Jim Harrison, who died last weekend, was a writer whose work I deeply admired. I met him only twice, once at the annual St. Malo writer’s conference on the coast of Brittany, once at the wake for our mutual friend James Welch in his hometown of Missoula, Montana. In St. Malo we ate great platters of local oysters and talked about tamale making, at which my mother-in-law was expert: in Montana he made me laugh when a beautiful young woman walked by the table where we were sitting and he instantly perked up and said, “Whoa, who’s the Bond girl?! Bring on the K-Y Jelly!” The “Bond girl” turned out to be the daughter of another famous writer sitting at the table, but he laughed too. Harrison was the sort of truth-telling, natural bon vivant who could make even the offensive sexist remark seem rather hilarious.
He loved the word “otiose.” Years ago I noticed how it popped up regularly in his fiction. The first time I came across it I had to look up the meaning of this adjective: at leisure, idle, indolent. Harrison knew how to live the leisurely, pleasure-ridden life, but he doesn’t seem to have been idle. His great literary output will continue to nourish us for a very long time.
Here is a poem from his collection, Songs of Unreason, that seems right for his moment, called “Death Again”:
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.