Death series, part one: Once more to the lake, with cheeseburgers

Today begins a death series. If you are of the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness tribe, the timing might feel off to you. It’s true, poems about death would be better suited to November, somber November with its All Souls Day, bare trees and sunless skies. But I’ve always been a Margaret are you grieving over goldengrove unleaving kind of gal. Fall, even on the most beautiful of days, is death. “Winter is coming,” as they say



Or as Hopkins puts it,


It ís the blight man was born for,

It is Margaret you mourn for.



poem is on right-side picnic table post


Death Again

by Jim Harrison


Let’s not get romantic or dismal about death.

Indeed it’s our most unique act along with birth.

We must think of it as cooking breakfast,

it’s that ordinary. Break two eggs into a bowl

or break a bowl into two eggs. Slip into a coffin

after the fluids have been drained, or better yet,

slide into the fire. Of course it’s a little hard

to accept your last kiss, your last drink,

your last meal about which the condemned

can be quite particular as if there could be

a cheeseburger sent by God. A few lovers

sweep by the inner eye, but it’s mostly a placid

lake at dawn, mist rising, a solitary loon

call, and staring into the still, opaque water.

We’ll know as children again all that we are

destined to know, that the water is cold

and deep, and the sun penetrates only so far.



We begin the series with “Death Again” by the morbidly funny Jim Harrison. Has there ever been a funnier poem title? Think about it. Say it out loud with different accents and intonations. It’s really funny. But also not funny at all.


Harrison sets the tone right from the start— Let’s not get romantic or dismal about death, he says, and he jokes to downplay the import of the dreaded subject. At the end of the poem he drops the clown act to reveal a vision stark and bleak—


We’ll know as children again all that we are

destined to know, that the water is cold

and deep, and the sun penetrates only so far.


Does anyone read those lines differently, that is, can anyone find any hope there?


I left “Death Again” at a picnic site on a placid lake. In the background you can see a swimmer braving the cold water for a last dip on her silly float.




I left another Harrison death poem at a cemetery in the northern Michigan town of Bliss. Harrison probably would have appreciated being situated in The Bliss Cemetery.


I don’t like “Sister” as well as “Death Again,” so I’ll post the pictures without comment.

poem is on skinny tree trunk





Two relevant Harrison quotes I came across:


“Everything living ends up as a turd of sorts.” (from his collection of food essays, A Really Big Lunch.)


And second, less funny, more raw, his reflections on the untimely deaths of his sister and father, from his memoir:


“Death leaves you speechless, or at least verbless. You simply become a howling primate, audibly or not, with your bloody heart in your hand wondering how it continues to pump. The word love becomes mortally imprecise when the objects of love are torn from us. . . . During the many raw moments that followed I even wondered if it would have been more bearable if we hadn’t been such a vitally close family. We never missed kissing each other goodnight and now two of us were forever missing.”


Re-posting his biography from a previous post:



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.


Leave a Reply