In the poem “Spirit,” which appears in the collection “Dead Man’s Float,” coming in January from Copper Canyon Press, Jim Harrison writes:
Rumi advised me to keep my spirit
up in the branches of a tree and not peek
out too far, so I keep mine in the very tall
willows along the irrigation ditch out back
Which tree, I wonder, as I walk to the cottage that serves as Harrison’s writing studio. The implication is that one’s spirit is part of nature, part of the birdsong and sheep and the weathered Bridger Mountains that surround his house.
“Well, of course it is, yah,” Harrison growls, hair wild, blind left eye wandering the wall 5 feet to my right. He rummages for another American Spirit, which he chain-smokes.
“Rumi was saying that if your soul feels abused and bruised in this life, send your soul up to a willow tree and leave it there for a while. But then it’s hard to get back. You got to be careful about that.”
Now he hunkers like an old bear in his den, eschewing shirts — it’s still warm, during my late September visit — because of shingles, his brown skin shining, writing longhand on yellow pads on a desk scattered with books including “The Poems of Jesus Christ” and “The Zen Teaching of the Bodhidharma.”
But that his next book is full of his small gods and surprising turns of phrase is proof that the Harrison who published his first book, the poetry collection “Plain Song,” in 1965, is still close to the source. In the last two lines of “Spirit,” he writes:
The spirit, above anything
else is attracted to humility.
If I slept
in the streets it would be under the cardboard with me.
“Dead Man’s Float” is, as its title would suggest, a flinty and psalmist look at mortality and wonder. In some of the poems, people and animals simply die. In the better poems, we’re lifted into beautiful scenes in which spiritual characters are placed in the context of the poet’s relationship with nature, which took root when he was growing up in Michigan.
In “Hospital,” Harrison stares from a hospital window at a statue of St. Francis and decides that he will one day take the saint to a stump in the woods near the little writing cabin he owned in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula for 24 years.
“I found this stump in a gully about 12 miles from anything,” Harrison says, “and I found that I could crawl into a hole in the stump and sit up. And then could see the scats of all these different creatures who had used it for shelter. You know?”
St. Francis, he reasoned, would understand why this was sacred.
Harrison and I decamp to the picnic table in the yard, where the sun splashes through the yellow cottonwoods and warms a magnum of Montepulciano D’Abruzzo. “It’s 5 o’clock, and I get a glass of wine,” he says. Then the phone rings. It is Linda.
She had been gravely ill and he has been back and forth to see her in the hospital. Their call is short, news of the worst kind. Suddenly it’s just him and me and mountains and rivers without end. The birds are loud.
“God, I can’t believe that phone call,” he says finally, pouring us both a second glass of wine.
Still, after a pause, Harrison wants to go on talking. It is something to do. I ask about the poem “Soul,” in which his starving spirit is fed not by pain,
but understanding the invisible flower
within the flower that tells it what is,
the soul of the tree that does the same.
I don’t seem to have a true character
I ask: Does that mean trees and flowers know their souls and we don’t?
“You know that Dylan Thomas poem?” he answers. “I love that line: ‘The force that through the green fuse drives the flower / Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees / Is my destroyer.’ The force that through the green fuse drives the flower. Whatever I learned reading Scientific American, nothing can finally compete with your own observations.”
It is like Harrison to look inward. It is like Harrison to resist constraints. “Nature was the visible part of something deeper that I got when I read ‘Plain Song,’” says poet Dan Gerber, who co-edited a literary magazine with Harrison called Sumac and is one of his oldest friends.
“We ritualize certain things,” Harrison says of the poem. “Yah, it’s just like I go to the studio every day of the year. Because of something [French poet Rene] Char says: ‘You have to be there when the bread comes fresh from the oven.’”
Our talk wanders from why poetry stinks (“everybody getting an MFA”) to his passion for birding and how his brother taught Sunday School to field guide master David Allen Sibley. But he can’t keep his mind off Linda.
“My difficulty would be in figuring out if I want to live without her. We’ve been married 55 years. That’s amazing, isn’t it?” he says. We abandon the interview and go inside to cook. Harrison doesn’t want to go into town, he says, because he’ll get drunk and he’s “already had some problems with the gendarmes.” He worries whether Linda will be comfortable moving home.
What we can’t know then, of course, us that she will die two days later, though he has felt it coming. Dreaded it. Somehow we manage a beautiful spaghetti pomodoro to go with 3-hour-old baguettes and olives and a sweet Taleggio I have brought.
As we finish the wine, he talks about his two daughters and three grandkids who live near him and his new novel, which is about a woman who loves trees. He is going to finish it. He talks about his original calling to poetry when he was 19 and the commitments he has made.
“I was out on the roof at night in the summer, stars, the Milky Way, and I got just absorbed into poetry,” Harrison recalls. “I thought it was actually my calling that night. And then, when my dad and my sister got killed [in a car accident] a couple years later, I realized that even though I was married there couldn’t be any higher obligation on earth. Because if people you love die what are you going to do?”
You feel like you have to honor them, I say.
“Exactly. By not being a smutty little cog in the culture.”
Jim Harrison is going to stay outside.
Kuipers is a writer in Los Angeles.