By Andy Mitchell
I don’t want to say “last poems,” but it’s secretly what I’m thinking when I crack open the two books on top of my bedside table. Well, it’s really not a table, just a stack of books, with Mary Oliver and Jim Harrison at the top of the heap. Theirs are the words I hear drifting off to sleep at the end of my day.
As these two poets approach the end of their days, they leave me ruminating with extra care over their newest poems. Certainly I hope their latest collections are not their last, but both have a whiff of farewell.
“Dead Man’s Float” and “Felicity” are Harrison’s and Oliver’s most recent collections, respectively. And I must say both titles are spot on. Each nails the contents with its author’s stamp. While Harrison’s work is all flesh and (exposed) bone, Oliver’s is resolutely positive. When, in her poem, “Cobb Creek,” she poignantly recounts her inability (“for the first time in seventy-seven years”) to jump across a familiar breadth of water, she defiantly declares her failure, “ … a beautiful splash!”
While Mary tells the truth “slant,” in the tradition of her New England forebear, Emily Dickinson, Jim tells it straight, à la Hemingway. But without Papa’s boast. He’s not mounting antlered conquests over his mantel. He’s just calling a spade a spade in the harsh yet beautiful ruins of both his past and present. His poems are badges of loss that he wears with neither pride nor shame. He doesn’t flaunt them. But he doesn’t hide them. Whereas, all of Oliver’s lines claim victory in the face of defeat, Harrison’s accept their defeats with a brave, but honest, face. Mary, the lover of sunshine and moonbeams, smiles at death like a long lost friend. On the other hand, Jim scowls at it. Oliver seems to say, take me, I’m yours, and I’ve been waiting all these years. Whereas, Jim is going to go kicking and screaming.
I have always admired Oliver’s work. Many of her poems are short and sweet, but have gravity, and a wisdom of the “aha” variety. Yet her new collection is almost too sweet for my taste. I once defended her when someone accused her of being Pollyanna. But now I find myself making the same accusation, albeit guiltily – as though I’m talking behind an old friend’s back. Still, there are plenty of aha moments in Felicity. And the world would be a better place if everyone were guilty of being too positive.
Although Harrison might be known best for having written the novella, “Legends of the Fall,” which was made into a successful movie, his critical standing owes as much to his poetry as to his prose. And while “Dead Man’s Float” doesn’t necessarily buoy the spirit, it does nurture the soul. “My old alien body is a foreigner/struggling to get into another country.” Let’s hope that when it does it makes a beautiful splash.