The Ashes We All Become – Jim Harrison, Grand Poet and Prolific Writer, Dead at Seventy Eight

American writer, Jim Harrison (1936-2016)

American writer, Jim Harrison (1937- March 26th, 2016)

Jim Harrison: author of twenty one works of fiction, two books of essays, fourteen poetry books (including Dead Man’s Float published this year), a cook book, a memoir and a kids book; and best known for his novella Legends of the Fall, made into the 1994 movie staring Brad Pitt. I wasn’t sure I would have wanted to meet this man I have read so much about. His strut of shoot and fish, a creel full of macho braggadocio; and  his Grand Canyon face, carved by time, tobacco and booze.

But the man, the Jim Harrison Harrison inside his poems, that man, I could sit beside and talk with for hours. That man who suffered through clinical depression for many years and kept believing in living. The man who practiced a form of Zen Buddhism for years. The man who could write like this about his wife of fifty five years, who died last year:

Older Love

His wife has asthma
so he only smokes outdoors
or late at night with head
and shoulders well into
the fireplace, the mesquite and oak
heat bright against his face.
Does it replace the heat
that has wandered from love
back into the natural world?
But then the shadow passion casts
is much longer than passion,
stretching with effort from year to year.
Outside tonight hard wind and sleet
from three bald mountains,
and on the hearth before his face
the ashes we’ll all become,
soft as the back of a woman’s knee.

Jim Harrison from Saving Daylight, Copper Canyon Press, 2006

This poem, not just a prefiguring of his own death and his wife’s but something like an elegy for passion in a marriage. Yet, too, there is a tenderness here. A tenderness  of ashes, soft as the back of a woman’s knee, within a night of hard wind and sleet.

To read Jim Harrison’s obituary in the New York Times click here. As well, to take a look at the By the Book feature on Harrison that appeared, just two weeks ago, in New York Times Book Review, click here. CBC Radio host Eleanor Wachtel interviewed Harrison in 1994 and 1998. For a link to those interviews click here.

Today, Easter Sunday, is celebrated in the Christian tradition, as the day of Christ’s resurrection. Seems more than apt that in the By the Book feature Harrison talks about resurrection and shares an excerpt of a resurrection poem of his where Jesus and his dog both make it to heaven! I can only wonder if Harrison hoped he too might make it there with one of his beloved dogs. In his latest book of poems published earlier this year, Dead Man’s Float, after recovering from surgery and shingles, he has another poetic tidbit on the resurrection which asks a question most appropriate the day after Harrison’s death:

Where is Jim Harrison

He fell off the cliff of a seven inch zafu.
He couldn’t get up because of his surgery.
He believes in the resurrection mostly
because he was never taught now not to.

(A zafu is a round cushion used in Zen meditation.)

Jim Harrison,from Dead Man’s Float, Copper Canyon Press, 2016

Nothing quite like a good line break in a poem: He believes in the resurrection mostly. I am a resurrectionist like that. Especially in these Spring days of confetti being flung out by cherry trees: early bloomers, mid bloomers and late bloomers! Well, if there is life-after-death may Harrison still write poems! I celebrate this man: this poet of sometimes loud and sometimes quiet and unexpected surprises: like this from his 1973 book Letters to Yesenin, written after a long trip to Russia following the tracks of his favorite Russian authors:

I wanted to feel exalted so I picked up
Dr. Zhivago again. But the newspaper was there
with the horrors of the Olympics, those dead and
perpetually martyred sons of David. I want to present
all Israeli's with .357 magnums so that they are
never to be martyred again. I wanted to be exalted
so I picked up Dr. Zhivago again but the TV was on
with a movie about the sufferings of convicts in
the early history of Australia. But then the movie
was over and the level of the bourbon bottle was dropping
and I still wanted to be exalted lying there with
the book on my chest. I recalled Moscow but I could
not place dear Yuri, only you, Yesenin, seeing the Kremlin
glitter and ripple like Asia. And when drunk you appeared
as some Bakst stage drawing, a slain tartar. But that is
all ballet. And what a dance you had kicking your legs from
the rope- We all change our minds, Berryman said in Minnesota
halfway down the river. Villon said of the rope that my neck
will feel the weight of my ass. But I wanted to feel exalted
again and read the poems at the end of Dr. Zhivago and
just barely made it. Suicide. Beauty takes my courage
away this cold autumn evening. My year-old daughter's red
robe hangs from the doorway shouting: Stop.

Jim Harrison from The Shape of the Journey – New and Collected Poems, Copper Canyon Press, 1998

This poem published in 1973 with its reference to terrorist killings seems sadly appropriate in the these days after the Belgium attacks. And although my Canadian sensibility doesn’t match with his reference to 357 magnums, too NRA for me,  the way he slides references to authors who killed themselves and then his own urge to kill himself, stops me dead. Especially this: Beauty takes my courage/ away this cold autumn evening.To be saved like that: by beauty. That’s a man I would like to meet. And this man with thoughts of death close by:

The River

Yes, we'll gather by the river,
the beautiful, the beautiful river.
They say it runs by the throne of God.
This is where God invented fish.
Wherever, but then God's throne is as wide
as the universe. If you're attentive you'll
see the throne's borders in the stars. We're on this side
and when you get to the other side we don't know
what will happen if anything. If nothing happens
we won't know it, I said once. Is that cynical?
No, nothing is nothing, not upsetting, just
nothing Then again maybe we'll be cast
at the speed of light through the universe
to god's throne. His hair bounteous.
All the 5,000 birds on earth were created there.
The foirstborn cranes, herons, hawks, at the back
so as not to frighten the little ones.
Even now they remember this divine habitat.
Shall we gather at the river, this beautiful river?
We'll sing with the warblers perched on his eyelashes.

Jim Harrison, Dead Man's Float, Copper Canyon, 2016

And this man who wrote Moon Suite – a series of twenty two exquisite small poems that conclude Dead Man’s Float:

from Moon Suite

The full moon caught herself in the contorted rose vines
beyond the window. The rose is called Madame Alfred Carriere,
bred for climbing castle walls. We only have
a little casita, a gatehouse, but the huge rose
is here just the same for peasants.
I am not strong enough to disentangle the moon

Nobody is.

And, finally, this man in this excerpt:

from Tiny Bird

When young I thought I’d die in my thirties
like so many of my favorite poets.
At seventy-five I see this hasn’t happened.
Still, I am faithful to my poems and birds.
Birds are poems I haven’t caught yet.

Jim Harrison, ibid

For the birds you didn’t catch and the poems you did, Jim Harrison, thank you. Travel well at the speed of light!



  1. Geoffrey Cowper
    Posted March 27, 2016 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

    lovely remembrance and now I will read one of his books!

  2. Richard Osler
    Posted March 27, 2016 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

    Dear Geoff: Happy Easter. Great to hear from you. So glad this caught your interest. Larger than life charcter. The more I read his poems the more I am drawn to him! Please let me know which book you read!

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