Edited by Joseph Bednarik
A lot of people know Jim Harrison’s fiction, and there’s a lot of it to know — before his death, in 2016, he published a dozen novels and nine collections of novellas. Still more people, who wouldn’t recognize Harrison’s name at all, have seen films for which he wrote the screenplays or source material: “Revenge,” “Wolf,” the hugely successful “Legends of the Fall.” But even the readers who know him may not know that Harrison began as a poet and remained one for the rest of his life. His first published book was a poetry collection, 1965’s “Plain Song”; his last book of poems during his lifetime, 2016’s “Dead Man’s Float,” was published about two months before he died. In between he published a dozen or so other collections, adding up to a massive and bounteous body of work that would have made Harrison a significant American writer even if he had never published in any other genre.
From the beginning, Harrison wrote about two primary and intertwined themes: pleasure and death. The pleasures of Harrison’s writings tend to the Hemingwayesque, and are set largely in his native Midwest: hunting, fishing, hiking and generally being outdoors; cooking, eating and drinking; sex, women and conversation. Sometimes the pleasures are more reflective, more mental than physical; in all the talk about women, for instance, one senses that for Harrison the talk was half the fun, and the wanting often mattered more, or was more satisfying, than the getting.
Other delights, particularly gastronomical ones, he enjoyed with abandon. Food and drink appear frequently in his poems. Sometimes they are metaphors: “If you can’t bow, you’re dead meat. You’ll break / like uncooked spaghetti.” Or he will put a dissertation about rivers on hold to describe a recent meal, or insert into a long poem a detailed “week’s eating log” with items like
… a lamb leg pasted with Dijon
mustard, soy, garlic; Chinese pork ribs; menudo
just for Benny & me as no one else would eat it—
had to cook tripe five hours then mix with hominy
and peppers with chorizo tacos on the side;
copious fresh vegetables, Burgundy, Columbard, booze
with all of the above.
Or he will pause, as he does quite frequently, to worry that he is eating too much, drinking too much, that he is getting fat, is no longer desired by women, that he is growing old before his time.
Acknowledging pleasure’s costs, and its ultimate ephemerality, is the unavoidable flip side of Harrison’s celebratory hedonism. To connect with the body, the source of pleasure, is to connect with death. The first poem in Harrison’s first book concludes with an image of death, rendered in brute material terms with an emphasis on the visual: “the dead, frayed bird, / the beautiful plumage, / the spoor of feathers / and slight, pink bones.” The poems in the last book, “Dead Man’s Float,” dwell obsessively on mortality. “At my age you don’t think about the future / because you don’t have one.” “Because of death my phone book / is shrinking.” “So endlessly dolorous, this sweet death.” Perhaps the bluntest and truest statement comes in a midbook, midcareer poem called “Larson’s Holstein Bull”: “Death steals everything except our stories.”