Letter to Jim

By

I’m unsure how these things work, Jim, so I’m writing to tell you what you might already know: You died yesterday (in a manner so much better than Yesenin). You wrote my single favorite book of poetry ever, published in 1973, the year before my birth when no one knew you from a blackbird. Each poem is a letter to that Russian poet who hanged himself three days after Christmas, in 1925. What a mess Sergei was—married for the third and final time to Tolstoy’s granddaughter in the year he turned thirty, the year he annihilated himself. Because of you, I can never say I wasn’t warned what it means to be a poet, or to know and love a poet.

You said in an interview years after publishing Letters to Yesenin that you received anti-suicide buttons and literature in the mail from concerned readers who registered what it was you’d been tackling with those words. I imagine you getting a real kick out of that pinning an Alive! button on your chest before heading off for a jaunt in the woods.

I am grateful still for your daughter’s robe. Because of that long-gone yard of red fabric (and the child it stood for), your lifetime overlapped mine.

Suicide. Beauty takes my courage away this cold autumn evening. My year old daughter’s red robe hangs from the doorknob shouting stop.

And the final line of the book: I’ve decided to stay. Words to live by. Words that kept you here, where you wrote volumes of words for so many readers, each sentence a firefly in the dark of their lonely.

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*

Let me back up and tell you something you don’t know. In the fall of 1991, I wandered into a classroom at a fine arts boarding school in Northern Michigan, not far from your farm in Leelanau County. I was sixteen, sullen, insecure, hungry for direction. The teacher—a friend of yours and (now) mine—put two books in my hands: a novel called Farmer and your Selected and New Poems (which included Letters to Yesenin). I make it sound personal, but no student went through a class with Michael Delp without reading those books, so much he was a fan of yours. I exited high school without reading The Scarlet Letter or Moby Dick, but I could recite under any phase of moon passages of your poetry and prose the way kids a century ago memorized Wordsworth and Blake.

A new ax
a new ax
I’m going to play
with my new ax
sharp blue blade
handle of ash.
Then, exhausted, listen
to my new record, Johnny Cash.

You taught me about trees and birds, appetites and desire, beauty and time, how to fall in love with nature, and with people, knowing the latter will let you down because longing and despair are as innate to us as flight is to a bird.

We are each
the only world
we are going to get.

You helped me see my high school years in the middle of the northern woods for what they were: a blessing I celebrated daily with long walks through groves of birch and pine so that I might pair read one of your books while enjoying forbidden cigarettes on the shore of Green Lake.

When time came for graduation, I followed your lead after reading Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It, and your Legends of the Fall. All made reference to some Shangri-La called Missoula, Montana, a place riddled with mountains and rivers. I liked the sound of it.

I want to die in the saddle. An enemy of civilization.

By eighteen, I’d learned from you that my days were numbered, so I ought to spend them in the most wild and beautiful place I could find. I packed up my flannels, boots, thrift store cardigans, and headed West, where I would stay (more or less).

*

Days before I left Michigan for Montana, Delp, my mentor, handed me a piece of paper with your Leelanau address. He said, “Send Jim something.”

I stood before him, wordless and befuddled. What would I send you? Flowers? An ax? A new Johnny Cash? Or better to show up on your doorstep and offer to help take care of your horses, if you had them and could teach me how. Or were horses an interest of your memorable protagonists, like Dalva? In my imagination, you were you and her, too—all of those characters branches of your being, like the limbs of a giant tree.

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“Poems, Stephenson.” Delp laughed. “Send Jim some poems.”

I printed up a half dozen pages and mailed them off with a letter that probably took far too many words to say, You’re the best. Then I promptly forgot about it (so miniscule, I thought, the chance of you responding).

Desperate for a chance to see the Upper Peninsula—a space you’d painted in my brain so many times—I took the high road from Michigan to Montana. I crossed the five-mile Mackinac Bridge, the spot where Lake Michigan and Lake Huron meet below me in a shade of blue specific to deep waters, my insides jagged as the tree line of pines on the far shore.

As I wove through the UP, alone and lonesome, I imagined you narrating me. She walks into the bar, squinting until her pupils catch up to the dark. Harley knows she’s not old enough, but he buys her a beer anyway. It was a trick I’d use when my travels turned into hard times—I’d dream myself a character of yours. Together, we made our way through Wisconsin, Minnesota, the Dakotas, Wyoming, and (in years to come) California, Alaska, British Columbia. And so on.

