What Part Are You Now?

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Harrison’s style is spare and evocative, more expressive than Hemingway but less misogynistic, more accessible than Thoreau. Honest.

Sitting down to read Jim Harrison’s latest poetry collection, Songs of Unreason, I uncorked a bottle of a decent Gigondas that cost three or four times more than I usually pay for a bottle of wine. It was as good as I’d hoped, thick and licoricey, velvet, but I felt guilty about the price.

I feel kind of guilty sitting down to write a review of Harrison’s work, too. I’ve read just about everything he’s written. For a time I modeled my own writing style after his. I used to call him a “guy’s writer” when I recommended him to friends. Harrison’s style is spare and evocative, more expressive than Hemingway but less misogynistic, more accessible than Thoreau. Honest.

The words “atavistic, primitive, and totemistic” will be used liberally in reviews of Songs of Unreason largely because these are the words the writer himself uses to explain his work. I’m reminded of a quote I once read that suggested you should never ask an artist to explain his work because his answer will be incomprehensible–the quote might have been a reference from Harrison himself, maybe from his autobiography Off to the Side.

But those who have followed him over the years (he has published at least 30 books, 13 of which are collections of poetry, and two of which became films) will know these themes have always been hidden catalysts and stressors that shape his writing. For anyone approaching this new collection, words like “jubilant,” “heart-rending,” and “definitive” should be the guide.

I can’t help but think, at times, that Jim Harrison should be a leading candidate for U.S. Poet Laureate. He paints a uniquely American landscape in poignant language that is both compelling and prosaic, engaging the reader in a kind of a life partnership–we slowly become members of his family, held just slightly at arm’s length by a blind eye and the heart of a good-natured skeptic.

(From “Brutish”)

We are parts. What part are you now?
The shit of the world has to be taken
care of every day. You have to choose
your part after you take care of the shit.
I’ve chosen birds and fish, the creatures
whose logic I wish to learn and live.

“Songs” is Jim Harrison’s most complex work, not so much because of the composition and structure of his poems (these remain quite familiar, few in this collection exceeding 25 lines or so), but because of its unusual counterpoint. Stanzas of the long-form poem, “Suite of Unreason,” are placed on each un-numbered left-hand page, and individual new poems appear on the right-hand pages.

This presents the reader with something of a small challenge, one which Harrison seems to point to, ironically, in his poem “Notation,”

Nearly everything we are taught is false/except how to read.

Should we read only the left-hand pages first, then the right, or should we treat the book as a single continuous collection?

The answer, I think, is both, giving us multiple ways to experience and contemplate Harrison’s voice. The short, haiku-like stanzas of “Suite of Unreason” paint concise and elegant portraits that might be taken at face value, but also invite symbolic interpretation.

Only one cloud
is moving the wrong way
across the sky
on Sunday morning.

seems a simple enough observation, but taken in the context of the whole the cloud might be Harrison himself, or the reader.

The poems cover familiar territory for the author in new and rewarding ways. Family, social disenchantment, mortality, and the natural world are all graciously explored, expressed in ways that place us across the dinner table from the author, sharing a glass of Gigondas (a wine that appears in many of his stories and early poems). Rivers and water again make regular appearances throughout, Harrison’s central metaphors for life itself.

(From “Debtors”)

Of course time is running out. It always
has been a creek heading east, the freight
of water with its surprising heaviness
following the slant of land, its destiny.

In the end, one comes to think that maybe Jim Harrison is a tiny bit closer to the heartbeat of the universe than most of us, so by a single degree of separation, we are better for it.

Martin A. Bartels is a poet, author, artist, and songwriter living in the Washington DC area. His poetry has appeared in “Verse Wisconsin,” “Poetry24,” and the Found Poetry Review. He is currently president & CEO of the humanitarian organization, Seed Programs International. He blogs at Difficult River. More from this author →