Wednesday, November 11, 1998

Leelanau lines

Jim Harrison bares his poet's mettle in a collection from "Up North."

Posted By on Wed, Nov 11, 1998 at 12:00 AM

The Shape of the Journey collects a lifetime of the protean poetry of northern Michigan's Jim Harrison. Rural scenes of, say, a solitary country cabin or a pond with frogs at dawn, are many in the eight books -- since 1965 -- represented. His writing is suffused with nature, but to call Harrison a nature poet is to shortchange him. He's a nature, Zen, life-and-death, wine-women-and-song, Vietnam-bruised, Leelanau poet.

He's also blind in his left eye, a handicap, let's call it, that he uses both humorously and chillingly in his work.

Up north Michigan -- very roughly, from Houghton Lake northward, but it's also a state of mind -- probably means the most to a resident who has returned there several times, as Harrison has. He's found various poetic ways of using the raw material of this familiar area. The attempts in the early books include what might be termed found poems, descriptive meditations on a cardinal and a park at night.

The detail is dense, the analysis microscopic in "Fair/Boy Christian Takes a Break": "bones, blood-wet/and limber, the rock in bodies." Elemental! Later meditations have great assurance. In "The Idea of Balance is to be Found in Herons and Loons," from 1989, he is wistful, sly, regretful and mindful of the lake, rain and loons. A conclusion is gently sketched that Michiganders at least will nod to.

In a sort of guerrilla counterpoem to all blather about the joys of hunting, the narrator shelters "My Friend the Bear" in his basement from October 9 -- the day before hunting season -- till April. The poem ends, of course, with a bear hug.

(Here's a bonus: In perhaps 200 pages of northern Michigan-based poetry, whores, drinking and outrageous thoughts and acts are discussed but, God bless Aggie Usedly, not one word on casino gambling.)

The moods in Harrison's work swing to both poles, from wry fun and games and awed meditations to flat, why-me depression notes that culminate, so to speak, in Letters to Yesenin. This early book's concept has Harrison writing to the early-20th century Russian poet Yesenin. He was a not-bad poet, but a dismal character who hanged himself. Harrison piles up his reflections on suicide, women, Russia, ropes -- the images get to you, all heavy on your head like a snow-sagging roof. He denies suicide, saying to the pitiful Yesenin, "These letters might have kept me/alive -- something to do you know as opposed to the nothing you chose."

The relentless, short-phrased, concrete details in Yesenin serve the purpose of hammering home a mean mood. There is little variation from this steady, constant tone throughout The Shape of the Journey. Even Harrison's playfulness can seem ponderous. But a peak arrives unexpectedly with poems he wrote in the 13th century verse form called the ghazal. This short, couplet song form unleashes wordplay, energy and surreal wit in Harrison. An example: "I want an obscene epitaph, one that will disgust the Memorial/Day crowds so that they'll indignantly topple my gravestone." The light form and Harrison's dark wit combine into great fun. There may not be a ghazal here for every taste.

Among reasons to admire The Shape of the Journey is Harrison's insistence on handling serious issues of the bored, hope-fragmented life in tough, even obstinate ways. He absolutely avoids Lifestyle Solutions That Promote Affirmation. Instead the impatient poet slams all that in this sample from After Ikkyu: "Poor little blind boy, lost in a storm/Where should he go to be without harm?/For starters, the dickhead should get a life ..."

His humor is not all harsh; indeed, deadpan asides punch up most of the poems. But, cast-iron sarcasm is the best medicine in "The Brand New Statue of Liberty," a poem dedicated to Lee Iacocca. This piece won't be ruined by any fastidious analysis here, nor should it be missed by lovers of howling satire.

Harrison has practiced, he says, "a profoundly inept sort of Zen for 25 years." "Not Writing My Name" -- in the snow, that is -- creates a new Zen-void variation with its last line: "I have become the place the crow didn't appear."

So he's written poetry hardened by the north, shaded by Zen and spiked with wicked humor -- but don't worry, Jim Harrison isn't so beyond the real world that he lacks a Web site: www.jvlnet.com/~je/harrison.html.

The genuinely hard row that's been Jim Harrison's lot, and his only very recent success, could justify a new quasi-adage: It's a great life if you can live it.

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