Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Jim Harrison “Thickets”

From poetry’s early progenitors like Rimbaud, Keats, Whitman, Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Basho to our more home-grown elder poetry statesmen like Leonard Cohen or Al Purdy who went on walkabout, sometimes for years, and wrote about it famously in their books, there is something intractable and alluring about a poet’s desire to hit the road. Of my friends in the poetry community, many gleefully pack every year, boarding buses or trains, in order to go off for a few stolen weeks – or if they are especially lucky – a few stolen months on various writing sabbaticals.

Usually these retreats take place in far-flung destinations like the Banff Center in the mountains, or a small monastery in Saskatchewan, or a real honest-to-god castle in Scotland, or a writer’s colony in Mexico. The more isolated, off the beaten track, and remote a location is, the more utility it has for a writer looking for a place to write.

For myself, I only really learned to write after living in Seoul, South Korea for a year by myself and taking just two poetry books with me. Less being more. Such thoughts make me think of Jack Gilbert’s fine poem “Gift Horses” from his book The Great Fires where he writes “He lives in the barrens, in dying neighborhoods / and negligible countries. None with an address. / But still the Devil finds him. Kills the wife / or spoils the marriage. Publishes each place / and makes it popular, makes it better, makes it / unusable.”

This idea of utility in the wilderness is a romantic notion and is largely responsible for poets and writers making for the hinterlands just off the main map. In his essay “The Road” from his book Off to the Side, Jim Harrison offers reasons for why those in the writing community often find themselves north of elsewhere:

The easily perceivable motive is more life rather than less, and the simple historical fact that we lost a certain exuberance when we began to squat rather than wander. We arm ourselves early with quasi-wisdom to support our heart’s urgings. I remember my dad’s consternation when I quoted William Blake, “Still water breeds pestilence,” though he was indeed sympathetic to my “seeing the world” before I got married and settled down. (149)

This sounds about right to me. In my experience, isolation forces a person open. It pulps your life’s experience, and makes you vulnerable in ways that remind you life is not the slough of mundane thoughts seeking to distract you from seeing the world’s plenty. Life for a poet or a writer requires acute attention or as Roethke once wrote: “A poetry of longing: not for escape but for a greater reality.”

I think this is the view Jim Harrison was speaking of in the essay I quoted from earlier and which he masterfully fashions into the following poem from his collection Saving Daylight:

Patagonia Poem

Here in the first morning sunlight I’m trying
to locate myself not by latitude 31.535646 N
or longitude 110.747511 W, but by the skin
of my left hand at the edge of the breakfast plate.
This hand has the skin and fingers of an animal.
The right hand forks the egg of a bird, a chicken.
The bright yellow yolk was formerly alive
in the guts of the bird waiting for the absent rooster.
Since childhood it has been a struggle
not to run away and hide in a thicket and sometimes
I did so. Now I write “Jim” with egg yolk
on the white plate in order to remember my name,
and suddenly both hands look like
an animal’s who also hides in a remote thicket.
I feel my head and the skull ever so slightly
beneath the skin, a primate’s skull that tells
me a thicket is a good idea for my limited
intelligence, and this hand holding a pen, a truly
foreign object I love, could with its brother hand
build a shelter in which to rest awhile and take
delight in life again, to wander in the moonlight
when earth achieves its proper shape, to rest looking
out through a tangle of branches at a daylight
world that can’t see back in at this animal shape.

I suppose what first needs to be said about this poem is that the exact location in which the speaker finds himself, at least in the purely geographical sense, is not significant. In our brave new world so obsessed with GPS satellite technology, a technology that can unwittingly lead a driver off a bridge that is out, or tragically cause an older couple to be stranded in the mountains of Nevada, the exact longitude or latitude is immaterial.

The important thing is what happens inside him in that location, the mindfulness or sudden awareness that stems from walking up a dirt path, or crossing a ridge-line, or in this case having breakfast in the first morning sunlight in a place which was until that morning new and foreign to him.

It is the foreignness of the place, the costume of one’s daily life stripped away, that allows the poem’s speaker to be more attentive and to unclutter, defragment, his consciousness. It is only by placing himself in a landscape that is wholly indifferent to him, one that, in fact, has forgotten that he is there, which ironically allows him to begin to see himself anew as he does in the next section of the poem where he begins by studying his hand:

This hand has the skin and fingers of an animal.
The right hand forks the egg of a bird, a chicken.
The bright yellow yolk was formerly alive
in the guts of the bird waiting for the absent rooster.
Since childhood it has been a struggle
not to run away and hide in a thicket and sometimes
I did so. Now I write “Jim” with egg yolk
on the white plate in order to remember my name,
and suddenly both hands look like
an animal’s who also hides in a remote thicket.

Harrison’s idea of thickets, natural shelters where animals tend to hide, is enlarged in this section to include that human drive to escape into the wilderness, into the remotest regions where the world forgets us, and in that forgetting, reforges our connection to nature, and by extension, to ourselves.

This is not to say one always needs to be alone lost in the barrens, surviving only on a diet of wild rabbit and berries. Harrison hints at this in his essay when he says, “Gradually my definition of thickets came to include distant anonymous motels in remote towns and cities”(145). Harrison wants to get away from the ruckus of modern life, with all its morose addictions to mindless consumption, and find a place where a person can be made to feel vulnerable and attentive. That is all.

Isn’t this why poets and writers pack planes, trains, and automobiles each year on their way to Spain, or some cabin in Muskoka, or a writing retreat in the BC Gulf islands? It replenishes the spirit and one’s ability to write?

I like to believe so and so does Jim Harrison as he ends his poem with the belief that although we are the only animal who laughs and weeps, we are still only an animal, subject to the normal passage of time and mortality, looking for a place to stare “out through a tangle of branches at a daylight / world that can’t see back in at this animal shape”.

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