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.







Nothing is as it appears to be.
What is this aging? What am I to make
of these pale, brutal numbers? For a moment I’m fourteen.
from She, a poem by Jim Harrison

I recently acquired photos of my grandmother that are very dear to me. I posted one picture of her on Facebook to share with family members who live out-of-state. Her great-grandchildren were astonished by the photo. I was too.

scan0018 grandma cropped

Suddenly, here in my hands, seven years after her death at 100, was my grandmother, resurrected as a charming, fresh-faced teen, full of life.  The juxtaposition was startling. The pictures of her in my memory are of a white-haired elderly women, full of energy, opinions, and hard-scrabble wisdom. (I wrote a poem about her later years here.) Now I’m holding her youthful visage in my hands. It is stunning to see her look straight into the camera with just a hint of a smile. It is an era of her life I never knew, nor will I ever know.

It is certainly true that our past lives — the full telling of it anyway — recedes into an irretrievable past as each day passes. Snapshots reveal an image of who we were in a single moment of time. Soon after a photo is taken we are no longer that person. We grow out of ourselves like a tree adding layers each year. Fundamentally, the photos of ourselves are strangers to us now. As you look at any photo of yourself, the person you once were has retreated both into the maw of time and into the mysterious depths of yourself. These selves are nearly all but forgotten, save these photos.

I show my children pictures and tell them stories of my past. I am selective. I tell them what I think will help them in their life. I tell them my mistakes, my adventures and travels. I tell the things I am proud and not proud to have participated in. Yet, each time I tell them a piece of my story, I am painfully conscious of the fact that I am constructing my own narrative.  I know that even if they get the high points of that story, most of that story will be lost with me when I lie down for the last time.


So to with my grandmother. As my version of her life passes before me I can’t help but think I know only the high points of her whole life and but a smidgen of her early life. This portrait tells me that my grandmother was a beautiful young women. This is something she did not, nor would not in humility, tell us. Thus, I know nothing of how her beauty impacted her personality, how it influenced how men and women and relatives treated her, how it influenced her work life, or how it played out in courtship and her eventual choice of a husband. Neither can this portrait speak to me of how she saw the trajectory of her own life or if she ever felt cheated by circumstances or enlivened by her response to it. Looking at this photo, there is much that is hidden.

Holding this photo I begin to think that this young beauty is oblivious, as most of us are at that age, to the coming ravages of time. The Great Depression an event that would indelibly put its harsh stamp on her is but a few years down the road. So too is an alcoholic husband, a miscarriage, a divorce,  the death of four siblings, the death of a two husbands, and a long widowhood in a deteriorating neighborhood and home. I know that from the Great Depression on, poverty will be her constant companion. I do not know, nor will I ever know, the story of the precise moment when she would wake up to the realization that the lack of money would be with her forever.  She never told me that story.

I don’t want to suggest that her life was wholly preoccupied with the difficulty of money. Surely it was a constant and pressing concern but it never seemed to dampen her spirit. She overcame her meager circumstances with thrift. Her frugality was legendary. She stored and canned fruits and vegetables, clipped coupons, and always knew the stores with the best deals. She seemed to have a pot of soup always simmering on the stove. Her cupboards and pantry were nearly always full. She always had on hand enough food to last several months and would always give visitors food to take home.

Overall she lived a healthy and joyful life. She took pleasure in simple things: baking fresh bread, singing, birds, flowers, gardening. When I was a young boy she took me for weekly walks in various parks. She directed my attention to the beauty of the birds, the flowers, and the whisper of the lapping lake shore. In all the years I knew her, I remember her infectious laughter that often left me with side aches. She was generous with the little she had: lending food, her car, and crocheting an infinite number of hats, mittens and afghans for her children and grandchildren. She was a compassionate women: collecting and providing food and clothing to neighbors. She was an independent thinker. In her mid-thirties, before it was popular, she became a vegetarian and never touched a piece of meat again. She claimed it was the reason she lived so long. This was also the season of her life that she “found the Lord.” At the end of visits she would hug and kiss me, and tell me, “I love you and the Lord loves you too.” One of my most vivid memories of her is kneeling at her bed, hands folded before her bowed head, whispering. She prayed five times a day. I only wish I had a photo of her so kneeling. These are the memories I have of the person I remember; the person I knew best.

Over the years my grandma (whom I called Mum) told me many family stories for which I am grateful. Yet she never told me or anyone else I know the story of this fetching photo. Why she posed in that way? Who took the photo? Was it impromptu or planned? I can only guess how she felt at the moment this photo was taken or how she felt about it 30, 50, 70 years later. This saddens me. Had I seen the photo during her lifetime I would have asked her to tell me its story. I would have devoured the details of that story. Who knows, it might have put in perspective some family history or even explained some current family dynamics. Then again, maybe the telling of it would not shed light on anything but one day in her life when she was happy and young and full of promise. Either way, it would have been a good story to hear.

Do you take every opportunity to listen to stories from your elders?

Present self-knowledge is one thing but can we ever say we know who we were?