The shape of the journey

I’m reading The Shape of the Journey: New and Collected Poems by Jim Harrison (Copper Canyon, 1998), following Tom Montag’s recommendation. This is my first exposure to Harrison’s work aside from the collection of epigrams he co-authored with Ted Kooser, Braided Creek, which I quoted from a few weeks back. I am impressed by the distinctiveness of each of Harrison’s books. He strikes me as comparable to Neruda in his ability to change style and mood to suit the concept, as well as in his boundless enthusiasm, detailed knowledge of the natural world and evident connoisseur’s appreciation of the finer things in life.

And as I discovered with Braided Creek, Harrison is eminently quotable. Here’s a very Via Negativa-compatible, extended quote from the book-length poem “Returning to Earth,” first published in 1977:

I no longer believe in the idea of magic,
christs, the self, metal buddhas, bibles.
A horse is only the space his horseness requires.
If I pissed in the woods would a tree see my ear
fall off and would the ear return to the body
on the morning of the third day? Do bo trees
ever remember the buddhas who’ve slept beneath them?
I admit that yesterday I built an exploratory altar.
Who can squash his delight in incomprehension?
So on a piece of old newspaper I put an earthworm
on a maple leaf, the remains of a bluebird after
the cat was finished – head and feet, some dog hair,
shavings from when we trimmed the horses’ hooves,
a snakeskin, a stalk of ragweed, a gourd,
a lemon, a cedar splinter, a nonsymbolic doorknob,
a bumblebee with his juice sucked out by a wasp.
Before this altar I invented a doggerel mantra
it is this    it is this    it is this


In 1996 Harrison came out with After Ikkyu and Other Poems. The 53-part title sequence is not a translation but an attempt to evoke the spirit and approach of the pre-modern Japanese poet and Zen roshi Ikkyu, famous even in Rinzai Zen circles for his nonconformity. Ikkyu not only celebrated his mistress in a series of erotic poems (imbued with deep religious meaning, we are led to believe), but scorned many elements of hallowed Zen tradition such as the convenient fiction of mind-to-mind transmission that had licensed, in his view, a proliferation of unenlightened bean-counters and power-mongers throughout the religious hierarchy of his day. He briefly accepted a prestigious appointment as abbot of one of the Big Five Zen temples in Kyoto, only to return to his little county temple in disgust after a couple of years. (I’m writing this portrait from memory; forgive me if I am a little fuzzy on the details).

I haven’t been able to get too far into this sequence without succumbing to nostalgia and other feelings that I don’t think Harrison intended to evoke. When I lived in Japan back in 1985-86 I roomed in a boarding house that was only a couple miles from Ikkyu’s country monastery. After one regular, daytime visit I returned often at night – it made a convenient destination for a roundabout ramble of about five miles through hills and rice fields. (It never occurred to me that I might be doing something wrong by slipping in without paying admission, just as it never occurred to the monks to post guards or install a burglar alarm.) Needless to say, for me and the other Zen-crazy American college students who shared that house, Ikkyu was something of a hero. Unfortunately, I didn’t keep a journal during most of my stay, so I’m unable now to fashion decent poems about Ikkyu or much else that occupied my otherwise sex- and alcohol-obsessed imagination at that time.

Despite this, I remain a stalwart believer in memory as an alembic for the distillation of experience. If I wrote everything down, how would I know what was really important as opposed to what merely seemed that way at the time? Doesn’t the act of writing stuff down make it important in a way it might not otherwise become? And in that case, wouldn’t the compulsive diarist find himself living to write – subtly or not so subtly letting his experience be shaped by his need to get a poem out of it – rather than vice versa? Not that that’s invariably problematic. But one suspects, you know, that a poet like Ikkyu (not to mention Rumi or Shakespeare) would’ve been far more interested in the “vice versa”!

In any case, when years later I came to write a poem about those nighttime walks, it wasn’t the temple I remembered, but a tiny Shinto shrine that had fallen into disrepair, as well as a great big golf course – which together seem more emblematic of what Japan has become in the modern era. My fascination with all things Zen and Buddhist had come to feel faintly absurd, part and parcel of the ridiculousness of choosing to live as an outsider in Japan – a zenophiliac in a country of xenophobics, as it were. I made it the lead poem in my small assemblage of poems about Japan, which, while not great literature, express somewhat more disenchantment with the culture than you will find in any number of dharma-besotted volumes by other American poets who have made the pilgrimage to the land of Basho and Murasaki.


I remember the quick flies
& the slow spiders, webs everywhere
in the woods that weren’t woods
but bamboo: nearly impenetrable palisades
that kept the trails narrow, if never straight.
You could go walking after dark
& not worry about getting lost.

In the hills where three prefectures joined
there was a small Inari shrine
I never saw by daylight. The moon there
was the moon of Saigyo & Charlie Chaplin.
One night I came across a tilted lake,
the kind of thing you only see in dreams.

I scaled the chainlink fence, stepped
cautiously onto the unrippled surface
of a putting green. Even so, I sank
into the sand trap, one more strange rock
in the garden of the Ryoanji.
How could I have missed
the absence of any reflection?
By now, even my own memories
have grown inscrutable.

Plummer’s Hollow, 2002

How could I? Over time, we forget our motives until we become like strangers to ourselves. It’s at that point that I become interested enough to want to attempt autobiographical poems.

(See Spoil for the rest of the poems in this sequence, which is called “Anything with Teeth.” This isn’t necessarily a plug. I feel I did my duty by putting the stuff out there. For some people these poems will seem necessary, to a few maybe even intoxicating, but to many more they will seem mostly meaningless or even downright harmful. And that’s as it should be. I will never forget the reaction an alcoholic I once worked with had to my first chapbook: “I thought it encouraged suicide. I took it out to the dumpster and burned it.” He took what he needed, as they say in recovery circles, and he left – or rather burned – the rest.)

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