Conscience of the World

Jim Harrison ponders existence in his fantastic new book of poetry

Jim Harrison has written a new book of poems, and it is a beauty.

It's been a long time coming. His first full-length collection of poems in 10 years, Saving Daylight is Harrison's exploration of the porous membrane separating the past from the future--that thing we call the present.

Harrison has been dissecting the world for years with his razor-sharp prose and zen-inspired poetry. An accomplished novelist and essayist as well as a poet, he is equally expert at all three. Several of his writings, including Legends of the Fall, Wolf and Revenge, have been adapted into movies. He has almost single-handedly reinvigorated the form of the novella, or short novel. In his hands, the novella is a full-blown novel distilled down to its absolute purest essence, like a fine perfume.

Take a look at "The Beige Dolorosa," from his collection Julip. Set mostly in Southern Arizona, it's a sharply accurate indictment of the modern cult of political correctness. Its main character, a man who rejects his own life in a dreary academic world back East, reinvents himself as a "cow helper" (as opposed to a cowboy) just north of the Mexican border. In the process, he has a brush with the drug trade, engages in a torrid fling with a wild local woman of questionable repute and embarks upon a project to rename all the birds of America. It's a lovely piece.

Just Before Dark is a collection of essays that include some of his big, bold food writing for Esquire magazine--if these (and others from his book The Raw and the Cooked) don't make you hungry, then truly there is no hope for you. His poetical magnum opus, The Shape of the Journey: New and Collected Poems, is possibly one of the finest and most accessible poetry collections of the past decade.

Harrison's poems are lean, pure and profound. Saving Daylight charts Harrison's responses to, among other things, his own aging and the situation we currently find our nation in. It includes one of the more thoughtful poems about the war you will read this year.

He's been thinking a lot about existence in these poems--the struggle we all face daily, to find ourselves where we are. There is a sweet melancholy in some of them as he stares unblinking into the mystery of oblivion. He observes in "Adding it Up," "Divide your death by your life and you get a circle."

With lines like that, you can view the book as a sort of zen koan, inviting us to reconsider ourselves and what we've become. In "Modern Times," his critique of modern life, he says, "We know this absurd feeling of wishing to live on the lip of a future that can't quite manage to happen."

Harrison later wonders about the brave new world we have created for ourselves, writing, in "Modern Times":

... "We lived
within the outside for two millions years
and now it's mostly photos.
We chose wallpaper and paint over leaves
and rivers. In our dream of safety
we decided not to know the world.

But it's not all like this. Harrison's life is of course ultimately rooted in the earth. Familiar themes of time, love, memory, ghosts, dogs, fish, bears, birds, food and the mysteries of the unknown form the foundation of his quest to understand what it means to be human in these times. The range of his mind revealed in these works is breathtaking.

One of his more haunting poems is called simply, "Hill." In 10 lines, he captures our brief lives, the whole of existence, the inevitable end "not now, not for the time being." It is this distillation of an entire world into a tiny handful of words that illustrate the precise craftsmanship of his poetry.

Then there is this, from "After the War":

Of late, politicians remind me of teen prostitutes
the way they sell their asses cheap, the swagger
and confusion, the girlish resolutions. They can't go
home because everyone there is embarrassed.

Harrison knows the emperor is naked.

Poets are the conscience of the world. Saving Daylight is, in the end, a gentle but insistent voice, tapping at our subconscious and reminding us we can do better. We should pay attention.

This is the work of a deeply soulful man who lives with great vigor and passion. Jim Harrison is a man blessed with the earthy grace of one who knows exactly where he stands.

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