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Six Short Essays About Jim Harrison

“The sense of play that a poet needs to make language an ally – often thought of as congenital insincerity by the public – provides the at least momentary pleasure of creation; the sense of having a foothold, if not full membership, in a guild as old as man. The child who carves a tombstone or rock out a bar of soap knows some of this pleasure.”
– Jim Harrison, “A Natural History of Some Poems”

1.

It’s a weakness and I can’t get rid of it. How I keep wanting to meet the writers I admire.

When he’s in Montana, the poet and novelist Jim Harrison does most of his work in a shed behind his refurbished farmhouse. The house itself is tastefully done up in arts and crafts, arrangements of hardwoods and mirrors and original art; his writing space, however, could have come from impoverished Mexico, Argentina, the Balkans. Some mountain village still ten years away from electricity. There’s a sleeping cot (quilts piled up in a wad) and a good-sized desk. A corkboard of photos and shelves full of personal totems. Little else. It’s the room of a writer leery of all distraction save memory.

On a Saturday morning in early June, he was working in a raveling, wheat yellow t-shirt and black sweat pants. Belly in his lap and a legal pad on his desk, the pages folded back. “I’ve never used a computer, even a typewriter. I have a problem with electricity.” This was in the Paradise Valley, south of Livingston. Outside the door, there was a view of the Absaroka mountains and, to one side, a small pond built by one of his two sons-in-law (a length of white utility pipe trickling out a finger of water). In the shaded yard under the cottonwoods, you had the sense of being islanded away from things. Your eye went first to the pond, the irrigation ditch, the frenetic flitting of nameless brown songbirds, then up to the mountains, the horizon.

Harrison is slightly walleyed. Shaking his hand, if you want to look him in the eye you’re not quite sure how to go about it. “My left eye is blind and jogs / like a milky sparrow in its socket…the front teeth, bucked, / but not in lechery – I sucked / my thumb until the age of twelve.” Pushing seventy now, he’s missing a tooth or two and his hair recalls a dandelion gone to seed, two-thirds blown clean. A man who has devoted his life to the artful and moving presentation of words on a page, the perfect reduction of emotion into a sentence or two, his own upkeep has apparently received less attention.

 
  “It is not so much that I got / there from here, which is everyone’s / story: but the shape / of the voyage, how it pushed / outward in every direction…”

As a writer, Harrison has consistently braided together the sacred with the profane, the self-indulgent (wine, women, sport) with the austere, “Jesus speaks Spanish but understands English poorly, / thus our prayers go awry and girls are dehymenized.” Who else in our pantheon brings such a breadth of unprejudiced experience to their work? In Harrison’s philosophy, everything in life is worth writing about, everything is up for grabs. His fiction has made his name, his movies have paid the bills, his essays (given their conversational, self-assured voice) can, if you study them, teach you how to write. But it’s his poetry that will outlive him. His volume of collected verse, The Shape of the Journey, was, for my money, the finest book of American poetry published in the last decade. I don’t make this statement lightly. “It is not so much that I got / there from here, which is everyone’s / story: but the shape / of the voyage, how it pushed / outward in every direction…” The fact that this book’s neck wasn’t immediately bowed with every available honor shows only the number of gatekeeper academics who are still overly preoccupied with the lint in their own navels.

2.

What makes a writer? Throw a dart, everybody’s got a theory. No secret save hard work, no secret save early mornings, no secret save late nights. Maybe there’s a trick, the way sawing a pretty woman in half is a trick. This way, no this way, this way, goddamnit. The secret, though, is there is no secret. The art lies in making it look easy. The best writers, the work is themselves. To write well, you travel well, read well. Drink, eat, get laid well. Have enough professional discipline to put it on the page. In some measure, and without ever having met the guy (his essays about fly-fishing for tarpon on hallucinogens, browsing through strip bars in Paris, parsing through the cynical writings of E.M. Cioran), Jim Harrison taught me that.

I’m not much good at interviewing. I make awkward segues, interrupt the flow of conversation. In this case, however, this slow Saturday morning, Harrison just wanted to talk. Tilted back in his writing chair, he began with rattlesnakes. The hillside behind his house was infested. “I don’t really have anything against them, but my English Setter was bit twice in the face and we had to put her down. So, you know.” He indicated a little Ruger .22 in the corner. “They like gopher holes. If you want to get rid of rattlesnakes, you get rid of gophers.” His voice, graveled by the cigarettes, had an odd rhythm to it, hesitant and self-effacing. In a recent poem, “After the War,” he devoted a verse to his dog, to the rattlesnake that killed it. “Rose was struck twice by a rattler / in the yard, a fang broken off in her eyeball. / Now old dog and old master each / have an eye full of bloody milk…” It occurred to me that maybe I should be writing some of this down.

