Feeding the Beast

by Published on

Now in his eighth decade, the novelist and poet Jim Harrison, a Michigan native who most years follows a bird-like migratory route between homes in Montana and Arizona, still invites readers to see the world in new ways.

After 30 books, one can’t help hoping that Harrison’s twelfth volume of poetry, In Search of Small Gods, will draw new readers to this one-of-a-kind author. Harrison’s acclaimed fiction, including the novella-turned-movie Legends of the Fall, earned high praise for the author’s conjuring of diverse voices, male and female, old and young. His essays on food, published in Esquire and elsewhere, are as nourishing and flavorful as organ meat. His poetry expresses a profound sensitivity to the natural world, which may surprise those who identify his books with macho Hollywood overreach.

This latest slim volume, divided into three sections, meanders meaningfully through life’s cosmic mysteries, including death. Birds, bears, snakes and trout (i.e. fishing) are frequent talismans in these Zen-like visions. As he traverses the globe, plumbing the depths of his memories, Harrison reminds that the earth’s geographic frontiers are dwarfed by the horizons on view in our mind’s eye. “Poets run on rocks barefoot when shoes are available for a dime,” Harrison says in a vignette called “The Penitentes.” “They stand on cliffs but not too close to the fatal edge.”

If his best novels are so evocative on account of their author’s far-and-wide sympathies, his poems succeed on the basis of an open heart and a still-ravenous appetite for life. Time and again, Harrison peels the onion to get at some pungent truth. Fortunately, being sensitive is not the same as being precious, and Harrison’s observations are as likely to provoke laughter as tears. Even in the book’s middle section, filled with close to 20 distinct prose vignettes, Harrison is committed to revelation over obfuscation.

In “The World’s Fastest White Woman,” a surreal story that flies off the page like a flash-fiction experiment, the University of Texas at Austin makes a cameo. When it comes time for Harrison’s fast female to refuel, Texans may not be able to suppress an honest chuckle: “We went to a BBQ shack where she ate a huge triple portion brisket platter with the hottest of sauces and an ample bowl of pickled jalapeños.”

The short pieces of the middle section arrive like meat-and-potatoes entrées amid the delicate canapés and savory desserts that bookend them. And as indicated by the volume’s title, they’re only part of the story. Across the 50 or so pages exploring his heart’s panoply, Harrison the free-verse poet meditates on age, war, love, sex, spirituality and alcohol. The clarity of the poet’s monocular vision of the world—Harrison lost sight in one eye as a child—is all the more remarkable for the muddle that seems to surround him. In the short poem “Child Fear,” he offers the following litany: “Sour milk. Rotten eggs. Bumblebees.… Hitler and Tojo…. School Fire. Snake under hay bale. Life’s end.” Then there’s a stanza break before the poem concludes: “That your dead dog won’t meet you in heaven.”

Time and again, Harrison arrests attention with juxtapositions like that, contrasting childlike wonder with mortal dread. Deep in the last century, the late Frank O’Hara managed to focus a similar intelligence on the affairs of city life, most memorably in a collection called Lunch Poems.

Small Gods makes a fine country-fried companion to that work. It’s poetry for dinner.

Dan Oko is a freelance writer in Austin.

Houston-based writer Dan Oko is an avid fisherman who hopes never to encounter a lionfish in the wild. His work has appeared in Audubon, Garden & Gun and Texas Parks & Wildlife.