by Jim Harrison
I felt a little bad about the nasty earwig
that drowned in my nighttime glass of water,
lying prone at the bottom like a shipwrecked mariner.
There was guilt about the moth who died
when she showered with me, possibly a female.
They communicate through wing vibrations.
I was careful when sticking a letter
in our rural mailbox, waiting for a fly to escape,
not wanting her to be trapped there in the darkness.
Out here in the country many insects invade our lives
and many die in my nightcap, floating and deranged.
On the way to town to buy wine and a chicken
I stopped from 70 mph to pick up
a wounded dragonfly fluttering on the yellow line.
I’ve read that some insects live only for minutes,
as we do in our implacable geologic time.
As a longtime Jim Harrison fan, I can’t read this poem without an image of the poet, grizzled and drunk, winking at me for the tenderness on display, but I was surprised to find another northern Michigan man springing up, a man I encountered long ago in a plain little church one Sunday. He lumbered up to the lectern to sing and I thought, geez they must be really hard up for a cantor. He had a face like a pork butt and the hands of a butcher, but my goodness his voice was honey. He filled the church with some of the most beautiful church singing I’ve ever heard.
That same incongruity is at work in “Dan’s Bugs.” Weather-beaten, chain-smoking Harrison, prolific killer of animals and fish, stops on the highway to tenderly pick up the smallest of roadkill, a wounded dragonfly fluttering on the yellow line.
This poem is everything I love about my fellow humans, how surprising people can be with their beauty hidden under donkey skins, their talents wrapped in coarse coverings, their kindness under gruff exteriors. The poem is also everything I love about Harrison, his humor, his morbidity, his wry take on the human condition, his sweet heart.
Did I mention I love this guy?
Jim Harrison (1937-2016) was born in Grayling, Michigan, about an hour south of where I taped his poem to a country road. He was second of five children in a close-knit, book-loving family. As a young boy he lost an eye when a little girl smashed a broken bottle in his face.
Two years after he graduated from Michigan State, his father and sister were killed by a drunk driver, an event that committed him to a writing life. He said in an interview, “If people you love are going to be taken from you, why compromise?” He got his masters in comparative literature and taught briefly at Stoneybrook University before rejecting academic life and turning to writing full-time, supporting his wife and two daughters with manual labor. The family lived in poverty for many years until he published Legends of the Fall, a novella which was made into a movie starring Brad Pitt.
He worked as a screenwriter on several movies, making fast friends with the rich and the famous in Hollywood, including Jack Nicholson and George Harrison.
His appetite for food, alcohol, drugs during his Hollywood days, and sex were over-the-top, leading to health problems in his older years. Which of course didn’t stop such an animal-nature from continuing to indulge. Here’s a characteristic bit from his obituary in the New York Times:
“If you’ve known a lot of actresses and models,” he once confided with characteristic plain-spokenness to a rapt audience at a literary gathering, “you return to waitresses because at least they smell like food.”
He was a prolific writer, publishing seven novellas, eleven novels, thirteen poetry collections, and three books of nonfiction. A nature lover, he kept a cabin in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and a farm in Leelanau. In later years he and his wife spent summers in Montana and winters in Arizona.
Harrison is my second favorite food writer (M.F.K. Fishers holds the top post). The Raw and the Cooked is earthy and hilarious, a perfect read for fall.
Married for 55 years he died at 78, six months after his wife passed. He was in the middle of writing a poem when his heart gave out.