Sometimes you open a book and realize you have to put it down. Right away.
I’m not talking about those cases where you understand it’s not worth your time. We all know what that’s about. I mean those cases where it’s just too good.
It’s National Poetry Month, which is both awful and wonderful. Awful because every day of my life is Poetry Day, because I know no other way to be so alive and connected to the world. I cringe when I hear the phrase meant to cue our collective appreciation in April, ostensibly to banish it again on May 1. There are a lot of things I’d like to banish on that date, and poetry is not on the list.
But I admit it’s also wonderful because it unleashes poetry festivals, performances, reading, and internet chatter about poets and poems in greater supply than usual. The nation remembers we are here, and that we matter. Somewhere right now, the phrase “Poetry Month” is sparking an acute, half-remembered sensation in some poor media-addled person that he or she once did love a particular poem, that for a few brilliant moments his or her mindbody unified and hummed with the electricity of an elusive truth, a searing joy, a mystery, a primal music.
I loved that poem, the lost reader says. I felt so alive.
If only readers could stay in that space a while longer, or summon it at will. Maybe poetry month will liberate a few of them from their respective prisons of zombie movies, professional sports, pop music, and social media, and if so, then it’s worth it. I have my own ritual during this time: when poetry month rolls around, I always treat myself and purchase a few poetry collections I’ve been meaning to read. Among those I selected this time around was Jim Harrison’s Songs of Unreason. I had read a few poems from this 2011 book, and meanwhile have been on a fierce Harrison jag, reading five of his novels and a collection of his essays, along with assorted reviews and interviews. It was time to venture into the poems, which is where he started his writing career.
I like to read poetry after breakfast, so the other day I picked up my recently arrived Songs of Unreason and sat down to enjoy what I thought would be a couple hours of uninterrupted pleasure. The opening poem, "Broom," so disarmed me that I had to put the book down; in fact, it may have been the opening lines of the opening poem that did it.
To remember you’re alive
visit the cemetery of your father
at noon after you’ve made love
and are still wrapped in a mammalian
odor that you are forced to cherish.
To be sure, I felt an immediate thrill here. If this poem doesn’t make you shiver with pleasure, I cannot help you and you should quickly return to your video game console or Facebook rant or the vapid Romcom paused mid-scene on the tiny screen of your phone. This is not a candied variety of pleasure; you cannot mistake it for that once you reach the end of the first “sentence,” five lines that open the book as well as any I’ve read. The pleasure Harrison offers here is characteristic—earthen, carnal, complex, and requiring a surrender. I can read and re-read it, and each time feel the distinct clank of my chains falling off behind me.
Harrison, whether in prose or poetry, is a master of conflating the sensuous with memento mori. It’s not enough that his speaker decides to visit his father’s grave after lovemaking; the aroma of that coupling on his body overlies, by implication, that of the grave, the contents of which engendered his own physical body through the very act whose remains he carries on him. I could say more, but it’s at this point in any exercise of criticism that I figure you either get this or you do not get this, and we’ll leave it at that.
Harrison, however, has more to say in the poem, and turns from one surrender we are “forced to cherish” to yet another we might have a more difficult time learning to love.
Under each stone is someone’s inevitable
surprise, the unexpected death
of their biology that struggled hard, as it must.
Now to home without looking back,
enough is enough.
That death should surprise any of us is rather ironic, but of course it sometimes happens, as it did in the case of the author’s father and sister, who died suddenly in a car accident. This is not to say the poem is strictly autobiographical, though some critics have acknowledged Harrison’s fiction and poetry often hew very closely to his life. Ultimately, any of us could be thus surprised, and this is the point I made earlier—the poem connects me, with an electrical surge, to the fact of my biology that struggles hard, as it must, but which can be extinguished in an instant. This is an invaluable insight to receive just after breakfast, when the last sip of coffee in the mug is cold and the sun rises too high to deny the insistent tug of my list-of-things-to-do. Enough is enough, as Harrison writes flatly. Morbid thoughts, wallowing in loss, and even the precedent lovemaking, are all delimited by necessity.
Or not, and this is what poetry does for us. The best of it sets us free. Witness the speaker of the poem who refutes the merely practical by taking it in hand and alchemically, through language, turning it metaphysical—a moment of genius from Harrison. He’s sweeping us back and forth over the line we imagine separates such spheres of experience, fortified with good wine—the activity an assertion of aliveness, the wine a balm for the ache, and the sum of it all is to unleash us from reality.
En route buy the best wine
you can afford and a dozen stiff brooms.
Have a few swallows then throw the furniture
out the window and begin sweeping.
Sweep until the walls are
bare of paint and at your feet sweep
until the floor disappears. Finish the wine
in this field of air, return to the cemetery
in evening and wind through the stones
a slow dance of your name visible only to birds.
That he returns to the cemetery is not merely a return to reality. This second visit can take place only in the unified, transcendent “field of air,” where the quotidian chore of sweeping has blended with a metaphorical cleansing of self, and where the stilled body of the father echoes in the live consciousness of the son, clean and terrible and beautiful because it is entirely earthly, freed of sentimental lies about an afterlife, witnessed only by our fellow mortals, the birds. I don't go back to the cemetery with the speaker, I actually go forward, changed.
So that’s why I put the book down. Maybe now you understand. I don’t mean I will never pick it up again; on the contrary, I will read this book with great relish. I will enjoy it deeply and thoroughly and very likely, repeatedly. But this first poem in the collection filled me up in a way that will take a long time to settle. Once Poetry Month is over and May spills its gold and green everywhere, I’ll pick it back up and go slowly and with gratitude through every word.
Happy National Poetry Month to you, and remember the little secret that you can have Poetry Day every day, if you want it and have the will to reach for it.