LE­GENDS FALL … RIP

Foreword Reviews - - Contents - By Matt Suther­land

I lost some­one very im­por­tant to me this spring, a blow made even more dis­heart­en­ing be­cause a few weeks be­fore his death, I re­ceived a re­view copy of Dead Man’s Float, his lat­est col­lec­tion of poetry, and straight­away spent a de­light­ful hour or two read­ing one poem af­ter another. Just days af­ter I wrote a short re­view and se­lected a poem to ex­cerpt in this sum­mer is­sue (see page 84), the old coot up and died.

Jim Har­ri­son was a hefty pres­ence here in north­ern Michi­gan for thirty-plus years—from the hand-to-mouth early days of his writ­ing ca­reer to Le­gends of the Fall and his as­cen­sion to writ­ing’s top cir­cles. I’d fre­quently bump into him at tav­erns and gro­cery stores and dozens of times served him and his wife and friends as a waiter in his fa­vorite lo­cal restau­rant. As is of­ten re­ported, the man could eat and drink like a Vik­ing, but I’ll mostly remember his great hu­mor and af­fa­ble crude­ness, as ex­em­pli­fied one night af­ter de­vour­ing a lamb shank, when he de­clared, “That was bet­ter than a cheer­leader.”

Gre­gar­i­ous as he was, Har­ri­son hated most as­pects of the book busi­ness, es­pe­cially events. At a Book Expo Amer­ica sign­ing ses­sion a few years ago, I inched my way to the front of the line and slid a flask of good scotch across the ta­ble be­fore he had a chance to look up. Af­ter tak­ing a big pull, he heaved an ap­pre­cia­tive sigh and pro­ceeded to write some­thing pro­fane and un­print­able (in these pages) about my own youth­ful hi­jinks.

Har­ri­son’s writ­ing surely in­flu­enced the di­rec­tion of my life in that I’ve al­ways fan­cied myself a writer, even in those twenty-some­thing, ta­ble-wait­ing days when I might go six months with­out pen­ning any­thing be­yond a gro­cery list. His poetry, es­pe­cially, helped my own pen de­velop. His lan­guage was in­ti­mate, vul­ner­a­ble, and raw, with none of the ob­tuse game play­ing some po­ets em­ploy.

Af­ter a few years of vet­ting thousands of books for re­view in Fore­word, I’ve come to rec­og­nize that a fair num­ber of writ­ers have high-qual­ity word­craft skills, while a much smaller con­tin­gent have some­thing in­ter­est­ing to say, and only a tiny few like Har­ri­son excel at each of those qual­i­ties.

I’ve mem­o­rized a few things from the Har­ri­son canon over the years, in­clud­ing a poem I re­cite an­nu­ally to a friend as her birthday gift. I try to af­fect the same nasally dead­pan that char­ac­ter­ized Har­ri­son’s speech, but it’s the power of the poem that both lifts my spir­its and brings on waves of melan­cho­lia.

Yes, I was gifted to know Har­ri­son, and I shud­der to think of the per­son I’d be with­out a lifetime of read­ing his work.

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