|"The danger of civilization, of course, is that you will piss|
away your life on nonsense" -- Jim Harrison
I see Jim Harrison, my first real poet in the flesh, on Thursday, January 26th, 1977.
I am living in New York City. I go to the auditorium of Donnell Public Library on 53rd Street. Six-thirty in the evening. I overhear one of the apparent organizers of this event low-voice to a woman sitting in front of me, "I heard they spent the last couple of days trying to keep him sober."
The Michigan poet, author also of one of my favorite novels, Farmer, strides from stage-right to the lectern. The belt-line of his beige chinos takes a deep dip in front, a detour of sorts beneath the huge overhung belly. His blue shirt, western-cut, pearly buttons, looks absolutely new, too pressed in telling places, too creased from packaged folds. I imagine that late in the afternoon he'd decided suddenly that he had no decent shirt to wear to this event so he ran out and bought one.
He quickly doffed a cream colored sports coat. "Let me put this somewhere," he says, laying it on a big speaker in a corner of the stage.
From dust-jacket photographs I've always thought Jim Harrison looked strangely sexy, that he possesses some sort of wild beast brutishness -- a bull, I guessed -- and this look is appropriately accented by an eerily awry left eye. The eye had been damaged in an accident. "My left eye is blind and jogs like/a milky sparrow in its socket" he wrote in an early poem.
His countenance in those photographs -- he captions himself "a white sports fop" beneath one book's picture -- plainly indicates to me unbridled lusts for sex, bourbon, forests, and words.
On the stage at Donnell Library his demeanor is that of a little boy groomed and shined for Sunday school, not as haplessly put together as in the pictures of him I'd stared at on those dust-jackets.
He has a nice full-moon shaped and ruddy-complexioned face. The smallness of his arms, attached to his huge barrel-chest, make them seem attached to the wrong body. Further, the winter whiteness of his arms does not match the ruddy coloring of his face.
He speaks with a Midwestern accent, and is careful with certain words, such as interstice, as if these words were steep flights of stairs down which he might tumble. I'm disappointed because he does not say any of his poems, despite the POETRY READING heading on the flyer, but just reads passages from a prose piece he's working on.
After the reading, I wait outside the auditorium in the cold, in a bitter wind, hoping to speak with him when he exits. I want to tell him that Farmer is a perfectly written novel, and that he's a wonderful true poet, and that my senses become extra-alive when I read his poems. But he comes out surrounded by groupies or friends or handlers. I am too shy to intrude. I'm afraid he’ll make me think my comments are common and stupid.
I follow the group for only fifty paces or so, at which point I hear Jim Harrison say, "Here's a bar!" His group follows him into it. No-one, apparently, now that an audience had been faced and dealt with, is trying to keep him sober.