Art of Floating

41kZEc9AX4L._SX340_BO1,204,203,200_I’m a late-comer to reading Jim Harrison. I encountered a rave review in 2007 of his novel, Returning to Earth, when it was first released. Reading the book I was captivated. In a subsequent interview, I learned he identifies himself as a poet. With some few exceptions I had not really “gotten” poetry at that point in my evolution as a reader, and I couldn’t understand why on earth anyone would choose to be a poet when clearly they were adept at the novel form. After all, isn’t that the pinnacle of storytelling?*

Then I started reading Harrison’s poetry. The man really knocked down some doors for me, and now I make a point to read poetry every day, even as I must admit I could probably read and re-read his over and over for the rest of my life and be satisfied.

His newest collection, recently released by Copper Canyon Press, is called Dead Man’s Float. I have a review in the current issue of the Indy. You can check it out HERE. An excerpt:

When I read the last few poems of this book and closed the cover I sat back in my chair and looked around. The sun was shining brighter than it had for days. I could see through my window several house finches at the feeder hanging from the branches of the tree out front. My dog slept on her cushion, back-to-back with a bitter old cat. They used to be mortal enemies, but both now find themselves too old to expend the energy for animosity. Reflections like these seem the soul of what Jim Harrison writes about, at least to me. Few enough are the books I decide to keep beyond a culling or two. Barring fire or flood, Dead Man’s Float will be in my library for the rest of my life. If it’s the last poetry collection we get from Harrison—and I hope it isn’t—it is as fine an example of his efforts as any.

 

Here is one of my favorite poems from the book, this one called “Apple Tree.”

Sitting under the apple tree on a hot

June day harassed by blackbirds

and a house wren who have nests there.

I’m thinking of the future and the past,

and how the past at my age has become

obviously so much longer than the future.

The feeling always precedes my sense

that severe weather is coming. I don’t believe

in doom or destiny — I believe in turmoil,

thunderstorms in the head, rolling lightning

coming down my brain’s road. As an artist

you follow the girl in the white tennis dress

for 25,000 miles and never close the deal.

 

You’ll be hearing a lot about Jim Harrison on this blog in the coming months, I believe. I’ve dedicated myself to reading as much of his work as I can find, and I’ve found much of it.

 

* That’s a rhetorical question, of course

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House of the Rising Sun

Tomorrow, December 1st, is the release day for the latest novel from James Lee Burke, House of the Rising Sun, his, by my count, 35th. I reviewed it for the Independent this past week, which you can read HERE. That is the short version, and it’s a version I’m not very happy with. Indy reviews are 800 words maximum. Sometimes that seems like an insurmountable goal to attain, and others, like this time, it’s hard to say everything that needs to be said and still bring it home under the wire. I realized the day after I submitted it — on a shortened holiday week, of course, where the paper came out on Wednesday instead of Thursday — that I should have taken a different approach. So I’m offering another version, not so different, here. This is what I started with before I started cutting words to get to 800, moving things around, etc. I wish I could have let this book sink in a little, written the review, then thought about it for a day or two before submitting it. But that’s how things go down sometimes, I guess.


 

books_burkeI have a special affinity for James Lee Burke, because the storied writer is practically my neighbor. From where I write he lives just a few miles away as a raven might fly, though we are separated by a river and a ridge or two and the trip from driveway to driveway would certainly exceed an hour. On a couple occasions I’ve sat next to him at the movie theater, separated only by the space of the chair on which he placed his ubiquitous cowboy hat. Hell, I even shared a waiting room at Les Schwab for an hour or so once. I’ve been to several of his entertaining events, and I’ve spoken with him a couple times, though certainly not enough for him to remember who I am. He is always a gentleman.

Even so I’ll admit I’m not one of those people who has read a pile of his writing, because there’s plenty of it. I’ve read my share, certainly, but throw out a title and I couldn’t necessarily tell you if it is a Robicheaux yarn, a story of one or other of the Holland characters, or something standalone (but hey, I can hardly remember the titles of my own stuff, so that’s no surprise). I love his work, and I always look forward to new releases with anticipation. As much of a fan as I am, though, I find his latest effort, House of the Rising Sun, to be something of a mixed bag.

The book kicks off in 1916, in Mexico, in the heat of revolution. Hackberry Holland — the grandfather of modern era Burke series characters Hackberry (the younger) and his cousin Billy Bob Holland — is the lone survivor of a group of Texas Rangers who ambushed a train that led to many civilian casualties, including women and children. Holland, who participated in the attack, was along only because he was trying to track down his estranged son, Ishmael. Ishmael is a captain in the United States Army, leading a group of black soldiers on a mission to the south of the period’s rather permeable border. Holland staggers into an encampment where a group of Mexicans have set an ambush for the American soldiers at the site of a brothel. There he meets the madame of the place, Beatrice DeMolay, one of the three primary female characters to bedevil him throughout the book. Mayhem ensues, and Holland escapes after destroying a wagon full of stolen weapons that were slated to become the possession of Austrian arms dealer (and primary villain) Arnold Beckman. He also comes into possession of a religious artifact that may or may not be the Holy Grail, the cup Jesus drank from, which Beckman will go to any length to retrieve.

From there we bounce back in time to 1891. We meet Ruby Dansen, the feisty woman much younger than Holland whom he convinces to come with him to his ranch, who ultimately becomes the mother of Ishmael. When the two talk of marriage, Hackberry reveals he is still technically married to a woman named Maggie Bassett, though they have been estranged for years. When he takes to the court to sue for divorce, he is denied. Bassett, who (we presume) wants to stay married only to secure Holland’s wealth when he dies, is brought into play. She is a wiley former prostitute with many secret machinations of her own, and her renewed involvement with Holland sets the stage for the “betrayal” hinted at in the first section that costs Holland his relationship with his son.

