Some years ago I was mesmerized by the film version of Jim Harrison’s best-known work, Legends of the Fall. There was something passionate, primitive, and violent about the film that drew me in and held me fast. I wanted to know more about the fictional voice that had elicited those emotions. It’s only recently, however, that I read the story.
Legends of the Fall is an intense and fast-moving 80-page narrative with almost no dialogue. The novella and the film have the same headlong emotional pitch, but the novella is a tumbling waterfall of a story with no stops for the calm waters of dialogue.
Since this was my first reading of Harrison, I thought perhaps this was a hallmark of his style. But after reading the other two novellas in the trilogy, Revenge and The Man Who Gave Up His Name, I realized that Harrison’s only hallmark is the intensity he pours into his work.
In Revenge, the most striking story of the trilogy, Jim Harrison explores a love that survives and transcends overwhelming trauma with this observation:
“Without really thinking about it he had traveled unreturnably far from the glandular collisions of popular culture. He was immersed in love distant from the technical strenuosities of what had become a belabored map of sexual ecology where the proper steps yielded everything and nothing.”
“He felt,” he says farther on, in a statement that seemed to come direct from the author’s psyche, “the ache of a man who had followed his passion far into the nether reaches of human activity with the full understanding that a return was improbable.”
Intrigued by his stories, I went on to read his latest novella trilogy, The Farmer’s Daughter, published this year, in which I heard the same voice, only somewhat humorously mellowed over the last thirty years. But the most delightful discovery I made about Harrison was his poetry, with which I am enamored.
Jim Harrison, I discovered, is essentially a poet who writes fiction. It is in his poetry that he grabs me by the throat and squeezes hard. As in his fiction, he stunningly juxtaposes massive amounts of detail with almost offhand philosophical observations, but his poetry comes at me with the lightning speed and unpredictable force of a meteor, leaving behind a smoking hole where all my assumptions used to be.
His latest collection of poetry, In Search of Small Gods, is the continuation of a voice that refuses to be tied down or labeled. He is tethered neither by subject nor by form, and seems to be gathering his later years around him with the same passion and ferocity that characterized his earlier works. As he says in “Barking”:
I was a dog on a short chain
and now there’s no chain.