LEGENDS FALL … RIP
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.