When your letter reached me a month later, forwarded from Interlochen to Indiana to Montana, I sat under a red maple and traced your name on the handwritten return address before opening. You claimed to like my poems. You even quoted back one of my lines: the water-breathing child inside each dream (a sentiment likely stolen from you). You said Missoula was a good town, as a river runs through it. You encouraged me to work on prose as it anchor’s one to earth in the life-long poem chase.

Poetry, you’d already taught me second-hand, is the language your soul would speak if you could teach your soul to speak.

*

I continued throwing my heart into poems (which is much like trying to throw one’s heart through a closed window) mostly because I didn’t know how to stop. I finally got some ghazals published in the college literary journal—a recipe of yours I’d followed to a T. An acquaintance edited the journal and requested the submission after reading a draft in class. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to send it in on my own.

The ghazals were the first bit of writing I showed the man who would become my husband. He read them while I made us a dinner featuring sautéed spinach (before I knew how much he loathed spinach). He ran a hand over his face and said, Holy fuck you can write. I’d fooled him, too.

Soon we married and moved to Texas for me to pursue a master’s degree in fiction—this shift to prose prompted by your advice. The move I viewed as a necessary but temporary relocation. You had a thing for the South as well, but I soon learned that the small river town of San Marcos, Texas is an entirely different species than your Patagonia, New Mexico.

*

On our second Sunday in Texas, as we tried to eat a bad batch of salmon I made on a far too hot evening, my father called to tell me that my only sibling was gone. Twenty-nine years old. (The only human I adored as much as I adored my imagined you, Jim. He read all your books, too.)

Like Yesenin, he’d decided not to stay.

Cracked wide open as a blank-page sky, I did the only thing I could think to do: I threw your Selected and New Poems in a backpack and boarded a plane for Georgia where my brother’s body needed claiming.

And if my sister hadn’t died in an auto wreck
and had been taken by injuns
I would have something to do:
go into the mountains and get her back.

Crying vodka but painfully in my right mind, I recited your words to my mother at four in the morning on a grassy knoll in Athens as if they could answer a question that, for me, remains rhetorical: Why?

You’d lost a sibling and been wrecked by it, too.

Miranda, I have proof that when people die
they become birds.

I had entered the post-loss world you prepared me for, a world that is both wound and balm. I’d felt tragedy coming, like catching the aura of an event that’s not-yet happened but is no less imminent. My brother had always been killing himself. Your sister had always been headed for that fatal collision. I had always felt like a skinned tree in February snow.

Show me a single wound on earth that love has healed.

I had no comfort but your poems, so I dragged them through my days, dog-eared and coffee stained, like some dingy childhood blanket.

*

While I lived off your poetry, I escaped into your prose on a regular basis as well. I loved your characters for their appetites, delights, dilemmas, and questionable solutions. Farmer is one of the few novels I’ve read again and again. When I first encountered it at seventeen, I was both Joseph (the forty-three-year-old teacher), and Catherine (his Lolita-esque student, my same age). To inhabit both characters in such a way made for an ultimate erotic read. (How often is it one can escape the self and fuck her own self at the same time?) Though I found the characters’ everyday brand of despair and the appearance of Joseph’s long-dead dog equally compelling.

Now, a year shy of forty-three myself, what I see in those scenes is something beyond the sexual. I see a man stunned to find himself halfway through life at best, still an emotional adolescent, overwhelmed by a desire for youth that aches like a broken rib. And young Catherine is a girl so fascinated by her new sexual superpowers that she uses them simply because she can, a girl who has no clue who she is or what she wants.

Or maybe am I projecting a teenage me onto your narrative, along with the close-to-forty-three-year-old me? No matter. This is what you do so well—hold trick mirrors up to your readers so they can regard themselves in the faces of imagined others. We can read your books and say, What a crazy fuck. What a bonafide mess, as we turn the page, hungry for the next scene.

