Jim Harrison: a brief recollection


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.







JOHN  HAINES — 1924 – 2011

Last year, at the first anniversary of his death, I drove to poet John Haines’ homestead cabin. I was curious to see the specific landscape which fired his imagination and produced that first literary earthquake of a book, Winter News. It was a typical Alaskan late winter day, windy, not deeply cold. The sky was host to a few billowy, fast-moving clouds. It was the kind of day that restores hope of light after a long, dark winter.

I began by driving through the haze and fumes that make Fairbanks and North Pole some of the worst polluted air of any city in the world. I passed the long fence of Eielson Air Force Base. I sped along the forested flats dotted with mailboxes and driveways where lift-kitted, four-wheel drive pickups covered in mud pointed toward dented trailers owned by people living out their version of the Alaska dream. I passed the too frequently flooded community of Salcha. Steered my way along the road’s bends and twists at Harding Lake before dropping down and alongside the slumbering Tanana River – now a flat expanse of white, littered with brown upended roots and tangles of spruce logs.

At a pullout, I pulled my little car up close to the river’s edge. I climbed out to stretch my body and give my dry eyes relief from defrosted air. The wind-driven air cut threw my shirt and pants. I stood for a few bracing moments observing the white peaks of the Alaska Range wobbling and  shimmering in the distance like a long line of pearls under shallow water.

Energized, I climbed back into the car and read a short essay of John’s, called, “Readings From An Alaskan Journal.” This quote stood out, “Like most of us, I am a descendant of European immigrants, hardly yet at home on this continent. But I have nonetheless been trying all my life to understand what I have found, what I think I know.” The power of that line seemed to come as much from my formidable surroundings as from the page. It is a definitive statement for all writers. Even though I cannot yet count myself a published author, John’s words seemed to sum up what I’d been doing with paper and pen for so many years – trying to understand ‘what I have found and think I know.’

That day next to the sleeping Tanana, a small flag of hope flew in my thoughts. John was in this country a long time before his revelatory first book of poems. This trajectory of John’s publishing life was a long, lonely apprenticeship far from the centers of the literary establishment. In that crucible of solitude, he became well acquainted with his own personal and literary limitations. His Poem Of The Forgotten begins “I came to this place,// a young man green and lonely.// Well quit of the world” and ends with him waking “in the first snow of autumn, // filled with silence.” Most important, in these long, cold, deep silences, he began to hone his craft.

I’ll have more on Haines’ poetry from time to time.


Here is a video portrait of John at his Richardson Homestead.

The grieving muscle; a challenge prose poem

I’m sailing well into the month of August’s poetry challenges. I’m doing two this month that requires a poem a day, plus another two or three on one challenge once a week. These end up being drafts of works I may or may not take up later but so far I’m keeping pace.

This weeks challenge over at Khara Houses’ blog, Our Lost Jungle, is to write a prose poem, that curious hybrid of poetry and prose. I’ve written many over the years, most in the form of letter poems. I have a provisional title for a book and a good portion of the “letters” written for them. I hope to make these the basis of my second book of poems after publishing my first next year.

Another related form of the prose poems, another of my personal favorites, is the postcard poem. I’m doing a challenge over at August Postcard Poetry Fest(ival) blog to write a postcard poem a day sponsored by Striped Water Poets and hosted this year by Brendan McBreen. The only requirement for a postcard poem is that it fit on a postcard. To date I’ve sent out 15 poems and received eight. That’s a pretty good average, according to Brendan.

Below is one prose poem I wrote for Khara’s challenge this week. The other, on a lighter topic I posted on Khara’s blog comments. As you will see, my prose poems are prosy, letter like. I imagine speaking to an intimate friend, once capable of following my tortured thoughts and feelings. I like this voice because it gives me a platform and some leeway to speculate on a variety of subjects and themes.

Finding the grief muscle

To die or not to die is not the question. The questions don’t matter since most are easily answered and the complicated ones we study to be entertained for a time and only after a hard time come to learn they were the wrong questions. Like the one about what it feels like to be dead, which cannot be known, since the evidence is scanty or suspect — being based on near-death accounts, which by definition are not death experiences, only approximates, mere near misses with death, not death itself. No, the only questions are to the living, those who clean blood from concrete or carpet, those who empty the clothes closets, those who must sort through favorite toys, those who must ponder death as they lay dying and survivors who carry the additional, seemingly intolerable burden, of months and sometimes years of grief  — an experience always soaked in the rain of their imagination which only prolongs the inevitable day of liberation, spending their days within an encapsulated heart, setting up shop in a back alley with the freeway roaring like hell overhead, dutifully producing. We grievers cannot miss the important practice of watching through a blur children play or couples at a fountain sharing themselves or the faint stars appearing in the opposite sky at sunset. These signs, these twilight stars are stars of life and death, true avengers, like a child saviors born in the midst of grief and death, small beginnings, lights given us to resurrect our experience of innocence, a new muscle capable of lifting us off the shore of our sorrow each day, so we may once again fly into song with the sweet dying people who remain.   

Poetry of the Dead for the Living

Yesterday was a good day for this poet’s soul.  A perfect stranger asked if they could use one of my poems in a presentation. Of course I said yes.

Mary Pfeiffer found me through Elizabeth Saunders, who, like me, is participating in Robert Lee Brewer’s April Platform challenge. The idea is to grow your network of on-line social contacts so that you can share and grow together. It seems to be working.

Mary Pfeifer, a Memoirist, teacher and writer, does not frequent poetry blogs. She found my poetry blog via Saunders and liked my “Visiting Grandma” poem. She will use the poem this weekend for a talk on writing memoirs. The greatest compliment was Pfeiffer writing in her email “I think I will have to rethink my “I don’t do poetry” stance…” Talk about the power of poetry. Maybe one day I will be known as the poetry evangelist?

In any event I was happy to help Pfeiffer and included in my email to her other resources she might use. One of several links I sent was of a talk Ted Kooser gave called  ‘Narrative and Healing’.  It includes several of my favorite Kooser poems: A Good-bye Handshake, Mother and Pearl. I call them heirloom poems because, besides being good poems, they memorialize ancestors by remembering them alive, as I did in ‘Visiting Grandma.’

In what ways have you memorialized you loved ones? Grave stones are traditional but today so many people are scattering their loved ones ashes on the wind. Does this mean they are writing down memories or maybe creating a web presence for their loved ones?

Let me know. Leave a comment below.