Jim the poet 

Harrison finds the beauty of Small Gods

In "The Golden Window," a long, multi-stanza poem that closes the first section of Jim Harrison's newest poetry collection, In Search of Small Gods, Harrison writes:"I hope to define my life, whatever is left,/by migrations, south and north with the birds/and far from the metallic fever of clocks,/the self staring at the clock saying, 'I must do this.'"

In Search of Small Gods
  • In Search of Small Gods

And, at the close of the poem, Harrison remarks that: "In memory the clocks have drowned themselves, leaving/time to the life spans of trees. The world of our lives/comes unbidden as night."

When, recently, an interviewer for the Virginia Quarterly Review inquired as to the origins of the poem, Harrison candidly responded that he'd been immersed in a severe depression for a long time and the poem was "a record of deliverance which is never far away but often quite invisible."

Though he made the comment specifically about "The Golden Window," it's one that can apply to the entire collection, which, as a whole, seems to be its own extended record of deliverance—one that is never farther away than the godlike entities, the moon, women and, in particular, small animals like dogs and birds, that always seem to hover near Harrison's work.

Divided into three parts, with the middle portion consisting of a stunning series of prose poems, all the sections in the collection consist of observations, sometimes autobiographical, always lyrical, that combine reflection with memory. While memory and reflection can be both elusive and abstract, especially in poetry, the use of natural imagery that is a hallmark of Harrison's entire body of work, provides a tangible grounding to the poems and even helps turn the narrative into the surreal: "My dream of becoming a Mexican singer/is drifting away./It reminds me of the etching on my journal/of a naked girl/grasping the cusp of the moon with/both hands."

Though Harrison's body of work seems to speak for itself, there's a risk for poets with a distinct voice—particularly one so at home in Wordsworthian-like meditation—to appear, well, trite. Yet, somehow Harrison manages to write about nature and the need to throw away our calendars and clocks without sounding like either a latter-day Wordsworth or, worse, some old hippie who's read too much Thoreau.

"Fifty years ago I learned to jump off the calendar," he writes, "but I kept getting drawn back on for reasons/of greed and my imperishable stupidity."

Throughout, Harrison's voice remains definitively and untiringly his own. And, the reason why this seems to work is not just in the clarity of language and line breaks (though there is that), but in the intrepidity of Harrison's musings. The collection opens with a proverb by Antonio Machado that seems to summon a spirit of the lifelong traveler: "Walker your footsteps/are the road and nothing more."

Indeed, Harrison, as the default speaker of these poems, appears like a paragon of the intrepid explorer. In them he speaks of his age-old fears of losing his one good eye (Harrison has been blind in one eye since childhood), of his thoughts on his own future death and the death of his mother who, in one poem, may have been reincarnated into a bird. He also speaks of the deaths of his father and sister, both of whom were killed in a car accident when Harrison was in his early 20s. Touchingly, in one poem he speaks of the joy of seeing a young girl's bare bottom on the TV—since it's an image he'll never see in real life again.

It's no real wonder that Harrison is one of Montana's greatest poets. Though known primarily as a novelist (Legends of the Fall and, most recently, The English Major), Harrison has always thought himself to be, first and foremost, a poet. In an interview with his editor at Copper Canyon, Harrison remarked that a "metaphysical" experience, when he was 19, of suddenly seeing birds of various species criss-crossing across the moon led him to poetry as his first form of writing: "I could see them clearly in silhouette...Anyway, then I heard the call."

From any other poet, the memory might seem affected, but from Harrison it's all the more genuine when we see birds of various species criss-crossing the lines of his poems some 50 years after he first heard the call. These works resonate just as deeply as his novels, perhaps more so. In the last lines of "Night Ride," he writes: "Here I was Jim the poet drifting the edges of night,/not sure he wished to be kidnapped by the gods."

Though he might not be sure, the rest of us are hoping the gods remain at bay for a while longer. The Cave:Advertising:02 Production Art:IndyLogoDingbat2002.tifB:'",,"")>

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