When I told a friend I was reviewing the newest collection from Jim Harrison, she said, "Damn, he's prolific." It's true. His latest book of poetry, Dead Man's Float, comes on the heels of last year's novel, The Big Seven, and just before the release of another collection of novellas, The Ancient Minstrel. It's a pace going back several years, with a book arriving every year or two. In the opening lines to the title poem, Harrison alludes to this: "Dr. Guevara said that I'm hollow-eyed/ and exhausted from writing too much./ I should take a break but I don't know how."
A "dead man's float" is a tactic swimmers use to battle fatigue when pressed to their limits. In his poem, Harrison tries a writer's version, just to "keep afloat" while relentlessly pushing on. There is a sadness there. There is a sadness to a majority of these poems.
Harrison turned 78 in December. Most of the nearly 100 poems in Dead Man's Float are reflections on aging, his health problems and his view of the world now that he knows he doesn't have to plan for a future. Dogs bound throughout and birds appear on many pages. That's not unusual for Harrison's work, but there is more a sense of twilight about his musings this time. How couldn't there be? He has lived a long, hard life, yet his ability to find so much beauty in the world is a testament to his commitment to his art, and to living.
"Notes on the Sacred Art of Log Sitting" deals with Harrison's recovery from a back surgery that will hopefully return his ability to walk. The prose poem opens with, "To give the surgeon a better view of my interior carcass I was slashed from neck to tailbone. Recovery was slow and the chief neurologist told me, 'you can walk your way out of this.'"
The second stanza refers to his dog, and is just the same line repeated multiple times: "I want to walk in the morning with Zilpha again. I want to walk in the morning with Zilpha again. I want to walk in the morning with Zilpha again. I want to walk in the morning with Zilpha again. I want to walk in the morning with Zilpha again. Amen."
He writes from there about how as he recovered he learned he could not keep up with the dog on their woodland outings, then he speaks of becoming a "log sitter" as a profession, since he was so often moved to rest. One senses a twinkle in his eye as he lists the requirements of becoming a log sitter, and its benefits. He imagines buying a small ranch, which he would call "The Log Ranch." Then he closes the poem with, "I'd truck in thirty-three logs and arrange them on the property like the Stations of the Cross. This could soothe me during my limited time in the twenty-first century, which has been very coarse indeed. Especially after Zilpha died."
This century has gotten no easier for Harrison. Last October, his wife of 55 years, Linda King Harrison, died suddenly—in a matter of weeks—from a rare lung disease. I never met the woman, but I mourned her loss. As I move deeper into unfamiliar territory in my own life, that of middle age, I relate more to Harrison's work than to any other writer's. I've lost immediate family to the ravages of time, which I'd never faced before. Dear pets who have accompanied me most of my adult life are passing away. I often find I'd rather stand for hours with the wind on my face than see how many miles I can pile into one day. I feel the pains Harrison writes of, and many freshly realized pleasures, as actual sensations, not just imaginings.
When I read the last few poems of this book and closed the cover I sat back in my chair and looked around. The sun was shining brighter than it had for days. I could see through my window several house finches at the feeder hanging from the branches of the tree out front. My dog slept on her cushion, back-to-back with a bitter old cat. They used to be mortal enemies, but both now find themselves too old to expend the energy for animosity. Reflections like these seem the soul of what Jim Harrison writes about, at least to me. Few enough are the books I decide to keep beyond a culling or two. Barring fire or flood, Dead Man's Float will be in my library for the rest of my life. If it's the last poetry collection we get from Harrison—and I hope it isn't—it is as fine an example of his efforts as any.