I always think of an artist in terms of his best work, which I think is what he deserves.
— Jim Harrison
Imagine: A used paperback of Jim Harrison’s Selected and New Poems sitting zazen on a shelf inside Moe’s Books, the legendary bookstore in Berkeley, California. Meanwhile, in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, inside a modest cabin near Grand Marais, a one-eyed poet opens his notebook and writes:
It is not so much that I got
there from here, which is everyone’s
story: but the shape
of the voyage, how it pushed
outward in every direction
until it stopped
The poet looks out the window toward the Sucker River and decides it’s time to brave the weather and visit the Dunes Saloon for a drink and some whitefish. At that exact moment: the paperback copy of Selected and New Poems is pulled from the shelf by a young man who has never owned a book of poems.
I have carried that book with me for over thirty years. It is a sacred text, held together with duct tape, stained, creased, bent, ripped, and teeming with handwritten notes and markings. This beat-up paperback, which would be hard to sell for fifty cents at a rummage sale, is one of my most beloved objects on planet Earth. It is the copy I used as a reference guide when I worked with Jim Harrison in the late 1990s to compile the manuscript for his collected poems, Shape of the Journey. On the inside front cover is a to-do list that begins, “Write John Harrison about other poems not published in books.”
John Harrison. Jim’s older brother. By all accounts, a fascinating man, who loved opera, literature, libraries, and getting life organized. Over the course of his career, he worked as a librarian at Harvard, Yale, and for many years, the University of Arkansas. Jim once told me his brother built a soundproof room where he could listen to his beloved opera albums in peace.
“He is a librarian and has repressed his lowlife instincts for a good marriage, reading, fine food and hard work,” Jim wrote of his brother in Wolf: A False Memoir. “I admire him without reservation and never forget that back home he had been an Eagle Scout whereas I had been ousted from the troop as a chronic malcontent.”
When Jim decided to become a writer, John advised him to save his writings: notes, drafts, scraps, letters, postcards, typescripts, everything. There is abundant evidence that malcontent Jim did what his Eagle Scout brother told him to: 366 acid-free grey archive boxes, housed on 160 linear feet of shelving in the special collections and university archives in Seidman House at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan, attest to that. Within “RHC-16, Box 4, ‘Jim Harrison Writings By—Notes,’” there is a sheaf of typewritten pages from the late 1950s, the earliest dated “oct. 56,” when Jim was all of eighteen. The page begins, “there is a novel I know I shall never write; the novel of rebellion. we reach? I have reached the period, time or what have you when I feel that I must stop reading and begin writing to a more extensive degree.” Later in that same paragraph, “here is me subjective before god print prayerfully.” What kind of sentence is that?
A genius teenager from rural northern Michigan trying to figure himself and the world out, one key at a time. A teenager riffing, only a few years downstream from his religious conversion and subsequent transition to a lifelong fervour for art. This one sheet of paper—likely written on the used manual typewriter his father bought when Jim announced at age sixteen that he wanted to be a writer—is the actual tip of an archival iceberg that is the work and life of a writer who produced an astonishing oeuvre: fourteen volumes of poetry, twelve novels, twenty-one novellas, a children’s book, four volumes of non-fiction, and over twenty screenplays.
And then there is the unpublished oeuvre, protected in this climate-controlled room outside Grand Rapids, Michigan.
It seemed a fait accompli that Jim Harrison’s archive would eventually migrate from John’s file boxes in Arkansas to its rightful home at Michigan State University, Jim’s alma mater. MSU was actively building a Michigan Writers Collection and housed papers from prominent MSU grads such as Dan Gerber, Thomas McGuane, and Richard Ford. But Harrison, who had abandoned his lucrative screenwriting gig to concentrate on literary novels and poetry, was disinclined to donate his papers. And, alas, MSU was hesitant to pay anything close to market price. This stalemate went on for years, exacerbated by private collectors from France who contacted Harrison and offered large sums of money for the jewels of the collection: handwritten manuscripts of Farmer, Dalva, and Legends of the Fall.
Brother John advised Jim to keep the archive intact, and Jim grew frustrated and impatient that MSU could not come up with a reasonable offer. “Take a look at what they pay their fucking basketball coach,” he told me.
So Plan B kicked into action and word went out that Jim Harrison’s archive—complete and exhaustive—was on the open market.
Writer, historian, and businessman Hank Meijer, a long-time Harrison fan, heard the news and got very serious very swiftly. In 2005 the Meijer Foundation provided the funding to acquire the papers for Grand Valley State University and fund an archivist to properly process the treasure.
In October 2017 I finally got to make a pilgrimage to The Archive.
Seidman House is a modest building. The walls are lined with astonishing Abraham Lincoln artifacts. Library-quiet permeates the space. Inside special collections, I shook hands with the archivists.
“We pulled some boxes we thought you’d be interested in,” they said.
Mind-readers! I opened Box 11 and pulled out “RHC-16, ‘Letters to Yesenin—Notes and Drafts.’”
“You can take pictures if you want.”
My first picture needed no camera because the image seared into my brain: an opened folder with pieces of paper upon which were words from the very hand of a writer who had re-wired my consciousness. Was I light-headed because I hadn’t eaten since early-morning breakfast in Illinois?
