I’ve noticed that much of the contemporary poetry that I’ve crossed paths with lately — whether on my couch with a cup of coffee or out in the world at readings and workshops — tends to stick to a narrow theme in an effort to be fresh. Why not write from the perspective of a feline, for example? Why not a book solely about the contents of a refrigerator? Why not a meditation on hair?
But in Jim Harrison’s last book, Dead Man’s Float, the theme is human existence, one of poetry’s broadest topics. Notice I didn’t say hackneyed — it manages to work, despite the poets who tackled it before him.
To better understand this book, I’d like for everyone to take out a piece of paper and draw a line representing time. Now put the word “childhood” somewhere on the line and the word “death” somewhere on the line. How much space did you leave in between?
Well, in Harrison’s collection, this space is quite miniscule. Regardless of the years the poet spent in adulthood, his book negates all that, putting childhood and death right beside one another.
Consider “Seven in the Woods,” in which the poet asks “Am I as old as I am? Maybe not,” then refers to time as “something that can tip us upside down.” It was while reading this poem, one of the first few in the collection, when I started to put together what Harrison was getting at. A few pages later, I read “Molly the Brave,” a somber group of lines that recounts the tale of the girl who all the boys had a crush on, who “hugged … in her wet black bathing suit,” but who unfortunately drowned before reaching adulthood.
Throughout the collection, Harrison displays his feelings about approaching death, and how, even when one happens to live long enough to reach old age, it’s somehow not very different from dying in childhood.
“Neither of us wants to die / when there’s work to be done / other creatures to be snuck up on / food to be eaten, a creek to wade,” he explains in the poem “Pain 2.” Then, in “Life,” he states: “I’m not so good at life anymore. / Sometimes I wake up and don’t recognize it. / Houses, cars, furniture, books are a blur / while trees, birds, and horses are fine / and clear.”
While Harrison’s topics are poignant, not every poem within Dead Man’s Float is at the height of beauty. Some poems are clunky; some were clearly thrown together at the poet’s whim without much crafting of language; and some — I’ll just go ahead and say it — I just didn’t get the point of. Readers will note how the ideas of Dead Man’s Float carry it more than the language, much like a novel that relies more on its plot than prose. Despite not every line making me gasp, I plowed through the entire collection in one sitting on an early Saturday morning and finished it with my muse’s interest piqued.
“When I was young I thought I’d die in my thirties / like so many of my favorite poets. / At seventy-five I see this hasn’t happened. / Still I am faithful to my poems and birds” Harrison says in “Tiny Bird,” a declaration of how he spent his whole life waiting for his death and therefore noticed the poetic nature of everything.
Do all poets skip from childhood to death? I wondered to myself after finishing the pages of this collection. Are there only two meaningful parts of our lives: when we are small children and the Green Man lived in a door in the forest, as Harrison says, and right before we die, when “many of us can see our ends coming / as in a dream?” To read this collection, one would say so.
And this presents yet another question — if we treat death as a close neighbor, are we awarded with a life of meaning?
“Sixty-eight / years later I can still inhabit that boy’s / body,” says the poet, “without thinking of the time between.”
Friends and fellow poets, Jim Harrison wrote to warn us all against the tedium of middle age. Be either very young or very old, and be a seeker of beauty.
Post Script: Two days after I finished this review, Jim Harrison passed away, making the opportunity to read his work and understand this particular collection even more precious. I urge Harrison’s readers, seasoned and new, to pick up Dead Man’s Float and to absorb some of his last — and most poignant — ideas.