*

I know now you didn’t write mothers mothering because you needed to keep it real. Dalva won our hearts, and Julip, too. A man can write a woman! the critics crooned. But not a mother mothering. The closest you came was Clare from The Woman Lit by Fireflies, who abandons her suburban life for the cornfields of Iowa. But then her daughter was twenty-nine, which is years away from the kind of mothering it takes to raise babies. Brown Dog adopted Berry (one of my favorite characters)—a ten-year-old Native American child who suffered the affects of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. But mostly children came and went in your narratives like forest creatures—unpredictable and self-sufficient, which makes me think your wife raised your children while you committed to the page again and again and again.

In my late twenties, waylaid by grief and drink and graduate student ennui, the animal part of me kicked my sex drive into high gear. I felt for a while like a character in one of your books. But the catch for a woman is this: Sex leads to babies. Babies lead to mothering. And the life of a young mother is about as far from your renegade universe as a person can get.

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You once said, I am the bird, not the ornithologist, a line I carved into bone and will carry around as long as I carry anything. I did not become the ornithologist, but I did give up flight. I gave myself to child-rearing the way you threw yourself into books, cranking out one after another at an astonishing pace. In the years mine were youngest, I walked around with the weight of Yesenin’s rope around my neck—tethered to two beautiful creatures of my own making, beings who are the reason anyone would try to write a poem in the first place. Poetry is the language your soul would speak if…

My husband then—a writer and reader of your work as well—maintained a level of autonomy I could not, between the colic and the breastfeeding. He could go drinking with graduate school friends, fall drunk into a hammock, sleep the night away under stars, and drag home an apology at sunrise while I, alone with a mastitis fever, waited for him to drive me to the doctor for antibiotics we’d have to buy on credit.

Unlike you, I couldn’t write out my dis-ease. I spent five years straight half awake and half asleep. Unlike you, my days were a lovely and harrowing series of earaches and owies and first steps, laundry piles and diapers. All the while, the gazes of my brown-eyed babies nursing tapped a nerve in me that ran deeper than any river.

How could I die in the saddle, an enemy of civilization when my days revolved around civilizing two feral children?

I was so tired, Jim, and not a thing you wrote prepared me for this (though I understand that was not your job). In fact, not a thing in my whole life prepared me for early motherhood. Not the eight pet guinea pigs, two rabbits, one hamster, hermit crab, lizard, or adopted wolf dog. Nothing. Not. One. Thing.

But one thing got me through. The letters you wrote to Yesenin one long, dark winter, when you were not yet famous and wealthy but homebound with small children, like me. My year old daughter’s red robe hangs from the doorknob…

Many days I couldn’t see the way forward, but I kept going, the way you had. It was you, after all, who taught me how to stay.

*

I should mention, of course, the one-and-only time we met in this incarnation, back when I was married and not yet a mother, writing hard and hoping for the best. For some reason, I remember I wore my favorite shirt at the time, the one I always grabbed first off the laundry pile until the fabric frayed and stained and I let it go. I’d bought it in 2001 on a return trip to Northern Michigan for a high school reunion, at a thrift store in Traverse City (another a place we’d both inhabited). It was an ‘80s polo—white cotton with faded red rosettes.

Perhaps I remember the shirt so well because I knew as I stood in line to meet you in the book-signing tent outside the capitol building in Austin, I knew it was a pinnacle moment for me. Though you were more of the earth than any human I’ve encountered, it was hard to believe you could ever be pinned down to a single time and place. I crept up—one small step at a time—your latest novel in hand. My good friend waited in line behind me. Eventually, it was you and me.

I handed you my book to sign and told you too fast about our friend in common—Michael Delp—and how you’d graciously responded to my half dozen letters over the years. You nodded in a way that could have meant, I remember, or, I’m following you, or, When is she going to tell me her name?

You really lit up when I mentioned my friend Elka—a precocious Nordic beauty from Wisconsin enrolled in my same graduate program who had spent an accidental week in Northern Michigan with you the summer before. You said beautiful girl, and keep writing, and Tell Delp hello, and probably other things my brain couldn’t process as you sat there on a day that was more or less like any other day for you, talking to me in my thrift-store shirt. You signed my book with the words con amore and an illustration of your blind left eye (the one that’s stared sideways, as if it peeping in on another world, since you were seven and a girl thrust a broken bottle in your face).

Afterwards, my friend who had waited in line behind me said, Jim seemed pretty taken with you. He called you beautiful.

