The Force of Habit

Jim Harrison’s last poems as final words.

jim harrison
Scott Baxter

Jim Harrison died at his desk. The date was March 26, 2016, and he was 78. His body, editor Joseph Bednarik tells us in Complete Poems—a 900-plus-page compendium that gathers all the author’s verse—“was found on the Saturday morning before Easter, notebook opened to a handwritten draft of an untitled poem—the last words of a writer who took his vows as an artist at age nineteen.” I don’t want to read too much into the circumstance; William F. Buckley Jr. also died at his desk, in the middle of writing, so I’m not sure we can define this as a sign of character. Except it is. Imagine Harrison in his study in Patagonia, Arizona, scrawling lines on paper, just as he’d been doing for six decades. “I don’t want to die,” he wrote in his long poem Returning to Earth, published in 1977.

It would certainly
inconvenience my wife and daughters.
I am sufficiently young that it would help
my publisher unpack his warehouse of books.
It would help me stop drinking and lose weight.
I could talk to Boris Pasternak.
He never saw the film.

Thirty-nine years later, his voice had wearied, but it remained intact. “The earth used to be God’s body / but he took too many wounds and abandoned it,” Harrison observes in that final, handwritten draft. He may as well be writing about himself. For Harrison, after all, self was the essential starting point, not because he was a narcissist or a solipsist but because it was the perspective from which he engaged the wider world. That world was natural—he is a remarkable nature poet—and it was also social, steeped in food and people and ideas and reading, built out of the hard details of experience.

This article appears in the Fall 2021 issue of Alta Journal.
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“We are each / the only world / we are going to get,” he reminds us in Returning to Earth, revealing a clarity that—from where I sit—looks a lot like faith. For Harrison, poetry is a devotion, the record of a calling as much as a career. I’m referring less to craft, although he was a brilliant craftsman, than I am to art, and not art for its own sake but as a way of being, the movement of the language as a living line. Harrison completed his life as he had spent it, writing in longhand, as he had a thousand times before. The most natural thing there is, the force of habit. And yet, death doesn’t care about our habits, or perhaps it is a habit of a different kind. “What are the contraries of destiny?” Harrison asks in “My New Contract,” one of 13 “last poems” left uncollected at his death. “My body has abandoned me in the world.”

His last poems are essential—we are publishing seven here—not because they offer closure but because they do not. If they have anything to tell us, it is that for the author, poetry was process and act. These short dispatches are as conditional, as pointed, as any of his writing, framing poetry as an art of observation; nearly all his work begins in the concrete. “I am melancholy with fraudulence / of language,” Harrison writes in “Miner Poets,” playing off the cliché of the minor poet. “We squash fingers,” he continues,

chipping off poems that silhouetted we hope will burn
spontaneously giving us a little light to live
by while remembering spring far above us,
the new lilacs the memory of which follows
us underground.

On the one hand, that’s a metaphor, positioning writing as a matter of excavation, in which what we come away with may not be what we set out to find. On the other, it is a vivid rendering of the regret and longing that might come to us when we are in the grave. This is not to suggest that Harrison is dreaming of heaven; he’s far too smart for that. These final poems have such impact because they never look away.

I’ve been fascinated for years by work written by the dying—work that approaches death not through a lens of loss or sympathy but rather as lived experience. “The world keeps turning,” Denis Johnson writes in the story “Triumph over the Grave,” which appears in his posthumous collection, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden. “It’s plain to you that at the time I write this, I’m not dead. But maybe by the time you read it.” This is as sharp an evocation of the conundrum as I have ever read. The implication is not that writing can save us but that it cannot: fraudulence of language once again. And yet, whether or not the gesture is futile, it is necessary.

I think of Brown Dog, that shambling denizen of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula about whom Harrison wrote six novellas between 1990 and 2013. “Oh sons and daughters of man,” the author describes him lamenting, “under the vast and starry night though the stars are invisible, what are you doing here while your histories moment by moment trail off behind you like auto exhaust, he thought though not quite in those words.”

The voice here is both existential and expansive, marked by acceptance and a bit of grief. Something similar may be observed about the poetry. Indeed, if we broke that sentence into a sequence of short lines, it might read like one of the last poems. Why? For one thing, there’s the flow of the language, the slightly overstated rhetoric yielding to a pair of revelations—first, that of the character, who wonders why we waste our time as the moments blow away like smoke, and second, that of the author, who in the unexpected turn of that final phrase admits that he is using words the character would never use himself. It’s a wink-wink juncture, Harrison as magician, revealing the mechanics of the trick even as he awes us with the result. Many of the poems operate the same way, although Harrison is writing in his own voice there.

That’s what makes his poetry so intimate: the sense that it comes to us without filter, without the expectations or necessity of narrative. It is why I will always think of Harrison, most of all, as a poet. Yes, he is best known, perhaps, for his fiction: his novels Dalva and The Road Home, the novellas collected in The Woman Lit by Fireflies and Legends of the Fall. But he was a poet first and a poet last. (He published four books of verse before he ever turned to prose.) “Poems,” he wrote in 1971, “are always better than a bloody turkey foot in the mailbox. Few would disagree.”

His progression as a poet is instructive, from the short lines of his early efforts to the more expansive forms he began to explore in his third book, Locations, and the epic poems and cycles (Returning to Earth, yes, but also Letters to Yesenin, The Theory & Practice of Rivers, and Braided Creek, his magnificent collaboration with Ted Kooser) he would go on to create. In these last poems, though—as in much of the work in his final collection, Dead Man’s Float—Harrison is to the point. I’m tempted to say this is because he has no time to waste…but then, we never do. Longevity is a lie or it is an illusion; the moment is all we ever have. As he writes in “The Whisper”:

I’m learning the difficult terrain
of the heart of darkness. No maps
are available. Light never enters
there. The brain is helpless
which is fine. I depended on it
too much to no avail.

We are catching the poet in reflection, not looking back so much as looking out. Even now, as he mourns his loved ones—including his wife, Linda, who died in October 2015—he remains enthralled by the mysteries. “You can’t move recalcitrant ghosts / but unlike ghosts I still eat dinner” is a line that echoes Johnson; I might be a ghost soon, Harrison is saying, but not yet. And then the closing of the poem, written in the last days or weeks of his life:

The ghosts were dozing
with the birth of God coming with the light
caught and held safely by the mountains in their cradle
of stone. The philosopher said, “The miracle
is that the world exists.” We bathe in the beauty at dawn.

Bathe in the beauty at dawn. What a sentiment—not despite but because of the conditions of its composition. The poem as valedictory, as final thing.

I wish Harrison had left more last poems behind: a book, a library of them. I wish they never had to end. I wish that in the act of writing, the practice of it, salvation might accrue. I wish that death was a lie just as longevity is, that we could write our way out from underneath its mortal weight. And yet, Harrison understood what was waiting, every day when he sat down to write. His vows as an artist depended on it; that is the spectral power of these poems. “[T]his spring dirge,” he writes, “that haunts we humans by daylight. / So endlessly dolorous, this sweet death.”•

Copper Canyon Press
JIM HARRISON COMPLETE POEMS, BY JIM HARRISON
Copper Canyon Press Bookshop.org
$36.80
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