Sitting on Logs

With National Poetry Month winding down, I thought I would recognize it. I’ve been meaning to for about 28 days now, as a matter of fact. I’ve read more poetry in the past year than I have in my lifetime prior, I think. I’ve even taken to writing it. Last year, I recognized April with one of my own, the first I’d written in at least a couple decades, directly inspired by one from Jim Harrison.

Considering Harrison left us a month ago, I thought this year I would share one of his, this sort of prose poem from his last collection, Dead Man’s Float, to mark the event. It’s one I love, for its beauty and its sadness. I’ll miss the man’s work, though I suspect there is probably some stashed away we’ve yet to see.

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Notes on the Sacred Art of Log Sitting
by Jim Harrison

 

To give the surgeon a better view of my interior carcass I was slashed from neck to tailbone. Recovery was slow and the chief neurologist told me, “You can walk your way out of this.” I began walking out by shuffling down a long hallway. It was very hard on my tender empathy to see so many hopeless cases, especially the truly beautiful girl who was paralyzed for life.

I want to walk in the morning with Zilpha again. I want to walk in the morning with Zilpha again. I want to walk in the morning with Zilpha again. I want to walk in the morning with Zilpha again. I want to walk in the morning with Zilpha again. Amen.

And I want to bird hunt, which I’ve done with intensity for forty years in a row. Is this even possible? The answer, come to find out, was that I couldn’t keep up. Zilpha would flush some birds then look to me wondering why I hadn’t shot. I was far behind, sitting on an Emory oak log and staring hard at the landscape.

My shuffling mood was always corrected by sitting on an oak log, so I decided to make some notes on the sacred art of log sitting:

  • Approach the log cautiously with proper reverence as if you were entering a French cathedral or the bedroom of your lover.
  • If it’s over 60 degrees, inspect the lower side of the log for Mohave rattlesnakes.
  • Now examine the log closely for the most comfortable place to sit, usually away from the sun.
  • Sit down.
  • Empty your mind of everything except what is in front of you — the natural landscape of the canyon.
  • Dismiss or allow to slide away any aspect of your grand or pathetic life.
  • Breathe softly.
  • Avoid a doze.
  • Internalize what you see in the canyon: the oaks and mesquites, the rumpled and grassy earth, hawks flying by, a few songbirds.
  • Stay put for forty-five minutes to an hour.
  • When you get up bow nine times to the log.
  • Three logs a day is generally my maximum.

When you get in your car it will seem as wretched as it is. A horse would be far better. For hours your mind will still be absorbed in the glory of what you saw rather than mail, emails, cell phones, TV, etc. Hopefully log sitting will allow you to change the contents of your life. You will introduce yourself as a “log sitter” rather than a novelist, detective, or mortician. You will walk more slowly and perhaps your feet will shuffle like mine. I can readily imagine buying a small ranch I’d call “The Log Ranch.” I’d truck in thirty-three logs and arrange them on the property like the Stations of the Cross. This could soothe me during my limited time in the twenty-first century, which has been very coarse indeed. Especially after Zilpha died.

It Was Easy if You Tried to Keep Calm

I think we all saw it coming soon, but it’s still a shock when it happens. I posted this yesterday morning to Facebook when I first learned the news:

I got up this morning and made some coffee. While it brewed, I watched the birds outside at the feeder. Mostly red-winged blackbirds, though a northern flicker joined them. A few sparrows. Then the neighborhood chickens arrived, followed by some mourning doves. I lingered a little with my wife, who typically works Sundays. Three cheers to Jesus for getting her the time off today. Finally, I sat at the counter and drank some coffee and finished reading a novella called “The Man Who Gave Up His Name.” It’s about a man who leaves corporate work, gives away his money, and becomes a cook. I could relate to him, of course. It is a story written by my favorite writer, Jim Harrison, and is the middle novella in the collection of three that comprises his breakout book Legends of the Fall. I set the book aside, moved to my computer and opened up Twitter. The first post I saw was from Benjamin Percy, offering up an RIP to Harrison, who died yesterday, and I find, despite having never met the man (though one time I did sit outside the driveway of his Arizona home where he died), that I miss him already.

