“I Crave The Impossible”: Honoring the Life and Work of Jim Harrison

jim harrisonIf you think of the late, great Jim Harrison and the first thing that pops into your head is a grizzled old woodsman, you’re not wrong. Before he passed away on March 26, Harrison was the kind of man whoquite literallygreeted guests with a sign saying “DO NOT ENTER THIS DRIVEWAY UNLESS YOU HAVE CALLED FIRST. THIS MEANS YOU.” He was the grandfather of poetry who was always ready to help you chase his stoic advice with a flask full of vodka. It seems only appropriate that his writing contains the same brash enthusiasm, the same stubborn insistence of living life exactly as he intended to. In his lifetime, Harrison published a staggering 33 works of fiction and poetry, from short stories to a children’s book. His writing draws from the other hats he wore: fisherman, outdoorsman, and food critic.

Though it was Harrison’s fiction that garnered him the most fame, he identified first and foremost as a poet. His first poetry collection led to a teaching position at SUNY Stony Brook. It’s difficult to imagine the rough-edged Harrison in a button-up, teaching to a flourescent-lit classroom, and Harrison politely resigned after a year.

After leaving his teaching position, Harrison hopped around the country almost as frequently as he wrote books of poetry. He hopped around publishers, too, until he landed at Copper Canyon Press in the late 1990s. The 1998 publication of The Shape of The Journey, a book of new and compiled poems from his previous works, was the beginning of a relationship between publisher and poet that would last the rest of Harrison’s life. With Copper Canyon, Harrison published eight more poetry collections: Braided Creek, Darkness Sticks to Everything, In Search of Small Gods, Songs of Unreason, Saving Daylight, Letters to Yesenin, and Dead Man’s Float.

Restless, Harrison spent his time oscillating between the Upper and Lower Peninsulas of Michigan, chasing the warm weather and the wildlife that was drawn out with it. Like Thoreau, who Harrison is often compared to, Harrison’s writing draws deadmansfloatfrom the natural world that he so adored. He saw a bear feeding on a migrating moth and wrote of god. He ate a too-green apple and wrote, in his last book Dead Man’s Float, “Nature gets bruised, injured, murdered in bed.”

In Dead Man’s Float, Harrison mused on nature, on the fleetingness of time and the unreliability of his own memories of youth. He wrote with unflinching honesty of his own ailments of aging such as shingles and gout. His poetry is lustful and gritty and honest.

Wherever you are, Jim Harrison, we thank you for your work, for your pain, for your endlessly beautiful art.

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