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The Shape of the Journey

New and Collected Poems

by Jim Harrison

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The Shape of the Journey
New and Collected Poems
Jim Harrison

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Excerpt: The Shape Of The Journey

Chapter One


to Linda


Form is the woods: the beast,
a bobcat padding through red sumac,
the pheasant in brake or goldenrod
that he stalks — both rise to the flush,
the brieflow flutter and catch in air;
and trees, rich green, the moving of boughs
and the separate leaf, yield
to conclusions they do not care about
or watch — the dead, frayed bird,
the beautiful plumage,
the spoor of feathers
and slight, pink bones.

My left eye is blind and jogs like
a milky sparrow in its socket;
my nose is large and never flares
in anger, the front teeth, bucked,
but not in lechery — I sucked
my thumb until the age of twelve.
O my youth was happy and I was never lonely
though my friends called me "pig eye"
and the teachers thought me loony.
       (When I bruised, my psyche kept intact:
       I fell from horses, and once a cow but never
       pigs — a neighbor lost a hand to a sow.)
But I had some fears:
the salesman of eyes,
his case was full of fishy baubles,
against black velvet, jeweled gore,
the great cocked hoof of a Belgian mare,
a nest of milk snakes by the water trough,
electric fences,
my uncle's hounds,
the pump arm of an oil well,
the chop and whir of a combine in the sun.
From my ancestors, the Swedes,
I suppose I inherit the love of rainy woods,
kegs of herring and neat whiskey --
I remember long nights of pinochle,
the bulge of Redman in my grandpa's cheek;
the rug smelled of manure and kerosene.
They laughed loudly and didn't speak for days.
       (But on the other side, from the German Mennonites,
       their rag-smoke prayers and porky daughters
       I got intolerance, and aimless diligence.)
In '51 during a revival I was saved:
I prayed on a cold register for hours
and woke up lame. I was baptized
by immersion in the tank at Williamston --
the rusty water stung my eyes.
I left oft the old things of the flesh
but not for long — one night beside a pond
she dried my feet with her yellow hair.
       O actual event dead quotient
       cross become green
I still love Jubal but pity Hagar.
       (Now self is the first sacrament
       who loves not the misery and taint
       of the present tense is lost.
       I strain for a lunar arrogance.
             Light macerates
             the lamp infects
       warmth, more warmth, I cry.)

He is young. The father is dead.
Outside, a cold November night,
the mourners' cars are parked upon the lawn;
beneath the porch light three
brothers talk to three sons
and shiver without knowing it.
His mind's all black thickets
and blood; he knows
flesh slips quietly oft the bone,
he knows no last looks,
that among the profusion of flowers
the lid is closed to hide
what no one could bear --
that metal rends the flesh,
he knows beneath the white-pointed
creatures, stars,
that in the distant talk of brothers,
the father is dead.

Hear this touch: grass parts
for the snake,
in furrows
soil curves around itself,
a rock topples into a lake,
roused organs,
fur against cloth,
arms unfold,
at the edge of a clearing
fire selects new wood.

I've known her too long:
we devour as two mirrors,
swallow each other a thousand
times at midpoints,
lost in the black center
of the other.
She sits on the bed,
breasts slack,
watching a curl of dust
float through a ray of sun,
drift down to a corner.
So brief this meeting
with a strange child --
Do I want to be remembered?
Only as a mare might know
the body of her rider,
the pressure of legs
unlike any other.
The girl who was once my mistress
is dead now, I learn, in childbirth.
I thought that long ago women ceased
dying this way.
To set records straight, our enmity
relaxes, I wrote a verse for her --
to dole her by pieces, ring finger
and lock of hair.
But I'm a poor Midas to turn her golden,
to make a Helen, grand whore, of this graceless
girl; the sparrow that died was only
a sparrow:
Though in the dark, she doesn't sleep.
On cushions, embraced by silk, no lover
comes to her. In the first light when birds
stir she does not stir or sing. Oh eyes can't
focus to this dark

On this back road the land
has the juice taken out of it:
stump fences surround nothing
worth their tearing down
by a deserted filling station
a Veedol sign, the rusted hulk
of a Frazer, "live bait"
on battered tin.
                A barn
with half a tobacco ad
owns the greenness of a manure
a half-moon on a privy door
a rope swinging from an elm. A
collapsed henhouse, a pump
with the handle up
the orchard with wild tangled branches.
             * * *
In the far corner of the pasture,
in the shadow of the woodlot
a herd of twenty deer:
three bucks
are showing off --
they jump in turn across the fence,
flanks arch and twist to get higher
in the twilight
as the last light filters
through the woods.

Returning at night
there's a catalpa moth
in the barberry
on the table the flowers
left alone turned black
in the root cellar
the potato sprouts
creeping through the door
glisten white and tubular
in the third phase
of the moon.

This other speaks of bones, blood-wet
and limber, the rock in bodies. He takes
me to the slaughterhouse, where lying
sprawled, as a giant coil of rope,
the bowels of cattle. At the county fair
we pay an extra quarter to see the hermaphrodite.
We watch the secret air tube
blow up the skirts of the farm girls,
tanned to the knees then strangely white.
We eat spareribs and pickled eggs,
the horses tear the ground to pull a load
of stone; in a burning tent we see
Fantasia do her Love Dance with the
Spaniard — they glisten with sweat, their
limbs knot together while below them farm
boys twitter like birds. Then the breasts
of a huge Negress rotate to a march in
opposing directions, and everyone stamps
and cheers, the udders shine in blurring
speed. Out of the tent we pass produce
stalls, some hung with ribbons, squash
and potatoes stacked in pyramids. A buck-toothed
girl cuts her honorable-mention
cake; when she leans to get me water
from a milk pail her breasts are chaste.
Through the evening I sit in the car (the
other is gone) while my father watches
the harness race, the 4-H talent show.
I think of St. Paul's Epistles and pray
the removal of what my troubled eyes have seen.

The mirror tastes him
breath clouds
hands pressed against glass
in yellow morning light
a jay
flutters in unaccustomed
from bush to limb of elm
a cow at breakfast
her jaws lax in momentary stillness
far off a milk truck
on the section road
light low mist
over the buckwheat
through the orchard
the neighbor's dogs bark
then four roosters announce

Great-uncle Wilhelm, Mennonite, patriarch,
eater of blood sausage, leeks,
headcheese, salt pork,
you are led into church
by that wisp you plundered for nine children.
Your brain has sugared now,
your white beard is limp,
you talk of acres of corn
where there is only snow.
Your sister, a witch, old as a stump,
says you are punished now for the unspeakable
sin that barred you from the table for seven years.
They feed you cake to hasten your death.
Your land is divided.
Curse them but don't die.


Copyright © 2000 Jim Harrison
All right reserved.