Changes: New and Collected Poems 1962-2002 by Keith Harrison
Keith Harrison was not a poet whom I had come across before being presented with Changes, his New & Collected Poems. An Australian, Harrison spends half his time in Minnesota, in the USA, and warns his readers at the start of the book that the spelling is presented in both "language-cultures." Changes "gathers all the new poems and all the poems from ... previous collections" that the author wishes "to keep at this stage" and these are arranged "where they belong together generically." So, new and old poems "rub shoulders with their brothers and cousins" in dated sections: if each poem had been individually dated I think this would have helped the reader get a clearer sense of poet's development over the years.
Harrison has previously published ten books of poetry and translation (the main ones being Points in a Journey and Songs from the Drifting House (both Macmillan, London) The Basho Poems and Words Against War, a verse translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (originally Folio Society; revised version Oxford University Press, 1998)). He has also been published widely in periodicals such as Melbourne's The Age, London's The New Statesmen and The New York Times.
Initially, I was not enchanted:
Why do I choose this trade, and choose again? These words,
This paper-thin ice of meaning which cracks with the lightest touch and we fall in,
Yet another poet bemoaning language's slippery, unpinnable signifiers, complaining via them what a poor job all words perform? Well, do your job better then! And complaining with such quotidian imagery and bathos! But, slowly, and over the length of the collection, I grew to like Harrison's society. Or, rather, I grew to enjoy the company of his words, which occasionally reminded me of the fine, robust, direct yet often quite tender poems of Raymond Carver (the American writer most famed for his superb short stories).
There is a generic, almost pantheistic, Buddhism throughout which I did not, at first, care for. Harrison's spirituality is, though, always grounded - and grounded in the physicality of the everyday of Nature. Via this conceit what could be woolly, inconsequential New Age musings retain a charm and occasionally attain a perspicacity that the content could easily work against. The first section (Brown Music, New Poems 1993-2002) contains much random natural imagery (hawks, dogwood, crows, wind etc.) and much nostalgia: what Harrison sets out here shapes the rest of the work. Snow and bird imagery occurs throughout (and continues in the sixteen or so such sections) not in a highbrow thematic sense but, more simply, more movingly, as the actual natural backdrop to a life. Nature is: and has to be included. Harrison calls many of his poems songs and this lack of pomposity, which is written into the very style of the work, is admirable. Indeed, it is when Harrison away moves from the vernacular, occasionally employing overblown poetic language that his verse looks at its thinnest.
In "Builders" we read personal, and often very tender accounts of memories of Harrison's father ("I / remember / The clear blue / Gaze of my Father - / at four, and / Ninety four") and his childhood (from Vita: Minnesota Fall):
Because my father told me, No
I pitched my will against the blow
Of his flint mind and angry heart.
The closeness of the relationship with his father - recounted as difficult, argumentative, elsewhere - is told: "My father / Taught me the ways of / Knots and tools". And it is relationships that lie at the heart of the book. In Six Little Songs on Time Harrison veers close to doggerel but the invocations of "swallow", "snow", "thyme" keep us aright and, by now, on familiar territory - and the lovely, intimate ending ("... how your absence grows / beside me as I breathe that smell") rescue the piece.
With A Burning of Applewood the nature imagery is again foremost:
Here we are in our hot boots, the fire
Stoked high, all our sins on us and our fur burning.
What a harvest we had of it!
But this - again with a touch of nostalgia, regret - is a poem about love: "Here are our bodies / Glistening after bathing, your ivory / And lithe, mine stocky work-horse that bears me well." Harrison does this regularly: nature is invoked and life's inevitable decay is set against it. There is an eternity at play, outside, and we are only fleetingly part of it. Our own glimpses of eternity, with friends and lovers, are what validate us. Arising from this is also a politics. In My Freshman Year Harrison talks of his "fury" at Vietnam; in "Legs" he ponders, "How many one-legged soldiers have marched for two-legged kings?"; "Field-Notes for the War Against England" is his song "For Abos,/ Welshmen, wops and boongs / Scottish gits, / Muslim sods". There is a righteous and deeply felt anger against dispossession in all of this. Whilst this is welcome - the real world is war as well as wheels, wind, wheat-stalks - poetically it is sometimes quite clumsy. Anger needs to be well tempered to make good verse, the vernacular needs to both musical and exact.
There is, however, a compelling movement in the work between the personal, the bodily, and the pathetic fallacy of America's wilderness. This, for sure, is not itself virgin territory for North American writers. And the obvious lineage (Thoreau forwards!) - that passes through the work of the Beats (note the faux Buddhism, which is not without its charm, of the Basho poems) - rings throughout the writing (Sketch for an Aesthetic):
When you come to the end of all that
You have to study Man,
The creature whose defining virtue's
To bite the same behind that he tries to sit on.
Sadly, there is also a compulsion for the bad joke, the overuse of end rhyme grates, and the collection contains too many minor poems that are, simply, not very good at all. But, whilst overlong, Changes contains some very decent work, the occasional fantastically apposite line and a winning modicum of folk wisdom.