Dec. 11, 2009


by Jim Harrison

At dawn Warren is on my bed,
a ragged lump of fur listening
to the birds as if deciding whether or not
to catch one. He has an old man's
mimsy delusion. A rabbit runs across
the yard and he walks after it
thinking he might close the widening distance
just as when I followed a lovely woman
on boulevard Montparnasse but couldn't equal
her rapid pace, the click-click of her shoes
moving into the distance, turning the final
corner, but when I turned the corner
she had disappeared and I looked up
into the trees thinking she might have climbed one.
When I was young a country girl would climb
a tree and throw apples down at my upturned face.
Warren and I are both searchers. He's looking
for his dead sister Shirley, and I'm wondering
about my brother John who left the earth
on this voyage all living creatures take.
Both cat and man are bathed in pleasant
insignificance, their eyes fixed on birds and stars.

"Searchers" by Jim Harrison, from Saving Daylight. © Copper Canyon Press, 2006. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Jim Harrison, (books by this author) born in Grayling, Michigan (1937). He had a happy childhood in Michigan, growing up in a big family of people who liked to read. But when he was seven years old, he was playing doctor with a friend and she cut his face with a jagged piece of a glass beaker and he went blind in his left eye. He said, "Ever since I was seven and had my eye put out, I'd turn for solace to rivers, rain, trees, birds, lakes, animals."

Even though he liked to read as a kid, he wasn't particularly interested in writing, and in fact was more interested in religion. He said, "I finally realized […] that writing, or art as I'd just as soon call it, had absorbed the transference of all my religious impulses at age sixteen. Up to sixteen I wanted to be a preacher, and then one day I did a whirlwind: I jumped from Jesus to John Keats in three days."

So he set out to be a poet. He went to school at Michigan State University and married his high school sweetheart. And he got a master's degree, even though he hated grad school, and published his first book of poetry, Plain Song (1965), and got a job teaching in New York. But he didn't really care for the East Coast or for teaching, so he moved back to Michigan and made $2.50 an hour as a construction worker and wrote some more books of poetry — Walking (1967) and Locations (1968). And he liked being back in Michigan. He said, "I figured out that my main obsession is freedom, and if I didn't have the freedom of close access to the natural world, I wasn't going to survive." And he said, "If things are terrible beyond conception and I walk for 25 miles in the forest, they tend to go away for a while. Whereas if I lived in Manhattan I couldn't escape them."

Then, in 1970, he was hunting and he hurt his back so badly that he had to stay in bed for months. His friend Thomas McGuane told him he should try writing a novel, so he did, and it was Wolf: A False Memoir (1971). It didn't do very well, and neither did his next couple of novels. Then he was visiting the set of the movie The Missouri Breaks, because Tom McGuane had written the screenplay, and he became friends with Jack Nicholson. Jack Nicholson wanted Harrison to keep on writing, so he ended up lending him a chunk of money to get through the project he had started. And that was Legends of the Fall (1979),a collection of three novellas, and it sold well and got good reviews and made Jim Harrison famous. He's continued to write novels and poetry, most recently his novel The English Major (2008) and his poetry collection In Search of Small Gods (2009), his 12th book of poetry, which came out earlier this year.

And it's the birthday of the writer Thomas McGuane, (books by this author) the one who convinced Jim Harrison to write his first novel, born in Wyandotte, Michigan (1939). As a kid, he wanted to be a scientist who studied fish, but when he was 10 years old, he decided to become a writer instead. He and a friend started to write a novel together, but they disagreed about how to describe a sunset and got in a fistfight and that was the end of that novel. He went to college and flunked out, but by the third college he went to, he shaped up and did a lot of writing and ended up graduating with honors. He had a couple of manuscripts rejected, but he won a scholarship to Stanford, and he finished another novel he was working on, and he gave it to Jim Harrison, who passed it on to a friend with connections to a publishing house. And it was accepted, and The Sporting Club came out in 1969. And McGuane has gone on to write nine novels, two books of short stories, and six books of nonfiction. His most recent book is a collection of stories, Gallatin Canyon(2006). He lives on a 3,000-acre ranch in Montana, where he raises cutting horses and runs cattle and writes books.

He said: "Literature is still the source of my greatest excitement. My prayer is that it is irreplaceable. Literature can carry the consciousness of human times and social life better than anything else. Look at the movies of the 1920s, watch the Murrow broadcasts, you can't recognize any of the people. Now, read Fitzgerald — that's it. That is the truth of the times. Somebody has to be committed to the idea of truth."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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