The Ancient Minstrel
by Jim Harrison
Grove Press, $25.00, 255 pages
Dead Man’s Float
by Jim Harrison
Copper Canyon Press, $23.00, 135 pages
I began this review a week or so ago when Harrison was still alive and writing. Towards the end of the first draft, I heard of his death and acknowledge this in the review. But somehow I feel I should leave the beginning as it was.
Jim Harrison, of late, writes his prose works in a free associative narrative summary. That is, he tells you what people did and thought and said, but he does not set scenes, at least not for very long, does not provide many details or descriptions. He has always had this tendency, but his earlier works teem with rich details and longer scenes. You tend to know better what people and places look like in the earlier work. At its worst this style of writing, especially in his two Sunderson novels, The Great Leader, and The Big Seven, entangles itself in incoherencies of chronology and occasional confusing syntax. You ask yourself, where the hell is he going now, and, wait a minute, has he switched years without telling me? You wish he would stay still a minute or two. And then, greatest sin of all for the artist, this narrative summary style can get boring, monotonous, most notably, over the long haul of a novel.
At its best, however, this style sweeps you along and focuses you on the essentials of the story. For Harrison is a storyteller more than a writer, by which I mean in his prose works you don’t find the chiseled sharp prose of Hemingway or the baroque lushness of Faulkner or even the way Cormac McCarty has fused these into his own style. It’s more like you hear a man telling you a story, veering here and there, but always coming back to the main tale. He is like Dreiser in some ways; he writes terribly sometimes but you don’t care because you want to see what happens, but more than that you want to hear more of his voice, what he or his characters think of the world. And despite their descriptive sketchiness, you start to see his characters as real and to care about them.
Harrison is at his best, uncommonly enough, in the novella form. His discursive style works better in shorter doses. The first novella in this book is the title of the book as a whole, “The Ancient Minstrel.” In an “Author’s Note,” Harrison writes that this novella is a replacement for another memoir: “At this late date I couldn’t bear to lapse into any delusions of reality in nonfiction.”
So, the writer portrayed, for all intents and purposes, is a version of Harrison himself:
He was what they called an “award winning poet,” at least that was what his publisher called him on book jackets, though in fact he had never heard of any of the awards before he received them. So much for the immortality of poetry.
He tells of how he likes to go to France, wrote a work called Legends of the Fall, how he drinks and cheats on his wife: all things, as far as I can tell from reading about Harrison and his work itself, that he has done. The novella is about this aging writer, separated from his wife but not divorced (they are amicably sarcastic with one another) trying to seek some sort of reconciliation with her, and, on an impulse, buying a sow about to have piglets. With the help of a friend, he builds a pen and the sow has her piglets.
The writer meanwhile, when not admiring and feeding the piglets, drinks “shooters,” miniature bottles of liquor such as you get on airplanes, which he hides from his wife, and remembers his past life and sleeping with young graduate students for academic favors; he also remembers when he was a boy and his parents took him to a blackface minstrel show during which he fainted from a high fever. Ever since, when he is just about to or has just completed a poetry reading, this event haunts him in a nightmare. Which means he misses out on the extra money but then, “He wasn’t really able to entertain an audience and had little interest in trying.”
After attending and giving at least a hundred poetry readings he could remember only one that struck him as a hundred percent genuine and honest. A poet named, simply enough, Red Pine read from an ancient Chinese poet he had translated, called Stonehouse. Red Pine read with quiet integrity just what he’d translated. Usually after a reading he was in a private snit and needed a drink, but now he walked down and looked at the harbor, his spine still tingling. The other true exception was Gary Snyder. He never wanted Snyder’s readings to end.
These asides, sometimes about food or wine, sometimes about religion, sometimes about the writing life and life in general, are almost always the best part of reading Harrison. Here is another:
He had to write and there were long periods of time when he didn’t have a poem ready to arrive. René Char, a French poet he worshipped, had said about writing poetry, “You have to be there when bread comes fresh from the oven.” You had to live your life in a state of readiness for the poem even though it could very well be a month or two between poems. Another pet obsession of his though not much believed in the cramped world of poetry was that every poet is obligated to read everything published in poetry through time, no matter from what country or time period. He spent years and years doing so. How could you write if you weren’t familiar with what was best in the history of the world?