My first actual photo was of a typewritten poem I did not recognize. It contained these lines:
If I was Sergei Esenin as I always wanted to
be I would have died last spring in St. Petersburg,
better to be Neruda & have a fourty more years
to stick under my belt. or to be Harrison whose
future lolls out among the undergrowth
like an anteaters tongue
When Jim typed the above in the early 1970s, he didn’t know his future contained the overwhelming success of Legends of the Fall, lucrative screenwriting work, and the myriad nerve-racking challenges of keeping life organized. When that future finally arrived, he reached out to a family friend, Joyce Harrington Bahle, and told her, “I don’t do life very well. I’m looking for a person to be my assistant and almost be a manager.” Joyce agreed to give the job a try for six months, and what resulted was a rare and complicated literary relationship that lasted thirty-seven years. Joyce managed nearly every aspect of Jim’s life and most essentially, was a fierce guardian of Jim’s time—because writing takes time.
One of Joyce’s multitude of tasks was to send boxes of materials to John in Arkansas—from handwritten drafts of novels to the lowliest sticky note. Year after year, Joyce sent boxes to John. Year after year after year.
I stayed in Special Collections—a new holy site in my small personal collection of holy sites—until closing time, thinking about the key people who helped make this archive possible: John Harrison, Joyce Harrington Bahle, Hank Meijer, and Nancy Richard, the archivist who organized the materials. I modified my travel plans so I could visit their creation again the next morning. I checked into a motel on the edge of Grand Haven and drove into town looking for dinner. A young couple pointed to “that place over there,” and inside was a bar with a singer tucked into an alcove among the liquor bottles. He looked down upon his appreciative audience and sang Warren Zevon’s “Lawyers, Guns and Money.” A perfect martini glistened before me. As if by magic, food arrived. At the set break, the musician came by to say hello. Small talk led to the question of why I was in town. Within seconds he said, “I never met Jim Harrison, but his friend Dan Gerber taught me how to sit zazen.” How small is this world?
Later, I fell asleep in the motel’s hot tub with the dreamy realization that I could spend the next year reading full-time and barely make a dent in Jim Harrison’s massive archive. I have never read any of Harrison’s screenplays…
The next morning was spent joyfully burrowing through boxes, taking photographs, making notes, and asking archivists to scan materials, all the while feeling the urgent tick-tock of short time. Holy shit, look at this. A journal with the poems from After Ikkyu written out longhand:
Shoju all night in the graveyard
among wolves who sniffed his Adam’s apple.
First light moving in the air
he arose and ate breakfast.
Note to self: Check published version. I think some words are missing…
I left the archive at high noon. Now the day’s task was to drive 350 miles north to the Upper Peninsula—Jim’s beloved UP—to the village of Grand Marais, and perhaps see Jim’s former cabin, the setting for so many poems.
Once I heard wolves in full moonlight.
A huge storm visited the cabin, also green northern lights.
The sky split open in the west, and beyond the storm
the wolves were howling within the thunder.
The earth was forcing me to not forget her.
I never recovered from that night.
This all would never happen again.
En route I took a short detour to Reed City, the little town where Jim spent his childhood. The first sentence of Wolf came to mind: “You could travel west out of Reed City, a small county seat in an unfertile valley with a small yellow brick courthouse…” I paid a visit to the courthouse then looked for Jim’s boyhood home. My directions to the house were vague and scrawled on the back of a gas receipt: “Past yogurt factory, turn right, small white house.”
I drove up and down five or six streets and noted many small white houses. I’m confident I’ve seen Jim Harrison’s boyhood home, though I couldn’t tell you exactly which one it is. Lunch and getting back on the road were more pressing concerns. I walked into the Buckboard Bar and marvelled at the all-caps sign thumbtacked to the panelling:
PER THE OWNER
ANY FIGHTING IN
THIS BAR WILL
I ate a Reed City lunch in zero-tolerance peace then continued north over the engineering marvel of the Mackinac Bridge. I opened all the car windows and Jim’s final published poem, “Bridge,” was foremost in my mind:
Most of my life was spent
building a bridge out over the sea
though the sea was too wide.
I’m proud of the bridge
hanging in the pure sea air. Machado
came for a visit and we sat on the
end of the bridge, which was his idea.
That night in Grand Marais, dinner was the famous whitefish tacos at the Dunes Saloon. A framed photo of Jim sat beneath a mounted deer’s head. Everyone here—bartender, electrician, waitress—has a Jim Harrison story or twenty. Clearly, Grand Marais is another kind of archive, and requires further—possibly extensive—research. I shall return next autumn, when the town dedicates “a big rock” (direct quote) to Jim. I’ll stay at the Superior Hotel, room number eleven. With any luck, a thunderstorm will bellow from the inland sea.
I love thunder. I could listen to it all day long.
Like birdsong it’s the music of the gods.
How in childhood I adored these cloud voices
that could lift me up above my troubles,
far above the birds. I’d look down
at their flying backs, always in circles
because earth is round. What a gift
to have my work shed shudder with thunder.
All photographs © 2018 by Joseph Bednarik. Photographs of and quoted lines from the Jim Harrison collection are reprinted here courtesy of Grand Valley State University Special Collections and University Archives.
While you’re here, have a look at our Jim Harrison Collection.
Joseph Bednarik is the co-publisher at Copper Canyon Press and for twenty years served as Jim Harrison’s poetry editor. He is currently compiling The Essential Poems of Jim Harrison, scheduled for publication in Spring 2019.