At this point we are one third of the way through the book, time jumps to 1918, and Ishmael is leading his men now in World War I. The plot moves forward from there, with Holland juggling his relationships with the three women, his attempt to find and reconcile with his son, and the conflicts he faces with the diabolical Beckman.

While not a mystery in any sense — it’s a Western, really — the story manages several twists as it unfolds. Burke’s gifts, particularly in describing scenery and the world his characters live in, are in fine form. There are sentences and paragraphs as beautiful as anything he’s ever written. One need go no farther than the opening sentence for proof:

The sun had just crested on the horizon like a misplaced planet, swollen and molten and red, lighting a landscape that seemed sculpted out of clay and soft stone and marked by the fossilized tracks of animals with no names, when a tall barefoot man wearing little more than rags dropped his horse’s reins and eased himself off the horse’s back and worked his way down an embankment into a riverbed chained with pools of water that glimmered as brightly as blood in the sunrise.

House is an adventure story and a love story, and is clearly an additional piece in Burke’s effort at, when combined with last year’s Wayfaring Stranger, a sweeping family epic featuring the Hollands. Hackberry Holland’s chapter features heartbreak and pathos and cruelty to go around, while aiming for, hopefully, some kind of redemption. It also has its share of problems.

My main issue is with Hackberry Holland himself. He is too much the archetypal Western tough guy who often speaks like a poet but is also the baddest hombre around. He is wealthy and has an insurmountable code of right and wrong, yet is haunted by deeds of his past and, therefore, prone to binges of violence and alcohol. He’s a giant of a man and a hit with the ladies (as an indication of his manly epicness, Maggie Bassett says at one point to Holland’s son Ishmael, in talking about her similarities with the young man’s mother, “We both got involved with a man who has ten inches of penis and three of brain.”). A former law man himself, he is a source of constant frustration to law enforcement for going off like a loose cannon and taking the law into his own hands. Yet for all his intelligence and willingness to go off the rails when it comes to violence, he is constantly being manipulated and won’t allow his heart anywhere near the lattitude his trigger finger has. Frankly, I found him to be an asshole, and deserving of the heartbreak he’d brought onto himself.

I hesitate to call House a misfire. It’s enjoyable — Burke always is — but could probably stand to lose about a quarter of its heft. It gets slow in the middle third; shave off a few of Holland’s efforts to track down and beat on people, and we’d have a tighter story with a character more worth pulling for.

The Worst Memory

Meru_PosterThe new mountain climbing movie Meru opens in Missoula tonight, and runs for a week. I strongly urge you to see it. If you don’t live in Missoula, I strongly urge you to find where it’s showing and see it. It’s a human interest story that happens to involve mountain climbers. It’s one of those rare movies I will actually purchase so I can watch whenever I want to. I have a review in the current Indy, which you can check out HERE. An excerpt:

In 2008 Anker assembled a new team, and that is where the film opens. Joined by frequent climbing partner and photographer/filmmaker Jimmy Chin (who codirects the film with his wife, filmmaker Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi) and hotshot younger climber/filmmaker Renan Ozturk, the three men came the closest yet to actually reaching the summit. Expecting to take a week in the ascent, the climbers were trapped in their portaledge for four days while a storm dumped 10 feet of snow on them. Ultimately they spent 19 days on the wall, rationing their week’s worth of food, before giving up and turning back with the summit a mere 100 meters away.

I’ve been a huge fan of Jimmy Chin for years, and my respect for him is even greater now. His photography is stunning, and he seems to be a very cool guy. I’m just in awe of what these people are able to accomplish. They are world class, best-in-the-world-at-what-they-do types, even if what they do isn’t something most of us can even comprehend as to why they even want to. I love that kind of passion.

 

Big Feature Day

holmesToday’s a reasonably big day, as I have three things in the current Independent that just came out. I don’t know that it was necessarily planned to work out that way — different editors for different pieces — it just happened. I’m not complaining.

First up is the one I’m most pleased with, the feature article about my friend and his crew who, essentially, clean up environmental messes. It’s called “The Cleaners.” You can check that out here. I also provided some photos for this one, including the cover photo. While I did a feature before, years ago, this is my first cover photo anywhere. I’m pleased with that.

Next up is an interview with the author of The Great Detective: The Amazing Rise and Immortal Life of Sherlock Holmes, Zach Dundas. You can check that out here. Zach is a Missoula guy who is now Executive Editor at Portland Monthly. It’s his second book.

Finally, a review of the new record from Heartless Bastards, Restless Ones. They remain one of my favorite bands. Dig that one here.

All in all, not a bad day to see the culmination of many, many days of work!

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I Believe for National Poetry Month

I’ve seen mentioned several places that April is National Poetry Month. I’ve been cultivating an appreciation for poetry over the last couple years, so I thought I would post one of the ones I’ve noted as being interesting to me. Then I thought I’d try my hand at one of my own instead, as I’ve been dabbling at that a bit as well. So here is one I just wrote that is pretty much a total rip-off of Jim Harrison’s poem, “I Believe,” that I’ve mentioned previously. I’m going to be so bold as to even swipe the damn title.

I Believe

I believe in the leveling off after a

steep climb, blasts of rain on my

face, the sound of cricks and rivers

and lakes and oceans stroking the

sand and dirt, wind in the trees

and thunder. Christmas lights downtown,

food carts, ice cream trucks, and beat-up

old pick-ups, women with noses and

asses and personalities bigger than

what’s considered appropriate,

and dogs like that too.

The smell of clean sweat and

dirty sex and breakfast,

Men and women and children and

weeds and flowers and grass

poking their way through the cracks

between those spaces where the world

says they ain’t supposed to be.