Jim Harrison: The Essential Poems

Image of Jim Harrison: The Essential Poems
Release Date: 
May 28, 2019
Copper Canyon Press
Reviewed by: 

“Harrison’s poetry transcends pedestrian landscapes to inspire sentimental memories, as if epiphanies.”

Jim Harrison’s latest collection, The Essential Poems, contains selections from several works, from 1965’s Plain Songs to 2016’s Dead Man’s Float. They are proper representations, and readers will be compelled to read all his poems after reading these. They will long for more.

Rich with clear and tangible images, Harrison’s poetry transcends pedestrian landscapes to inspire sentimental memories, as if epiphanies. And they are real. We see nature every day, yet rarely harness how it makes us feel. Harrison provides feelings.

Stirring and emotive, here are the first five lines of “Dead Deer”: “Amid pale green milkweed, wild clover, / a rotted deer / curled, shaglike, / after a winter so cold / the trees split open.” Harrison writes deliberately in a poem that is not sugar-coated; it is a metaphor for poignant grief, using “cruel luxuriance” as its closing line.

Harrison’s simple word choice must be admired. When writing this way, language becomes honest; poems become true. Here are some lines from “Water.” “Before I was born I was water. / I thought of this sitting on a blue / chair surrounded by pink, red, white / hollyhocks . . . Born man, child man, singing man . . . This is a round river / and we are her fish who become water.” The blue chair, colorful setting, and definitive list create an honest sense of place, written with simple language, thus creating true sentiment. 

“Fence Line Tree” is further proof of Harrison’s ability to write the human experience, from birth, to death, to the beyond. “There’s a single tree at the fence line / here in Montana, a little like a tree / in the Sandhills of Nebraska, which may be miles / away. When I cross the unfertile pasture . . . I find it oppressive. Likely it’s / as old as I am . . . all gnarled and twisted from its battle / with weather . . . I sit against it until we merge . . . and when I return home . . . I feel I’ve been gone for years.” The tree’s permanence becomes a metaphor for hope and gratitude. The poet embodies the spirit and strength of the tree, proving how nature empowers us. This poem should be memorized. 

And Harrison doesn’t stop with nature. He writes poems about Russia, Dr. Zhivago, and Nixon. He even writes about the Grateful Dead and King Kong. His ability to engage multiple subjects proves his poetic range, resourcefulness, and flexibility. He diversifies.  

Harrison’s poems flow without hypothetical or abstract verbiage, which makes them accessible to all ages. The structure, content, and metaphors demonstrate a mastery of poetics. His engaging and enlightening poems should be taught, learned, and loved. Remember this.