Jim Harrison, author of 21 volumes of fiction, 14 books of poetry, a couple books of essays, a memoir, and a children’s book, died Saturday, March 23, at the age of 78. I was lucky to meet him twice. This is a recollection of one meeting. Forgive this rambling recollection. Death always sneaks up on us, an invisible wave in the night.
Harrison is hands down my favorite poet. Like lightning he conducts a charge generated by the differing poles of earth and sky. He soars with his feet planted firmly on the ground. My kind of poet.
I imagine that in some ways being a fellow Michigander has something to do with my admiration for this man’s work, yet I know this explanation will not do. On a more basic level there is something elemental in our shared experience, a love of snakes, rivers, food, drink and all manor of wild life.
I met Harrison while working as an assistant to a U.S. congressional candidate. The campaign would lose the election but the experience traveling around the upper half of the lower peninsula and the entire upper peninsula of my native Michigan taught me a lot about politics and human nature. I suggested a meeting between my candidate and Harrison — maybe he would contribute to our liberal cause — this wasn’t to be, yet the meeting was warm, cordial, with plenty of wine to drink.
We met at his cabin near Grand Marais in the fall of 1984. I was surprised by its small size and rustic condition. I thought an author of his stature would have more comfortable digs. I thought of him as a giant from reading his poetry. I did not yet know most poets go hungry. This was before his wide spread success, which came when his epic novela, Legends of the Fall, was made into a movie in the early ’90s.
He is a man whose imagination flowed in great curling leaps. I hear the rain drops on my dark window tonight and think what fodder Harrison would have made of them in his poetry. So much of his poetry feature water imagery: streams, rivers, oceans, our own watery bodies, and the patient tapping of the fingers of fate. He inspires us to think back and forth across our short, little, self-important lives for the earth-bound epiphanies seemingly but not out of reach. Harrison offered no sugar coat on our existence.
We met as the sun was beginning to cut the cool air of the morning. We sat at a plank table inside his spartan cabin. Jim sat looking outdoors. A quart bottle of wine between us from which he poured libations in small glasses. His wandering eye, lost in childhood scuffle, roamed as wide as he talked. He kept returning the conversation to the animals he was keeping an eye out for. As the conversation deepened between all three of us, I was unable to keep up with his rangy references from philosophers to scientists to oriental landscape painters. Yet all through the conversation he returned again and again to the animals — a bear and a coyote, in particular. Every time he turned the conversation around and up and over lesser things, namely politics of the day, he left me with the impression he was simultaneously working on a poem or piece of fiction. I remember he said, though I cannot recall his exactly his words, something to the effect, ‘That bitch coyote came by last night. She’s waiting out there beyond the edge of the woods.’ Obviously his muse of the day or week.
Gracious but unwilling to follow the drift of the conversation my candidate and I initially attempted to bring to him, he led us on a two hour journey of the heart and mind. When we left I realized I never met a man so inspired, so big-hearted, so radically honest with himself and others.
That day resounds like a bell in my memory. Though his literary references were off the charts of my newly minted bachelor of arts education, I saw in him the fruits of intense listening in the world inside and outside my head. Learning to see without reserve takes guts. He drove me deeper and to question more ruthlessly. He woke me up.
He stuck me that day, and at a subsequent chance meeting at a bar in Marquette, as a man deeply witnessing the foibles and profound depths of his own being. He inspired me to remain fixed on the struggle to witness the authentic in all experience, despite the depth of our own and our culture’s titanic deceptions, and to jettison what we can too often cavalierly brand as true. I left looking for that next image haunting me at the edge of the dark wood.
Larson’s Holstein Bull
by Jim Harrison
Death waits inside us for a door to open.
Death is patient as a dead cat.
Death is a doorknob made of flesh.
Death is that angelic farm girl
gored by the bull on her way home
from school, crossing the pasture
for a shortcut. In the seventh grade
she couldn’t read or write. She wasn’t a virgin.
She was “simpleminded,” we all said.
It was May, a time of lilacs and shooting stars.
She’s lived in my memory for sixty years.
Death steals everything except our stories.