 
  “Maybe it’s where poets belong, / these substreets where the contents of human life / can be seen more clearly, our shabby backsides / disappearing into the future at the precise rate / of the moon’s phases.”

I was there ostensibly to discuss his newest volume of poetry, Saving Daylight. One of the poems in this collection, “Livingston Suite,” opens with a portrait of the little town where I grew up (“Maybe it’s where poets belong, / these substreets where the contents of human life / can be seen more clearly, our shabby backsides / disappearing into the future at the precise rate / of the moon’s phases.”) and ends with an elegiac tribute to a local teenager found dead in the Yellowstone River (“Beside the river’s bend / where he drowned colored stones are arranged / to say “We love you, T.J.”) Like most all of Harrison’s work, it’s profoundly autobiographical. I asked him where it came from. He knocked the fire off his cigarette, setting it aside. “T.J. used to babysit my grandsons, and so I knew him a little. He was nineteen, which is such a prime age. A part of that poem came from, I suppose, how my sister died when she was nineteen too. Your physical hardiness, your idealism, at that age everything is at its height.” He relit the cigarette. “The strange thing about writing that poem, we were just in Montana temporarily, looking for a house, and I was reawakening to the idea of living in a town.” (“A community can drown in itself / then come to life again. Every yard seems / to have flowers, every street its resident magpies.”) “I was rediscovering that Livingston is a peculiarly old-fashioned place. There’s an intermixing of people here that you don’t see much in other places. People who are millionaires and people who are on food stamps, and they still talk to each other. The rest of the country, that’s passing. You have all these gated communities.” He stopped to consider. “Of course, I’ve known this town for a long time. We’ve at least visited here every year but one since 1968.”

I recalled that the water in “Livingston Suite” is a continuing and unifying thread. A conspicuous theme throughout the book. “You can’t row or swim upstream on the river. / This moving water is your continuing past…” Referring to the drowning, I said, “People don’t realize how strong that river can be.”

He nodded, “Especially during runoff. The difference between 12,000 and 5,000 cfs is infinite. Max and I were floating past a stretch of the Yellowstone the other day and he pointed out this slow spot by the clinic where there’s a bulge in the river. You get down low in the boat, you can see the water bulge up. It’s impossibly dangerous.”

He craned his head at an angle to the window, his eye attracted by movement. “That’s a heron coming in. I have enough water in my ditch now, I can attract herons.”

3.

“It occurred to me not long ago,” Jim Harrison said, “if I had succumbed and gone into teaching, I wouldn’t have this body of work. Any of it. My entire career is predicated upon moving around. If I hadn’t come to Montana in the sixties, for instance, I wouldn’t have thought up Legends of the Fall.”

Elsewhere, he’s written, “As the days passed, I came to think that the finest thing about a long solo car trip is that you get to forget who you are…Every place you stay is a place you never stayed before….The bottom line is that you are free, however temporarily, and you return to the exhilaration of those childhood myths of Robin Hood or the lone cowpoke.”

In Montana, he likes Malta. “I have this absurd affection for that part of the country. I love that drive.” As well as the road from Miles City to Cohagen. “You don’t have a traffic problem.” Winters, he lives on the southern border of Arizona. “A little ranching community called Patagonia. High country. It’s not desert. What I like about it, the birdlife is overwhelming.” In Ingomar, the owner of a bar once led Harrison back to his apartment to show off his scrapbook. “He had photos of an old love. A ballerina.” This remembrance led to a digression about living in New York some fifty years ago. “I used to go to these dive bars near Carnegie Hall where all the ballerinas hung out. Jesus. They’re not hard to look at, you know? Not something you see in Martinsdale, for instance.”

We had in common the Missouri Breaks, and after the conversation turned in that direction, he graciously seemed curious, and produced a road map. “So your place is on the south side?”

I traced a line along the Fort Peck, east of the Musselshell. “About an hour northwest of Jordan.”

