These Simple Rules to Live Within
I awoke this morning with the first orange glow of sunlight against a hill of white pines and to the sound of a mourning dove. Today I’ll fly south to spend time with my friend Brit and her baby Mara. Among other things, we’ll pay homage to one of our early influences, by reading his work again, together, and drinking wine. I’ve known Brit since we were young poets together in workshops at Interlochen Arts Academy, writing and living under the daily influence of Jim Harrison’s fiction, essays and poetry. I consider him a “Tutelary Spirit” (to use Rilke’s term), and though I never met him personally, she did. We’ll celebrate the profound impact he’s had on us, but it’s also hard to accept that he’s gone. It’s the end of an era for us.
One of my teachers in those days, Michael Delp, probably didn’t pass a day of his life without quoting Harrison, whose books subsequently provided the foundation of my earliest creative writing studies. Because of this, at 17 I was initiated into a society of fellow poets, readers, lovers of rivers and lakes, and free minds who tend to veer away from the establishment, and live closer, as close as we can, to something wilder and more atavistic, even. As the tributes appear in the wake of his death earlier this week, I realize we are legion. A lot of people, and not just writers, have appreciated Harrison and what he has taught us.
This week I’ve been rereading the two books that have meant the most to me, realizing how they’ve shaped my world view and way of life, and how a few lines in particular have provided what I think of as guidelines for living:
“I wanted to be worthy of this waking dream—” (Missy, 1966-1971)
“It is hard to learn how to be lost after so much training.” (Theory and Practice of Rivers)
“One day standing in a river with my flyrod / I’ll have the courage to admit my life.” (Looking Forward to Age)
“Dance with yourself with all your heart / and soul, and occasionally others, but don’t / eat all the berries birds eat or you’ll die.” (Homily)
“The days are stacked against what we think we are.” (Theory and Practice of Rivers)
“We die from want of velocity.” (February Suite)
“To remember / the soft bellies of fish / the furred animals that were part of your youth / not for their novelty / but as fellow creatures.” (February Suite)
“to be a child that wakes beautifully, / a man always in the state of waking.” (Three Night Songs)
“But often at night something asks / the brain to ride, run, riderless . . .” (The Sign)
“I want to die in the saddle. An enemy of civilization / I want to walk around in the woods, fish and drink.” (Drinking Song)
“Poetry must die so poems will live again.” (Ghazal XXVIII)
“Those poems you wrote won’t raise the dead or stir the / living or open the young girl’s lips to jubilance.” (Ghazal LXV)
“All those poems that made me soar along a foot / from the ground are not so much forgotten as never / read in the first place.” (Letter to Yesenin, 2)
“We are each / the only world / we are ever going to get.” (Returning to Earth)
“What sways us is not each other / but our dumb insistent pulse beating / I was I am I will I was” (Returning to Earth)
“I want to have my life / in cloud shapes, water shapes, wind shapes, / crow call, marsh hawk swooping over grass and weed tips. / Let the scavenger take what he finds. / Let the predator love his prey.” (Returning to Earth)
“In a bed of reeds I found my body and entered it, / taking my life upon myself, the soul made comfortable.” (Marriage Ghazal)
“Give all you can to the poor.” (Homily)
“With all this death, behind our backs, / the moon has become the moon again.” (New Love)
“I’ve decided to make up my mind / about nothing, to assume the water mask, / to finish my life disguised as a creek, / an eddy, joining at night the full, / sweet flow, / to absorb the sky, / to swallow the heat and cold, the moon / and the stars, to swallow myself / in ceaseless flow.” (Cabin Poem)
“And you my loves, few as there have been, let’s lie/ and say it could never have been otherwise.” (Looking Forward to Age)
While writing this, I came across an essay I wrote back in 2010, “How to Love a Lake,” in which I quote the most important line of all: “We don’t get back those days we don’t caress, don’t make love.” (Letter to Yesenin, 21) I’d forgotten I’d written that, but it’s further evidence of how these lines have lived within me all these years. How I’ve lived them.
Harrison died in his study, pen in hand, working on a poem. Farewell Jim Harrison, it’s hard to imagine myself without the wisdom your poems and stories have provided for all these years. Fare-thee-well.
Jim Harrison interviewed in The Paris Review by Jim Fergus.