Jim Harrison’s final collection of poetry, Dead Man’s Float, seems to have been written in the full knowledge that he did not have much longer to live. Approaching age 80, the poet sings of death and birds. The opening poem is our vade mecum:
“Where Is Jim Harrison?”
He fell off the cliff of a seven-inch zafu.
He couldn’t get up because of his surgery.
He believes in the Resurrection mostly
because he was never taught how not to.
The poems that follow will deal with these themes—falling, Eastern concepts, surgery, hospitals, the possibility of an afterlife, and what he was and was not taught. He (or his narrator) was certainly taught to observe the dead and the earlier poems in the book are filled with images of his own death and dying as he sings a “bedsore cantata” while being “endlessly sacrifices at the medical gizmo altar.” His “spine aches from top to bottom” and his “shingles burn, a special punishment”. “The old bugaboo of depression” is there along with the sound of cellos. “I wanted to be a cello. I hear cellos when I’m trout fishing.”
But in the midst of death life can come rushing in:
“Time rushes toward me—
it has no brakes. Still
the radishes are good this year.
run them through butter,
Add a little salt”
It is a burden to know that one has no clear expiration date, but that it must be rushing at one. The poet notices dead bodies of animals and thinks about dead people: “I pray for Mandelstam hiding / covered with snow in a ditch.” “Elsa’s head torn off / and her eyes stayed open….She was a find gardener with a sweet, / warm voice.” “Molly was the bravest…one day / her body was found down by the weir.” “A cow is screaming across the arroyo….Next morning she’s dead, / already smelling badly in the heat.” “so many American Indians freeze / walking home from bars on the reservation edge. / A friend died learning and dozing against / his mailbox, so near home.”
The poems are sometimes unpoetical little stories about death, corpses, illness, and old age. While I realize that this review is not likely to win Harrison new readers, I think that would be wrong. Harrison speaks honestly to his life. He has a great book of essays forthcoming called A Really Big Lunch: Meditations on Food and Life from the Roving Gourmand.
This book of poems, however, is a serious guide to the life of the elderly. The second part of the book triumphantly returns (mostly) to life and especially to birds and flowers. In “Tiny Bird” Harrison write “Birds are poems I haven’t caught yet”. He’s a part of the poetic tradition of paying homage to the artistry of birds and bird songs. He praises the “two gorgeous / yellow warblers nesting in the honeysuckle bush….In a month or so, when the reach the size / of bumblebees they’ll fly to Costa Rica without a map.”
This book is not an easy book to read in many ways but it’s a necessary one for those who are wondering about death: when and why it comes. It offers no reassurance of an afterlife but acknowledges the possibility. If we are lucky, we will become old enough to embrace these poems with their wisdom. Without ever once becoming didactic, Harrison offers us lessons in what to see and what to watch and what to think about as we age into the sometimes crotchety, sometimes genial, characters we will become as we leave this world.