He said, “I was in the Hell Creek Bar some years ago. Just a few hours, but that’s all it took and I had permission to bird hunt on about 500,000 acres. I never really took advantage of it.”

“It worries me,” I said, “how so much of that country is being developed. Even up in the breaks, down on the Musselshell, they’re starting to subdivide it.”

He looked slightly alarmed. “You can’t worry about it.” He tucked away the map. “It’s all just about money. We’ve been enduring twenty-five years of the most phenomenal period of greed. I would say it’s similar to the 1870s to 1890s, that time after the Civil War. Me, I’m just a poet, what can I do? There’s no sense worrying about it.” He eased back in his chair. “When you take long car trips, though, you get far enough off the freeway, you see the surge of people as decidedly spotty. There’s still a lot of good places to go.” He thought about it. “I like Melrose, too. Melrose at least seems safe enough. It’s not close to the shopping.”

4.

One of Jim Harrison’s characters wrote, “Obsessions don’t seem extraordinary if it’s just the way you are.”

In a way, it’s a redundant exercise, profiling a writer. If the guy’s any good, his life is already well on display in his work. From reading his novels, for instance, I knew that Harrison is a bird watcher. Also, and without contradiction, a bird hunter. “Huns are interesting. I still like going out after huns. And I miss my ruffed grouse and woodcock in Michigan. I’m going back in October.” He loves eating birds, although he seems torn between his appetites and the risk of a too-simple hunt. “I lost a paper-rock-scissors game to Guy de la Valdene once and had to shoot a wood duck for dinner. It’s not much work to shoot a wood duck, not much challenge, but they’re utterly delicious.” He eyed me. “Hence the problem.” In one of his more touching moments, he has a character (old Northridge, in The Road Home), die to the accompanying sound of a billion songbirds, earlier dreamed to be the voice of god. He told me, “Wild turkeys. I think they’re the finest game bird for cooking. Don’t you?”

“Yes, but maybe a little dry for me.”

“The only way to cook them is to use a roasting bag. They brown within the bag and it keeps the moisture in.”

About a stag hunting excursion in Normandy, he wrote, “…I enjoyed saddle of wild boar, or a 1928 Anjou with fresh pate de foie gras in slabs, trout laced with truffles, cotelettes of loin from a small forest deer called a chevreuil, pheasant baked under clay with wild mushrooms…All day we had been sipping Chateau Margaux straight from the bottle and not feeling even vaguely boorish.” He seems to appreciate the aesthetic trappings of wealth (art, furniture) but finds distasteful the ego that so often accompanies those trappings. A spiritual man, the failures and inconsistencies of Christianity are rocks in his shoes while Buddhism is a preoccupation. “I don’t see Buddhism as a religion for me so much as an attitude. My background is so basically Christian, it’s hard to get past that upbringing. Dan Gerber, we had a conversation of this sort, and he was amazed that I still believed in the resurrection. It just never occurred to me not to.” He eyed me scribbling on my pad, hurrying to catch up. After a considerate time, he added, “They say that there are ninety billion galaxies in the universe. That’s fifteen galaxies for each person on earth. Who am I as an old geezer in Montana to say what’s possible?”

He likes his things. Four shelves in his writing shed are devoted to mementoes, including a garish, ceramic human skull (something maybe from Mexico’s festival of the dead) as well as an array of gourd rattles. A jawbone. Photos. He handed me an antique bronze metal tag, stamped with a number and the words, Bureau of Indian Affairs. He said, “That was a body tag. I guess they liked to keep track of the people they killed.” Further down the row, there was a coyote skull painted with black, geometrical designs. “I helped set up a teepee outside a powwow in New Mexico, and this guy gave me this skull with his medicine painted on it. He said he’d been in prison for twenty years and had just gotten out.” He rummaged around for half a minute, then said, “Yeah, here it is. A dried grizzly bear turd Doug Peacock gave me.”

