Running on Fumes: Jim Harrison’s In Search of Small Gods

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In Search of Small Gods by Jim Harrison Hardcover, $22.00 Copper Canyon Press, 2009

In Search of Small Gods
by Jim Harrison
Hardcover, $22.00
Copper Canyon Press, 2009

A successful Orphic poetics often depends on the poet’s ability to arrest the reader’s critical faculties and to sustain that suspension across a traumatic arc. It is a high-romantic, if not necessarily religious, scale on which such work begs to be judged. For the critic, there is rightly and predictably much ado about situating the poet in a constellation of his peers, dead and alive (since the aim of that arc, if not openly accepted by the poet, is, really, ad astra). Formalities are often set aside for eclectics—and Jim Harrison is a practitioner of eclectics. He reveals this, not for the first time, in his new collection of poems, In Search of Small Gods: “What pleasure there is in sitting up on the sofa late at night smoking cigarettes, having a small last drink and petting the dogs, reading Virgil’s sublime Georgics…” Harrison’s whole collection could probably be handled in bucolic terms, and not only through such explicit alignment with the ancients, but also through his fine sense for the natural world that leads him automatically to Romantic tropes: he is, for example, a lover of birds, committed to naming them, learning their languages, finding their gods.

Yet, Harrison is not master of all he surveys, nor is he content having a Platonic relationship with the things of nature, which are ever-slipping out of the cages language would put them in. His exchanges with nature are fraught with inconstancy, some of it accidental and beyond Harrison’s control, and some of it intentional. And if some of it is intentional, an element of technique, there is necessarily a moral aspect to his poetic abuse. In “Fibbing” he acknowledges a quiet slip in authority, admits the abuse he commits against his own memory: “In moments, the girl’s blue dress becomes the green I prefer. Words themselves can adopt confusing colors, which can become a burden while reading.”

The burden of confusion here is a radical realignment in the book itself, polarizing earlier details from various poems—“Back in the blue chair in front of the green studio / another year has passed” (from “Calendars”), “A girl in a green bathing suit swam across the green river / above which swallows flocked in dark whirls. / She swam toward a green bank lined with green willows” (from “Hospital”), “I see a great big one wearing a bright blue bathing suit / when I go trout fishing. She parks her old Plymouth / and floats on a truck inner tube on a mile of fast water” (from “Poor Girls”), “Oceans of grass as blade-thin green snakes writhing, / birds flying in ten dimensions of Dürer perfection” (from “Night Ride”). These moments are electrified by desire and mnemonics: the repetitions of green and green especially gain a strange ambivalence. Colors, seen through Harrison’s one good eye (another trope that gets heavy rotation in the book), gain something unspeakable as they become indistinguishable.

That unspeakable something is the principle power of Harrison’s poetry and connects the aesthetic elements of his verse directly to the political asides. Harrison tries throughout to give voice to the voiceless: in the Americas; in Iraq; in lands of invisible, unspoken violence. There are many moments where the despair of this violence breaks the pastoral surface, as in these lines from “Larson’s Holstein Bull:”

Death is that angelic farm girl
gored by a bull on her way home
from school, crossing the pasture
for a shortcut. In the seventh grade
she couldn’t read or write. She wasn’t a virgin.
She was ‘simpleminded,’ we all said.

as well as these lines from “Manuela:”

On the train to Granada I read a newspaper
that said children in Somalia were eating
their own lips in desperation, gulping the air
as if the sky herself was something to eat.

or these, from “Singer:”

I simply wanted my musical sobs to drift
on the airways
to a larger audience with songs about
hearts and pistols,
[. . .] And sadder
songs about the dogs
that ate the child in Tucson, or the twelve-year-
old virgin girl
falling before the red hammer of the lout who
loved to lick tears,
the boy who stabbed his own heart on flunking
the rigors of geometry,
the relentless yips of the coyotes chasing
a deer last night.
What can I make of this world of details
that doesn’t yield
to literature, that doesn’t feel quite right
enclosed in a slender book?
The Indian boy born without a tongue
is a soup eater,
and the fourteen-year-old girl in Iraq has her teeth frozen
together in rape.
In the night of our age how can I translate
their unworded words?

In assuming this Adamic task of naming things, Harrison admits to being an inveterate bungler, one who can never be trusted with the names of creatures, the objects of gods’ creation. This collection is animated by an alternative religion of humility, which matches the myths of origin with an ethics of mistaken identities, where faces are water, where mortality is liquid, where birds and Volkswagens are confused and conflated. Harrison has remarked before on the distinction between his novels and poems: attempts at making sense, and at disturbing it, respectively. Poetry is music, in the sense that it comes as inspiration, and falls down on one, and as such it must be approached like a trauma.

The variation between these two modes is the core dramatic development of the book, which moves from attempts at poetic narrative into a middle section of twenty-one prose poems, two of which stand out as remarkable short stories in and of themselves. In “Mapman,” Harrison imagines himself as a legless American cartographer aiding the French resistance in the Second World War, whose lack of locomotion makes the landscape he can no longer travel into merely a “story of the dead.” It starts with a curious admission: “I like to think that I was a member of the French Resistance though I was only three years old and lived on a farm in Northern Michigan when Germany invaded France;” and, after a deliriously detailed recounting of what is admittedly a fiction, ends even more curiously: “Soon enough there will be no one left capable of reimagining my past, my story, and we will become the victims of books.” The piece “On Horseback in China” similarly evokes a kind of envious exoticism, as an old man traces the steps of an unnamed ancient Chinese poet (though by the end of the book it is possible to guess who that poet is) across the countryside. The first story is worthy of Borges; the second, of Alvaro Mutis. These prose poems further Harrison’s religious argument, preparing the reader for any recognition of the role of his small gods as symbols of “the Other.” A dog can be god to an insect, and an insect a guru to man. In our ignorance, we are each other’s gods, possibly even our own gods, in a sort of family romance.

The third and final section of the book shifts into disjunction and trans-sense, marking as its precursors the poetry of Rene Char and Su Tung-p’o — influences which, ironically, lead Harrison back to a domestic surrealism that advises him to “stay close to home” (from “The Home”). He imagines death conversely as the repetition of a childhood memory where his departed dogs “led me back / to the cabin in the forest in the dark” (from “Friends”) and as an out-of-body experience where the dead hover over their mourners: “but we are not separate / from them, nor they from us. / They are singing but the words / don’t mean anything in our new language” (from “Insight”).  In “Night Weather,” he formulates a treatise against exoticism when planning one’s own funerals:

Verdi’s Requiem won’t play well in Montana
just as “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” doesn’t work in Paris.
If it’s Arizona you can’t sing “Shall We Gather at the River.”

By the time we reach the last poems of the collection, Harrison is repeating himself — spinning his wheels. All the old images and tricks are returning, exhausted, until he admits “I have no moves / left except to feed the birds at first light. / I have nearly lived out my exile, the statistics / say.” To conceive of life as exile is just one more example of how Harrison, through imaginative power and nuance, reminds us of Virgil and Ovid, and serves as an exclamation point as Harrison prepares to reassume his place among the hierarchy of the stars — somewhere between Sergei Esenin and Ikkyū, Blake and James Wright, etcetera.

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About James Stotts

James Stotts is a poet and critic living in Boston. His work has appeared in AGNI, Little Star, and elsewhere.