what are poets for
It's been quite a long time since I read a collection of poems that touch me. Very often, there are books that publish quality poetry which demonstrates the poet's sense of craft and control of the work. We are amused by the juxtaposition of images and experimental language play. But what about the emotional connectedness? How close are we to the pieces in the book? Every now and then, I thank myself for buying a book (almost randomly) that moves me and I will stop after reading a few poems, not that they are not good, but that I do not wish to finish it too soon. This, in some ways, is almost like dating someone you really like. You are almost consciously reminding yourself of not to know him or her too thoroughly too early, as if knowing the whole would kill the purpose of falling in love.
I got to know Jeffrey Harrison's work in one of the recent issues of New Ohio Review. I was so impressed by the humour of the poet and the accessibility of the piece. Then I purchased the book online, trying to see what more he can offer. Incomplete Knowledge does not disappoint me, though the poems in it speak to me more emotionally than intellectually. The opening poem immediately questions what can be 'known' in this world and the inability to complete knowledge:
I am of those whose knwoledge will always be
incomplete, who know something about the world
but not a whole lot, who will forever confuse
steeplebush and meadowsweet
but know at leasdt by the shape of the flower
that it has to be one or the other.
Don't ask me the difference between
a pitch pine and a red, or even a Jeffrey,
though I know it's pine, not a spruce or tamarack
(a.k.a. hackmatack, but what's a larch?).
The differene between a sycamore
and a plane tree? It's beyond me.
While the first poem taps into inpossibility of knowing the world (and the fault of language which fails to provide the vocabulary for all sorts of existence), the last piece echoes the theme and brings readers back to this. In "The Names of Things", Harrison attempts to describe the exterior world with a number of less common nouns, trying to portray the world he sees through the precise use of language, with the hope that when we are reading it, we also know what sort of world is being written. The poet says "[it's] a pleasure to name things/ as long as one doesn't get/ hung up about it." This ironically illustrates the whole point of writing Incomplete Knowledge. Traumatized by the suicide of his elder brother, the poet attempts to explore the blurred boundary between the knowable and the unknowable. Whereas the poetic language accurately serves its purpose by capturing the world, it also wraps up the entire book in sorrow:
And I remember the hawk
in hawkweed, and that it's also
called devil's paintbrush, and how
lupines are named after wolves...
how like second thoughts the darker
world encroaches even on these
fields protected as a sanctuary,
something ulterior always
creeping in like seeds carried
in the excrement of these buoyant
goldfinches, whose yellow bodies
are as bright as joy itself,
but whose species name in Latin
The sorrow of naming and recounting things is present in the second half of Incomplete Knowledge, which is a poetic sequence that deals with the poet's elder brother's unexpected suicide. It opens with "Saint" that speaks of the poet's urge to seek protection after the tragedy happens:
I find you where I found you years ago,
stone saint from 15th century France
whom I can count on always to be there
in this church-like corner of the museum.
Forgive me for not visiting in so long.
Now I want to tell you everything
that has happened to me since I last saw you,
but I can see by your deeply shadowed eyes
that you already know. I place myself directly
in your warm and comprehending gaze.
I want to lose myself in the thick folds
of your stone robe, in the ripples of your beard.
The smooth dome of your bald head
is the firmament of your compassion.
Put down your heavy book and lay your hand
gently on top of my head. Pray for me.
Then subsequent poems in this section slowly unfold the impact of the suicide on the poet and how much the poet wishes it had not happened. "An Undertaking" introduces how the poet gets to know the news over a phone call from his father: "and he (not wanting/ my mother to hear)// told me to guess/ I got it on my second guess// and he said 'unh-hunh'/ as if it was a normal conversation." "The Note" beautifully and painfully shows the poet's reaction upon reading his brother's death note:
I've had a really
good life. Thank you
to everyone who was
a part of it.
-- in his big, innocnent
Like a note saying
he'd gone out for a walk
and would never be back...
that shift in tense
from something ongoing
to something gone.
There are other moving pieces that describe how the poet cleans up the brother's house after the burial, how hard he tries to look for clues to rationalize the killing. The poet's brother is a fanatic of socks: "Starting with the tumulus/ on the floor beside his dresser,/ clean but not yet put away/ (now never to be put away),/ a cairn of soft rocks/ at least two feet hight,/ though many of them were not/ balled up into pairs/ but loose, or tied to their mates." He also wears a ring that used to belong to the brother as if it was a memento that reminds him of his existence. Note, however, the choice of objects in these two poems convey successfully two distinctive tactile images that speak powerfully on the embodiment of life and death, the dead and the living:
I'd like to believe the words that were spoken
at your memorial: that you are safe
in heaven. But we are here, heartbroken.
Even if there is an afterlife,
it's closed to the living, whatever our belief. ("Plea")
Some other pieces in the second section also mentions what the suicide means to other family members. For example, "Happiness" describes how the grandmother, due to her dementia (or madness?), is envied therefore unable to comprehend the loss in the family:
In a strange way she seems happy --
"happier than she's ever been," we say.
She used to get upset and cry so easily.
"Tell me who that nice-looking young man is,"
she asks about my other brother
for the fourth time. Each time we answer
as if for the first time, knowing it won't be the last,
and she no longer notices
her mistake, or gets embarrassed.
So it surprises us when she says, "Someone's missing."
We look at one another and at her,
and at our empty plates, the moment passing
swfitly into vacant wordlessness.
Is this what it takes to be happy, to live
in the present, as all the sages suggest?
There are so many touching and memorable pieces in this collection. Two of my favorites are "Fork" and "Coincidences" ("Fork" is available on the website of Harrison. See below).
Know more about the poet here.
A new piece of Harrison in Poetry Northwest can be found here.