Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Jim Harrison

There was a small piece of moon to light my way, and my walking meditation was full of pleasant thoughts about my limits. A horse could walk, trot, lope, canter, gallop, and run. As children we had scooted around with our cap guns, slapping our own asses as if we were both horse and rider. Of course a horse couldn't read and I was very good at that. Counting was a matter that could be pretty much ignored. Far off along the creek bed I thought I heard a whippoorwill, sometimes called a goatsucker, from the nightjar family (Caprimulgidae). The future was acceptable rather than promising. It was certainly my choice.
Jim Harrison wrote that. It's the concluding paragraph to . . .

On second thought, if you're a reader of his why don't you go ahead and guess? I'll tell you at the end of this.

A friend introduced me to Harrison's work in the late '80s, when he was penning a "food" column for Esquire. The above paragraph could just as credibly come from one of those columns as from any of his other essays or novels or novellas or even, with a bit of tweaking, his volumes of poetry. I can't speak to his Hollywood screenplays, as I've not seen any of the several credited to him. But I suspect they bear as much semblance to an actual "screenplay" as any of his novels do to what we commonly accept as "novel."

Harrison was both cussedly and charmingly determined to give his particular expression of his particular vision of things. His Esquire ramblings won me over immediately and for all time. But as the years progressed, he (like Doctorow) became more "collected" than "completed." I suspect my unwillingness to finish a given work was aligned with the epistolary nature of his prose. He had an aversion to conclusion. You knew, as a reader, he'd continue the meditation again, in another book to be released at a future date. He could have signed them all off with, "Things to do. Later, Jim." Would this have disappointed anyone but his editor?

That's his prose, mind you. His poetry is different -- that I can finish. And return to, again and again -- particularly his late-in-life stuff.
Seven in the Woods
Am I as old as I am?
Maybe not. Time is a mystery
that can tip us upside down.
Yesterday I was seven in the woods,
a bandage covering my blind eye,
in a bedroll Mother made me
so I could sleep out in the woods
far from people. A garter snake glided by
without noticing me. A chickadee
landed on my bare toe, so light
she wasn’t believable. The night
had been long and the treetops
thick with a trillion stars. Who
was I, half-blind on the forest floor
who was I at age seven? Sixty-eight
years later I can still inhabit that boy’s
body without thinking of the time between.
It is the burden of life to be many ages
without seeing the end of time.
I wish I was still hearing that silent, "Things to do. Later, Jim." But I'm not. He is gone now.

More Harrison poetry here. Tom Bissell wrote my favourite profile of Harrison, here. It is included with other fine pieces Bissell has written, in Magic Hours: Essays on Creators & Creation, which I highly recommend. Eleanor Wachtel bookends two interviews she did with Harrison in the '90s in this CBC podcast. Next to the poetry, Harrison's The Road Home and Brown Dog are my faves -- good places to start with him, I'd say. Then move on to his memoir, Off To The Side. The opening quote is from The Beige Dolorosa, the third novella in Julip.

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