He also cherishes his friendships. About the essayist Merrill Gilfillan he said, “I read his books over and over.” And in describing a poet in Helena whom he met at James Welch’s funeral, M.L. Smoker, he said “She read at the memorial and she was astonishingly good.” He pointed out a painting under his shelf of mementoes. “That painting of a mulberry tree down there is one of Koosers. It’s nice isn’t it.” Mentioning a bad review of a McGuane title, he defended him, saying, “Certain critics can’t cross the Mississippi. The guy took a scene in one of Tom’s books to task for cruelty, a scene about pulling calves. But that’s just how you do it. I grew up helping calve, and when you have one that’s having a hard time, you use ropes.” On his corkboard, among the snapshots of wildflowers, snippets of poems, a photograph of his new grandson being bathed in the sink (which he unpinned, saying, “I love that look on his face, that old man skepticism.”) he has a xeroxed photo of Gary Snyder. “Oh, and that’s my sensei, Kobun Chino Sensei, I mention him in Livingston Suite. He drowned trying to save his three year old daughter.” A few hours later, I read the poem again: “I make nothing of this but my mind suddenly / rises far upward and I see Kobun in his black / robes struggling in the water and he becomes / a drowning raven who then frees himself for flight, / his daughter on the pond’s bottom rising to join him.”

5.

 
  “My, how our government strains us / through its filthy sheets. We’re drawn / from birth through the sucking vortex / of greed. It all looked good on paper.”

“This is such a belligerent period,” Jim Harrison said. “There’s such a fantastic parsimonious spirit dominating our culture now. You see it creeping even into Bozeman. A mono-ethic. A right way and a wrong way of thinking about everything.” In his poem “After the War,” he wrote, “My, how our government strains us / through its filthy sheets. We’re drawn / from birth through the sucking vortex / of greed. It all looked good on paper.”

In the democracy of art, Harrison is more democratic than most. You see it particularly in his newest collection of verse, which is nothing if not an amiable and equitable mishmash of disparate voices, up to and including translations of his own work, Spanish to English. It avoids obvious themes, unless those themes are aging and mortality. The everpresent and unstoppable flow of water from uphill to to down. “Nothing quite so wrenches / the universe like time. / It clings obnoxiously / to every atom, not to speak / of the moon, which it weighs / down with invisible wet dust.” In his poem “After the War,” he writes, “I stopped three feet from the top / of Everest. Fuck it, I’m not going / a single inch further.”

About his novels and novellas, Jim Harrison has written, “…they sometimes strike me as extra, burly flesh on the true bones of my life though a few of them approach some of the conditions of poetry.” He told me now, however, “I try not to differentiate the forms. When a novel presents itself I write a novel. When a poem presents itself I write a poem. The odd thing is so many novelists don’t seem to think that you should write poetry, and so many poets don’t seem to think you should write novels. Even Hemingway and Faulkner started out writing poems. Though as we know now they weren’t very good poems.”

It seemed a small tragedy that, after the appearance of his collected poems in 1998, he might perhaps be done with poetry. Publishing new verse after that compendium, after all, would seem to give lie to the word “collected.” And yet in 2003 he and former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser collaborated on a volume, Braided Creek, and in April of this year he released the extraordinary Saving Daylight. “Some of these poems are six or seven years old,” he told me. “More recently, though, I had a particularly fruitful period after my older brother died, because it takes you to a full stop. You can’t really imagine such a thing could happen. It doesn’t seem possible. Especially since he had been a kind of surrogate parent to me.”

Writing with an eye toward art, the first legitimacy arises from the ability to place yourself in a larger context. The critic Helen Vendler argues that all poetry arises from the inspiration of predecessors. Among Harrison’s contemporaries and peers, he strikes an amiable and enviable balance between personal experience and academia, referencing Keats quite easily and bending both knees toward Neruda and Lorca. “With the exception of the English deities, Yeats, for instance, I’ve always felt the predominant thrust of twentieth century poetry was in Spanish.” He went bemused. “Some American novelists got irked not long ago when I told an interviewer that the American novel is an island in the sea of Marquez.” He thought about it. “I’m not even sure I believe in literature. What we believe to be literature is really a scaffolding. Reputation is so much based on social context. I believe in books.”

6.

Endings are a subtle work. The three point jumper of a writer’s craft. Within the space of a paragraph, a few sentences, you’re expected to reinforce your themes, tie up loose plot lines, break a reader’s heart in all the right places. Jim Harrison has them down pat. In his most famous work, Legends of the Fall, the final paragraph describes a family ranch near Choteau. “It’s a modern efficient operation, but back there in the canyon there are graves that mean something to a few people left on earth: Samuel, Two, Susannah and a little apart Ludlow buried between his true friends, One Stab and Isabel; and a small distance away Decker and Pet. Always alone, apart, somehow solitary, Tristan is buried up in Alberta.” Note his disdain for commas around prepositional phrases, then his staccato build up to Tristan’s burial, how he cultivates a certain rhythm. Note as well the juxtaposition of daily preoccupation (“modern efficient operation”) with the immediacy of the grave, your own sympathetic catch when you read that sorrowful description of Tristan being buried alone.