The narrator’s pig operation does not go very well but he does reconcile, for one night at least, on the front porch when “The night was unbearably beautiful with the constellations peaking their own strange language to each other.” Then follows an interesting line that is a key to Harrison’s work: “He told her he thought it might be the uninvented language used by Jesus and the Buddha to speak to each other.”
The problem is that the narrator (and I’d say the majority of Harrison’s male narrators) can’t stop, or even cut down on, as the title of a book once had it, smoking, drinking, and screwing. It all gets boring after a while. Another shooter, another delicious meal, another woman mounted like a dog. Harrison’s work is never pornographic and he is, or seems to be, honest about the typical male failings, but it would be refreshing to have him write about a man who succeeds in being faithful to lover or wife or who succeeds in giving up smoking or drinking; those seem to me at times to just be distractions from the matter at hand. Which is? It has to do with the language between the constellations and the Jesus-Buddha connection.
Despite his avoidance of the topics Dostoyevsky dove into—which Harrison skips rocks over—one has to say goodness is not just about food and drink and the faults of Harrison’s narrators are physical, not the worst such as pride and hypocrisy. The narrator of “The Ancient Minstrel,” speaks often of humility, enough times that I was reminded of Eliot’s line in The Four Quartets that “humility is endless.”
However, Harrison relieves the boredom in his work by periodically writing from a woman’s point of view. This places him, in range not style, above Hemingway, who is some ways he resembles, though he revels in thought and ideas. And so the second novella in The Ancient Minstrel is called “Egg,” and is about a woman with a lifelong fascination with chickens and eggs, who, because of her parent’s terrible marriage, never wants to marry, but does long to have a child. As far as I know artificial insemination is never an alternative in Harrison’s work. Catherine, the woman narrator of “Egg,” does it the old-fashioned way, not promiscuously but making the most of her opportunities. You might think this contradicts what I wrote above, that this storyline provides Harrison with the chance to include a lot of sex, and this is true except that he does a fine job of portraying a damaged woman who finds solace in farming and taking care of animals and he brings front and center what men often want to forget—sex has to do not only with pleasure but also with the generation of life.
Which is something Detective Sunderson does not want to think about in the last novella, “The Case of the Howling Buddhas.” Sunderson has appeared in two of Harrison’s more recent novels, The Great Leader, and The Big Seven, both of which, though fun to read for a Harrison fan, were rather weak compared to his past work. But this novella is better than those because there is less time for Harrison to meander. As usual in one of what he has called the other Sunderson works, “faux” mysteries, the plot here is weak. An upstanding citizen wants to find out what his daughter is doing in a Zen Buddhist cult led by a leader known as Sky Blast or Roshi Sky. There are some funny moments as Sunderson poses as a new janitor who wants to learn zen but underneath this storyline is another of how Sunderson is carrying on a Lolita-like affair with a fifteen year old neighborhood girl. Something he feels bad about but not enough to resist temptation, which leads to trouble with the law and thence to despair. The ending shocks but is not as final, upon second reading, as it seems.
If Harrison’s novels had, despite shining passages, declined considerably in the last ten years, his poetry has only gotten better. I find some of his earlier poetry obscure, but have enjoyed it more than his fiction. Perhaps this is to be expected: he cares about it more. In his interviews he repeatedly says he is a poet first, that is how he got his start; he met Denise Levertov at a party, she had just become the poetry editor at Norton and said, send me some poems, he did, and she published his first book. He only wrote a novel when he was laid up in the hospital for a month with a broken back, and his friend, fellow writer Tom McGuane, suggested it. As the narrator of “The Ancient Minstrel” says, his prose works are an afterthought, a way for him to keep writing between poems.
The poems in his latest collection, Dead Man’s Float, remind me of the best passages in his fiction but they have, most of the time, a charged aura. Their only fault is an occasional flatness of tone—Harrison rarely indulges in word play or stylistic flourishes—but overall they sing as poetry should. Thematically they cover the same territory, but there is not the same amount of the monochromatic (Harrison taught me the word in “The Ancient Minstrel”) male material. There is more here about the spookiness of Easter, his own feelings of regret, how other poets and poems have moved him, and, as always, nature and death.
Some of the religious poems in Dead Man’s Float surprised me. In one of his interviews, Harrison grudgingly admits that he guesses he’s mostly a Christian. He, and many of his narrators, went through an intense religious phase in adolescence; his characters tend to wonder about religion once in a while but they never really do much about it. More obviously he has written about Zen Buddhism and trying to be awake more often than he has written about Christianity. As when, in the non-fiction collection, Just Before Dark, he begins an essay, “Consciousness Dining”:
An artist (a generic term covering poet, painter, sculptor, perhaps novelist) consciously or unconsciously takes a vow of obedience to awareness. In order not to be lost in the whirl of time, either past or present, the artist must look at all things with the energy and clarity of a hyperthyroid Buddha.
