David – Jim Harrison
He is young. The father is dead.
Outside, a cold November night,
the mourner’s cars are parked upon the lawn;
beneath the porch light three
brothers talk to three sons
and shiver without knowing it.
His mind’s all black thickets
and blood; he knows
flesh slips quietly off the bone,
he knows no last looks,
that among the profusion of flowers
the lid is closed to hide
what no one could bear –
that metal rends the flesh,
he knows beneath the white pointed
that in the distant talk of brothers,
the father is dead.
The unanswered question is why a poet transforms experience, not so much to make it understandable, but to make it yield its aesthetic possibilities
— Jim Harrison
This is one of the quotes I carry with me from notebook to notebook as a reminder of why I write and what’s at stake. Pushing words to not just describe but to evoke life for others is a worthy endeavor, and one that the late Jim Harrison worked at book after book.
The poem above is a good example of what is meant in the quote. The poem describes one person’s experience of grief after a death. Yet, rather than being elegy, the poem gathers its human details (parked cars; shivering) and sets them against memories that keep edging in on the person grieving. The calm juxtaposed against the violence is where the son lives now, and is part of the new world without the father.
Another example of this kind of transformation of human details into aesthetic possibility is found in the following poem by Ted Kooser. Kooser and Harrison were friends and co-authored the book Braided Creek: A Conversation in Poetry. The poem below, which does a great job of turning over a human moment of grief for what it can further say about living, shows Kooser to be also working at the worthy endeavor Harrison will be remembered for.
Mourners – Ted Kooser
After the funeral, the mourners gather
under the rustling churchyard maples
and talk softly, like clusters of leaves.
White shirt cuffs and collars flash in the shade:
highlights on deep green water.
They came this afternoon to say goodbye,
but now they keep saying hello and hello,
peering into each other’s faces,
slow to let go of each other’s hands.