I’m sad. I’m grateful I was able to review his most recent collection of poetry for the Indy. I’m also grateful I still have so much of his work to read for the first time. That doesn’t make it any easier.

It is good to see so many folks offering their thoughts about Harrison. His importance to me as a writer cannot be overstated, especially as a man with fewer years left in life than what I’ve already used up. There are many of his excellent quotes floating around, and I’ve collected my share. However, I am going to close with the following, from “The Man Who Gave Up His Name,” which represents the final paragraph I read while still thinking Jim Harrison was alive.

At midnight Nordstrom was sitting in the dark in his hotel bedroom looking at the moon and thinking about lily pads. Sonia had insisted he go to the Museum of Modern Art to see the huge paintings of lily pads by Monet and he had gone after lunch, staring at them utterly blankminded for an hour. Now in the moonlight all of the lily pads on the lakes of northern Wisconsin revolved before him. Sometimes they had small buttery-yellow flowers and sometimes they had large white flowers, strong with an eerie perfume he could smell twenty-five years later in a hotel room. He didn’t know if in the morning he would leave on his trip or go to Wisconsin for a few weeks. Bass hid under the lily pads and he used to swim under them and look upward so that the pads looked like small green islands in the air refracting the light. He had given the cocaine to the Sephard over dinner. The Sephard had been relieved but puzzled when Nordstrom insisted that Slats and Sarah were “nice people.” The was a neurotic English girl with a perfect fanny with the Sephard. She wanted to call a friend for Nordstrom but he said no. He was really quite tired. Just breathing on the bed in the moonlight seemed quite enough for the moment. First you breathed in, then out, and so on. It was easy if you tried to keep calm.

 

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Lily pad via iPhone, Seeley Lake, Montana, August 2012

Like a Cow Chewing the Same Cud for Six Months or More

With the arrival of March, a timely excerpt from Farmer by Jim Harrison:

 

51a86If2faL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Everyone got disgusted with winter by March and usually before, and a major April storm could bring on a fit of sheer spite in anyone. Carl used to say that winter was like a cow chewing the same cud for six months or more. And despite all the church activities, school, the dances and card parties at the Grange Hall, everyone grew morbid and nervous toward spring, about ten degrees out of kilter in fact. There were more fights at the tavern than at any other time of year and the simplest family quarrels extended into days of silence with the snow and wind outside roaring louder than the wood fire in the stove. Spring, whether false or not, brought on laughter and a kind of useful drowsiness, a time of general good feeling when people yawned and smelled the air with a few weeks’ respite before the fields would be dry enough to plow. Joseph thought it a grand time; it was simply that they had all lived through another winter and that under its heavy lid of snow and ice and frozen ground the earth was actually alive.

 

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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Violent Act

My latest from the Missoula Independent; a review of the new Jim Harrison novel, The Big Seven. Here is a paragraph:

Books_SevenIn an effort to get his post-retirement life together, the impressively alcoholic Sunderson buys a small fishing cabin in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. His neighbors, the Ames family—a lawless clan of criminals whose antics are believable only when viewed as the blackest of comedies—soon entangle Sunderson in their web of incest, violence and domestic abuse. He hires the young Lily Ames to continue in the capacity she had for his cabin’s previous owners as something of a caretaker; she is killed shortly thereafter in an AK-47 shoot-out with her cousin, Tom. Her sister Monica takes Lily’s place and immediately becomes Sunderson’s lover. We meet several other members of the Ames family, even as they begin to die one after the other from some kind of mysterious poisoning. Is Monica, the cook for the family, the killer? Could it be Lemuel Ames, the “runt” of the clan whom Sunderson befriends, a thoughtful, bird-loving man who spent most of his youth in prison for bank robbery? Or could it be another member of the psychotic bunch?

Jim Harrison is one of my favorite writers, hands-down. Read the rest of it HERE.