bird after you
Forgive me for not knowing where you’re buried
Pardon me for burning your last book
Pardon me for fishing during your funeral.

Truth is, he was a good friend, the best sort of friend. And so fortunate for Poetry that she had always been his practice. He served her and she offered him the means for paying attention. Poetry was

            this other,
the secret sharer,
who directs the hand
that twists the heart,
the voice calling out to me

Pay attention. One of his mantras. As was: “The days are stacked against / what we think we are.” The modest little book Braided Creek, compiled with his friend Ted Kooser, were the epigrammatic poems included in the letters of their months of correspondence when Ted was ill with cancer. One of the book’s charms is that the individual shards are unattributed, showing that the shape of words that break and heal our hearts need not be owned.

To have reverence for life
you must have reverence for death.
The dogs we love are not taken from us
but leave when summoned by the gods.

Still, I suspect that this was one of Jim’s offerings.

There is a piece in this volume not collected before, “Scrubbing the Floor the Night a Great Lady Died,” about the racehorse Ruffian who, in a match race against the Derby winner Foolish Pleasure, shattered the bones in a foreleg while continuing to run and finish the race. She endured a twelve-hour surgery as vets tried to save her, but when she emerged from anesthesia she thrashed about on the floor of a padded stall as if still running, spinning in circles, her heavy cast smashing bones in her other legs, and she had to be euthanized. It was a tragedy and because the extraordinary filly was the victim of greed and incompetence, it was the purest of tragedies. Jim and his wife and daughter bawled at the news as, thousands of miles away, I bawled with my daughter.

“How could she wake so frantic, as if from a terrible dream?” the poet asked. It was the awareness of immense loss, surely, the theft of her very being.

For she was so surely of earth, in earth; once so animate, sprung in some final, perfect form, running, running, saying, “Look at me, look at me, what could be more wonderful than the way I move, tell me if there’s something more wonderful.”

This was in 1975. So long ago. Reading now for the first time “Scrubbing the Floor the Night a Great Lady Died,” I hear the somber cry that moves across the years, the cry so much like the call of the loon (“lost or doomed angels imprisoned / within their breasts”) and the hawk’s keening wail (“the precise weight of death”).

Nineteen seventy-five. The years, the years … Jim would die forty-one years later at his casita in Patagonia, Arizona. He had at times pictured his death and his death song (or rather the circumstances surrounding his deathbed and his death song), counting again the beautiful birds of his life—the great flocks of snow geese and sandhill cranes at Bosque del Apache, the frigate birds of the Pacific and the seabirds of the Sea of Cortez as well as, of course, the aforementioned birds of the soul and the night. He would count and count, and 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.

So he had imagined, though his wife, Linda, would die the year before him and his own passing would arrive in the cool and volatile month of March.

This poet, this bawdy, generous, uncommonly devotional man was no Saint Cuthbert—he killed a thousand birds, by his own account, throwing the tiny meats of woodcock and snipe into the vast presentations of many elaborate meals—but for those of us so grateful for his heart’s work, his poems, it’s impossible not to hope that his last vision, as we might pray to be our own, was of birds in untrammeled flight.

Joy Williams is the author of five novels, five story collections, a guidebook to the Florida Keys, and the essay collection Ill Nature. Her work has been nominated for the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. In 2021, she received the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction. Williams lives in Tucson, Arizona.

Jim Harrison: Complete Poems will appear in December 2021, published by Copper Canyon.