Jim Harrison’s thirteenth volume of poetry, Songs of Unreason (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), is initially surprising for its thickness: unlike his other single-volume books, which are generally the standard 75 pages or so, this book contains 141 pages of poetry. One reason for this book’s longer length is the inclusion of a long poem, “Suite of Unreason,” comprised of very short unnumbered sections. This is a surprising and exciting structural step for Harrison, who usually sticks to a uniform formal pattern of one-to-two page narrative poems. He solves the problem of how to organize the book around a long poem by placing sections of the suite on the left-hand pages with stand-alone poems facing them on the right-hand. The manuscript also begins and ends with poems that do not belong to the long poem. Like most complex structural solutions, this is both gratifying and problematic. The spacing of the long poem’s short, imagistic sections across the book keeps that project in our mind as we move through the other poems. Had the suite been its own section, whether at beginning, middle, or end, it would have been a break from the rest of the book, or suggested its opening or closing. As it is, the suite often interacts richly with the narrative lyric poems. Nevertheless, the sense of the long poem as an entity is harder to glean in such a format.
Perhaps the most surprising element of this long poem is Harrison’s choice to begin it with an epigraph that is not a quote but a sort of very brief prologue: “Nearly all my life I’ve noted that some of my thinking was atavistic, primitive, totemistic. This can be disturbing to one fairly learned. In this suite I wanted to examine this phenomenon.” As a writer and reader, I am immediately mistrustful of such an analyzing, assessing statement at the beginning of a poem: I am sensible both of the risk to Harrison of creating expectations which must then be lived up to or surpassed. I am equally sensible that my pride as a reader is automatically engaged: it’s my business to decide what kind of thinking goes on in these poems. And of course the benefits and the pitfalls of such a gesture both occur in their turns. By creating the expectation of “atavistic” and, even more strangely, “totemistic” (how does he mean this to differ from “totemic?”) thinking, we look for those qualities in the short poems comprising the long, and in the best poems feel that is what we have found. One section I thought was particularly successful as a poem and in terms of answering these expectations:
Azure. All told a year of water.
Some places with no bottom.
I had hoped to understand it
but it wasn’t possible. Fish.
Like the entire long poem, this section is haiku-like and very reminiscent of the Zen poetry written by sages (often hermits) in the Eastern tradition (Po Chu-I and Basho came to my mind). To me, the long poems seemed less atavistic, primitive, or totemistic, and more contemplative in the private-cosmic way of the Zen poetic tradition.
In another section Harrison writes, “we find many oval deer beds/ of crushed grass. Their bodies are their homes.” This poem certainly has the strong rhetorical voice so fundamental to Harrison, but it also nears the structure of a haiku and certainly attains the revelation-through-image that characterizes the experience that defines haiku beyond its form restrictions. Based on Harrison’s initial self-assessment, we might expect the poems to have more violence, sex, or hunger in their themes, or a more ruthless or disengaged voice. In fact they are very observant and compassionate in a way that is not only uniquely human, but unique to humans who have undertaken important spiritual commitments in how they view, interact with, and interpret the world.
The same is not always true in the other poems, which generally observe the world in a more quotidian, rather than timeless, way. These poems strike many different tones and concerns. Some are playful, such as in “Xmas Cheeseburgers,” where the speaker describes making brie hamburgers for the farm dogs to buoy his (and their) Christmas spirit. Many of the poems tell apparently confessional stories of Harrison’s life, and often those of his dogs or other animals in his world. The dominance of animals as characters in this book enhances the sense of the poet as a Buddhist or simply hermit figure who has renounced the complications of the world and looked deeply, and with passionate care, into the concerns of creatures simpler (and perhaps with more to offer) than people. Wisdom—as a pursuit, but far more as something groped toward through living, and especially through the writing of these poems—is inarguably the primary work of this poet. In his many glowing rhetorical passages, clear gestures to his attempts to put his finger on great truths, or perhaps one great truth, are manifest. In “René Char II” he writes, “hallelujah/ is the most impossible word in the language./ I can only say it to birds, fish, and dogs.” This line is important both for its oblique ars poetica (how to praise is the central problem of living and writing) and for its explanation of the role of animals, who seem to permit him to say the most difficult things. The lack of response that animals represent, the one-sidedness of the declaration, and that being the only way to enable the utterance, puts me in mind of writing as a way to speak to people, saying the most difficult things, without having to face them.
In the poem “Grand Marais,” Harrison writes of a bear that frequents his yard to eat sunflower seeds meant for the birds and sometimes falls asleep there, frightening the dog: “He doesn’t give a shit about violent storms/ knowing the light comes from his mind, not the sun.” Here, again, an animal enables the epiphany that is not the bear’s but Harrison’s, and again seems like a way of saying “hallelujah:” the light is coming from within the bear. This is one of the best examples of Harrison’s wonderfully rich and adamantly earthy voice yielding an exalted thought. From earlier books, such as In Search of Small Gods, we are familiar with this pantheist, mystical, or Quaker tendency in Harrison to seek God and the agency of God in humble places. In the poem “Horses,” he writes, “This is another unanswerable question/ to haunt us with the ordinary.” This is another informal ars poetica, one that effectively illuminates Harrison’s style across his prolific work. He reiterates it in “Poet Science:” “It is life’s work to recognize the mystery/ of the obvious.” It is Harrison’s greatest feat that he can consistently deliver such daring rhetorical comments throughout a long book of poems and largely pull them off.
Still, the poems I admire most are those in which Harrison flexes more of his craft than keen observation and trenchant rhetorical comment. In the poem “Sister,” Harrison remembers a sister that died long ago. The quality of his looking at the moon and remembering, as an old man, the sister who died while still very young has a fundamentally haunting quality. It also toys with time, making it seem somehow permanent and standstill, as if the moment of her death is trapped in the present no matter how long he lives. The fact of his looking at the night sky, as he does in many of these poems, reinforces this idea: the events we observe in the sky have in many cases happened thousands of years ago, yet appear to go on now. The heavens work into a powerful motif representing in part the trick of time as it is perceived by people: it is meant to move linearly, but in perception is at times concurrent or recurrent. He writes, addressing the sister, “Maybe you drifted upward as an ancient/ bird hoping to nest on the moon.” The line break at “ancient,” in part because of the imagism and Zen Buddhist bent of the entire book, especially this poem, suggests ancients as in ancestors, especially in Chinese tradition. This would suggest one who both came and went before you and who continues to exist as a philosophical and energizing force, and seems an apt metaphor for his sister. Of course we soon realize that the word modifies “bird” and that is when the image takes over the rhetorical observation we were expecting from the rhetorical style of these poems. This line is Songs of Unreason and Harrison at their best: a compelling personal memory is rendered using his characteristically strong rhetorical voice via a startling and successful image.
There are other interesting formal idiosyncrasies in this book, such as the presence of several prose poems (a genre Harrison has sometimes worked in before) and an informal second long poem in the form of seven “River” poems. Even with the “Suite,” however, the structural play in this book is gratifying, but not the star. As always, it is Jim Harrison’s vision, voice, and his hard-gained and always tremulous wisdom that carry these consistently risky poems and make the book worth reading.
—Jasmine V. Bailey