This is the spirit that has animated most of Harrison’s work more than what you hear in the following poem, “Easter Again”:
Christ rose so long ago but the air
he rose through hasn’t forgotten
the slight red contrail from the wounds.
I think he was headed
to that galaxy with six trillion stars
to cool off from the Crucifixion.
I have often heard the spikes
being driven through hands
and feet—in my mind, that is.
The sky was truly dark blue
that day and earth a tiny
This poem is really more about the Ascension of Christ but I’ll let that go. Harrison merges Christ’s wounds with the sky, the universe, in a way Hopkins might have done, and hears the driven spikes in the mind where Blake often portrayed sin’s course as taking hold most deeply. It is a Buddhist view of Easter and Ascension, a vision of the Cosmic Christ. In Buddhism something very much like God, but impersonal, called Mind or the Absolute, is often identified in terms of the sky, as in a quote from Padmasambhava: “My mind is vast like the sky, and my actions are subtle like sesame seeds.”
Perhaps this deeper spiritual focus in some of his poems comes from the nearness of death, the looking back over one’s life. The following poem, “Vows,” seems to me the strongest note of regret for past failures in Harrison’s work. It is sorrowful and true without self-indulgence.
I feel my failure intensely
as if it were a vital organ
the gods grew from the side of my head.
You can’t cover it with a hat and I no longer
can sleep on that side it’s so tender.
I wasn’t quite faithful enough
to carry this sort of weight up the mountain.
When I took my vows at nineteen
I had no idea that gods were so merciless.
Fear makes for good servants
and bravery is fraudulent. When I awoke
I wasn’t awake enough.
When you first read this poem you might think he is talking about moral failures, all the drinking, adultery, and smoking; this is what I thought. But then I realized that he is talking about his vocation as a poet. He was married to his wife, Linda King, when he was twenty-two, but these vows he took at nineteen. He has written, more than once, of these vows to poetry he made looking up at the stars.
Which makes it all the more poignant because Harrison’s religion, more truly than either Zen Buddhism or Christianity, has been poetry, a poetry devoted to awareness. He has devoted himself to it wholeheartedly and the saints of his religion are other poets; in Dead Man’s Float these are Osip Mandelstam, Antonio Machado, and Federico Garcia Lorca. Here is Harrison’s poem, entitled “A Variation on Machado”:
I worry much about the suffering
of Machado. I was only one when he carried
his mother across the border from Spain to France
in a rainstorm. She died and so did he
a few days later in a rooming house along a dry canal.
To carry Mother he abandoned a satchel
holding his last few years of poetry.
I’ve traveled to Collioure several times
to search for Machado’s lost satchel.
The French fed him but couldn’t save him.
There’s no true path to a death—
we discover the path by walking.
We turn a corner on no road
and there’s a house on a green hill
with a thousand colorful birds sweeping in a circle.
Are the poems in the basement of the house on the hill?
We’ll find out if we remember the earth at all.
So now, while writing this essay, I learn that Jim Harrison died on March 26, Holy Saturday for Christians. Philip Caputo, fellow writer and friend of Harrison’s, says they found him on the floor of his study, pen in hand—he had been working on a poem. The only possible way I can end this piece, besides the common words that I will miss his books coming out every year, him being in the world, is with the last poem in his latest collection:
Most of my life was spent
building a bridge out over the sea
though the sea was too wide.
I’m proud of the bridge
hanging in the pure sea air. Machado
came for a visit and we sat on the
end of the bridge, which was his idea.
Now that I’m old the work goes slowly.
Ever nearer death, I like it out here
high above the sea bundled
up for the arctic storm of late fall,
the resounding crash and moan of the sea,
this hundred-foot depth of the green troughs.
Sometimes the sea roars and howls like
the animal it is, a continent wide and alive.
What beauty in this the darkest music
over which you can hear the lightest music of human
behavior, the tender connection between men and galaxies.
So I sit on the edge, wagging my feet above
the abyss. Tonight the moon will be in my lap.
This is my job, to study the universe
from my bridge. I have the sky, the sea, the faint
green streak of Canadian forest on the far shore.