At the end of Dalva, Harrison has a character play a miniature violin along the rim of a cemetery, “serenading the living and the dead.” And in the final, heartbreaking lines of Revenge, he describes another graveyard. “The man who had dug the hole lowered himself into the earth, knelt and kissed the flowers. He lifted himself from the hole, picked up the shovel and threw in some earth with a thump he would hear on his own deathbed.” How deceptively difficult that last phrase must have been to write, taking us as it does from one death to another across an entire lifetime, and without even a comma to point the way.

Of his many books, my personal favorite remains his slim volume of haiku inspired verse, After Ikkyu. Rereading certain poems now, the ones that have made their way onto my corkboard, they all strike me as appropriate last lines. About a sick puppy, he wrote, “How great thou art o god, / save her, please, the same cry / in every throat. May I live forever.” And after a harangue against the world’s advice (“Stop mooning around! Pay attention. Get to work on time.”), he writes in a kind of exhale, “Time and tide that wait for no man willingly / pause for the barearmed girl brushing her hair / in a brown pickup truck on a summer evening.” In noting how a heron is having trouble with one of its landings, Harrison says, “He’s getting old and I wonder where he’ll be when / he dies.”

By the end of the morning, Harrison wanted to meet my dog. “What’s his name?”

“Henry. After Berryman’s Dream Songs.”

When I opened the truck door, it took a long few seconds for my arthritic, gray-muzzled Lab to find his feet. “He’s getting a little down in the hips.”

“Man, he’s big though.” Harrison watched as Henry sniffed around his lawn, then took a long piss on a fence post. “I hate it that they have to get old. Every time one of my dogs dies, I feel like I need to roll around on the floor and cry for a couple of days.”

It’s a weakness and I can’t get rid of it, how I keep wanting to meet the writers I admire. Like the pudgy radio D.J. with the skinny voice, the personality rarely matches the work. How does one return to a beloved book without seeing the author’s inevitable flaws, his tics, his fallibilities? Against all odds, however, Harrison filled his own corners. In the introduction to After Ikkyu, he said, “To write a poem you must first create a pen that will write what you want to say. For better or worse, this is the work of a lifetime.” He limped back to his shed, anxious for another hour or two of reconsidering himself and his own particular past. Like all writers his real business lies in showing the rest of us who we are. The need for it is essential and universal, and Jim Harrison does it better than damn near anybody.

About Allen M. Jones

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8 comments

  1. Harrison is one of the toga-robed sages positioned in his own courtyard corner of high western literature and poetry. Trying to distill the essence of who he is is hardly dauntless. Allen Jones has done a masterful job of talking with the wizard while still respecting the power of his mind and magic (by not trying to explain a force that is innately unexplainable). Well done, Allen. You need to write more, too. I look forward to YOUR next novel.

  2. Good writers never die, they just place their forms od scribing of leven bread on the tree saps! 🙂

  3. Well done.
    The one-eyed sensei of Patagonia and the U.P. is a National Living Treasure.
    When I think of the very best of America, I thimk of Big Jim.
    Excellent structure and nuance, Mr. Jones.

  4. I certainly thank the author for this interview. As someone who spent their formative years wandering throughout the U.P. and then moved West, I have an affinity to Harrison that I cannot describe other than to say he writes of the photograph of what I was and the cartographer of where I am going. He is America’s greatest writer.

  5. Nice job Allen. You’ve managed to capture the essence of a complex writer and share Jim’s latest views with all of us. I greatly enjoyed reading and savoring this article. I met Jim almost 2 years ago at a reading at B&N in New York, and will always cherish that moment in my writing life. To read a current “conversation” with Jim tonight was a joy to find. Keep up the good work.

    – JJ

  6. Nice piece, Allen. I love your physical descriptions of Jim and of his lair. Good, compact essay.

  7. I just discovered this writer, Jim Harrison (don’t ask me where I have been… working is the short answer…), and I love him. Now I have discovered you, by Googling Jim Harrison. This is the best interview I think I have ever read.

  8. Authentic is good…the interview matches the author.

    I can help but think that authentic is Jim’s, hoped for, civilized antidote.