I tried to explain you’d meant Elka, not me, and that I was fine with that. I didn’t want to be your Catherine, though part of me daydreamed about becoming your apprentice (a task I took on anyway, alone with your books). I was happy to simple share a moment with you, at least. Or most. (Meeting you can only be summed up by most.)

*

I sent you a letter in October of 2015. Another friend-in-common had recently gone fishing with you, and he reminded me you weren’t getting any younger, and that (in Montana terms), you lived just down the road. I told you I’d settled back in Missoula, for good, I hoped, but that I passed through Livingston a few times a year while adventuring in my VW van, and I’d love to buy you lunch or a drink sometime if you were game. (I had to push myself to say that last part, but what the heck. Why not?)

I don’t think I mentioned that my husband of thirteen years had become a notable writer himself and left for greener pastures (Los Angeles, to be exact). I was now solo-parenting two young children and fighting my way back to writing as well. But those were my problems, my business. I mean, I’d never heard you complain.

The moment I pulled your response from the mailbox and saw the typed return address, I knew something had changed. Inside I found a polite letter you’d dictated to your secretary, all typed. You said you were glad I’d made it back. You said good luck on the writing. You’d always liked Missoula because it had so many bars.

*

The week before you died, I visited Texas for the first time since I’d left in 2010. I brought with me for airplane reading your latest book of poems—Dead Man’s Float. One of my old friends (also a fan of yours) challenged me to make good on a decade-old promise to get tattoos. He wanted some of your words on his skin and asked my opinion. I recited my favorite line so far in your new book: Without birds I’m dead.

He got it inked on his forearm, over an existing tattoo of a chubby robin. I opted for a mountain range on my wrist. (The Missions—I’m sure you know them.)

The next Sunday was Easter. Back home in Missoula, I was driving the kids home from an egg hunt when my Texas friend messaged me these two words: Jim’s gone.

I asked him what he meant, though I knew. I spent the rest of the holiday holed up with your books, attempting to wrap my brain around you returning to earth.

And he wants to write poems to resurrect god,
to raise all buried things the eye
buries and the heart and brain, to
move wild laughter in the throat of death.

When your obituary came out a few days later, I was stunned to discover you were recently widowed, and that Linda, your wife of fifty-five years, had died less than a year before, in the month of October when I last wrote to you. People claimed you were heartbroken when she died, unable to stay here without her.

Though I had assumed you long divorced—solo in this world—you’d had a primary relationship lasting longer than my lifetime. Now your story made a more practical kind of sense, and I immediately wanted to know Linda’s story. The childrearing. A private life lived alongside a public man. I wondered how she felt as you built book after book on her foundation. Your wife, I think, must have been a quiet kind of extraordinary.

*

More than anything, I am here to tell you about your death, because I know you wondered when you were alive.

What will I die with in my hand?
A paintbrush (for houses), an M15
a hammer or ax, a book and a gavel
a candlestick
tiptoeing upstairs.

A pen, Jim. You died in the saddle, mid-poem in Livingston, pen in hand. What a death. A life. A victory, for you and for all of us swept up in your current. What a wild and wondrous ride instead of the short, bright jaunt that might have been, like your Yesenin or my Plath—lights self-extinguished, leaving us all to wonder, what if?

We all change our minds Berryman said in Minnesota, halfway down the river.

Thank you for staying as long as you could, and for giving me a map to navigate the glorious earth in those dark days when I’d have rather been elsewhere, so that I can be here now, fingers on keyboard (because that’s how I do it), with a stack of your books tall as my daughter and the leaves outside my window singing their death song in brilliant color, so long it has taken me to write you this simple last letter.

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***

Bibliography:
Harrison, Jim. Dead Man’s Float. Port Townsend: Copper Canyon, 2016.
Harrison, Jim. Just Before Dark. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1992.
Harrison, Jim. Selected and New Poems. New York: Delacorte, 1982.

***
Rumpus original art by Alison Stine.


Melissa Stephenson’s fiction, nonfiction, and poetry have appeared in journals such as The Mid American Review, Passages North, the Barrelhouse blog, the Washington Post, and New Letters. Her memoir DRIVEN is forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2018. She lives in Missoula, Montana. More from this author →