Lately, I’ve thought about death. How it comes for us all. How we should learn to embrace it (but most of us never do). How we weep publicly on Twitter when a writer, in particular, falls dead. How we should stop thinking of it as a premature snap-off of an artist’s career—a cruel em dash interrupting a life—but the completion of a life’s work: a period, or—if you want to take it more gently—an ellipsis. How we all will one day just come to a complete and utter stop.
I’ve been thinking about death because of Jim Harrison—his own passing at age 78 a week ago today as well as his last book of poetry, which is riddled with death, from the title of the collection all the way to the last poem (fittingly called “Bridge,” as in “Jim Harrison crossed a bridge from life to death”). Dead Man’s Float is a showcase of what made Harrison great as a poet (and as a prose writer). The poems in here are bracingly personal and reverberate with memorable images.
I finished reading Dead Man’s Float on March 26. The very day Jim Harrison died. I am slightly freaked out by the synchronicity. For me, the close of the book was not just a whispering snap of pages. It was an anvil-strike, a gong-blow, a thunderclap. The collision of Harrison’s death and the last stanza of his last poem still rings in my ears.
As I made my way through Dead Man’s Float (when Harrison was still very much alive), I was struck by his acceptance of The End. Though we can all wish he’d been allotted more years than what he got (damn that em dash!), the poems in these pages indicate he was ready for the whatever and whenever of the inevitable. In the last poem, “Bridge,” Harrison writes of how he spent his life building a bridge across an ocean, “though the sea was too wide.” It ends with him sitting at the far edge of the unfinished span, “wagging my feet above/the abyss,” and studying the universe from his perch. The last line of the book is: “I have the sky, the sea, the faint/green streak of Canadian forest on the far shore.” I like to think Jim Harrison is walking those woods now, and that the hunt for wild game is a good one.
I went back through the book today, harvesting nearly all of the lines which spoke of death and dying. Blended together, they form a song of departure. I’ve copied them below, in the order they appear in the book. Each break represents a different poem (I’ve listed the titles at the end of this blog post).
He believes in the Resurrection
because he was never taught how not to.
Another night I was wailing and the attendant shook me awake. “I’m dying,” I said. “No, you’re not, you’re just wailing.”
A very old robin drops dead
on the lawn, a first for me. Millions
of birds die but we never see it—they like
privacy in this holy, fatal moment or so
I think. We can’t tell each other when we die.
My old alien body is a foreigner
struggling to get into another country.
Time rushes toward me—
it has no brakes.
Time is a mystery
that can tip us upside down.
A friend died leaning and dozing against
his mailbox, so near home.
Meanwhile seventy-four years of birds
have passed. Most have died of course
so I shouldn’t complain about the nearing
end of it all. I once saw a bird fall out
of a tree stone dead. I nudged it surprised
at its feather lightness that allowed it to fly.
I buried it in earth where they don’t belong
any more than we do. Dead birds should be
monuments suspended forever in the air.
We were so happy when the pretty girl
rose from the dead.
It was just past lilac time and the scent still hung
in the air like the death of the gods.
She didn’t stay around for long. Once you’ve
been dead you’re not happy to return.
There’s no true path to a death—
we discover the path by walking.
All of us die
in the caboose not of our choosing
but then we’ve always seen life
disappearing behind us, most always
into what we clumsily call the past.
Many of us can see our ends coming
as in a dream.
Mind you, I’m in no rush for this to end.
I’m told there’s no last page.
It’s just black and lasts forever.
When young I thought I’d die in my thirties
like so many of my favorite poets.
At seventy-five I see this hasn’t happened.
Yes, we’ll gather by the river,
the beautiful, the beautiful river.
They say it runs by the throne of God.
This is where God invented fish.
Wherever, but then God’s throne is as wide
as the universe. If you’re attentive you’ll
see the throne’s borders in the stars. We’re on this side
and when you get to the other side we don’t know
what will happen if anything. If nothing happens
we won’t know it, I said once. Is that cynical?
No, nothing is nothing, not upsetting, just
nothing. Then again maybe we’ll be cast
at the speed of light through the universe
to God’s throne. His hair is bounteous.
All the 5,000 birds on earth were created there.
The firstborn cranes, herons, hawks, at the back
so as not to frighten the little ones.
Even now they remember this divine habitat.
Shall we gather at the river, this beautiful river?
We’ll sing with the warblers perched on his eyelashes.
Poems cited, in order of their appearance:
Where is Jim Harrison?
Seven in the Woods
A Variation on Machado
The Future (2)
Pool of Light
The River (complete poem)