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Tucson Weekly Evolutionary Journeys

The Author Of 'Dalva' Revisits His Poetic Roots In 'The Shape Of The Journey.'

By Mona Mort

NOVEMBER 30, 1998: 

The Road Home, by Jim Harrison (Atlantic Monthly Press). Cloth, $25.

The Shape of the Journey: New and Collected Poems, by Jim Harrison (Copper Canyon Press). Cloth, $30.

OF THE LAND--this is the phrase that springs to mind to describe Jim Harrison and his work, for the two are inseparable, or at least seem to meld into the same scene. The view also contains a stand of fir creeping down to the sandy shores of a large lake. No one else is around, and no one else has been there for some time. Weeks, maybe. Harrison stands at water's edge, watches clouds moving in, hears the waves gently lapping to shore, sniffs the bracing, resin-edged air. The setting is idyllic but the man in it grimaces, the weight of the tragic side of human nature on his shoulders.

This image must inform his writing and his life. For the reader would not understand how he could write what he does without the daily living of it. Harrison has lived close to the land since graduating from Michigan State University (which also claims friend and fellow writer Thomas McGuane) in 1960. He sampled academic and urban life at Stony Brook, decided against it, and returned within a few years to his native Michigan. Harrison now divides his time between northern Michigan and southern Arizona. And this living, above all, pervades the nine books of poetry, seven novels, three novella trilogies, and a collection of non-fiction emanating spanning a 30-year writing career.

Harrison's writing is the land, not only of Michigan and Arizona, but also Montana (Legends of the Fall) and Nebraska (Dalva and The Road Home) and other places he has studied. There is no understanding his characters or plots without listening to what he tells about the trees, the birds, the waters, the struggles for existence by humans as well as other living things.

To understand the fabric of Harrison's work, the best point of departure is his poetry, which he calls "the language your soul would speak if you could teach your soul to speak." Harrison began his writing career as a poet, and has always considered himself first and foremost a poet.

The Shape of the Journey offers 463 pages of new and collected poems, some resurrected from books now out of print. The work is arranged chronologically, starting with selections from Plain Song (1965), and continuing through a suite of new poems entitled "Geo-Bestiary" (1998). The result is a stunning view of how the poetry and the land have changed together.

The author's broad perspective follows stories through generations and across oceans, and includes philosophy, history, and cultural conflicts. Harrison's fiction is meaty in a way reminiscent of Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose: Suspense is tempered by the contemplative and the reflective, and the slow rhythm of the land. But the big questions--notably the European genocide of Native Americans, and art versus reality--are also there.

In The Road Home (the sequel to 1988's Dalva), generations are crossed, cultures are crossed, ideas are crossed. And this, in the end, allows the reader to inhabit this fictional landscape, to witness changes in a way of life, to glean intimate truths that arise from living close to the land.

The Road Home continues the story of 45-year-old Dalva and her Nebraska ranch family. Like Dalva, The Road Home employs the form of detailed diary entries, in this instance written from the perspectives of John Wesley Northridge II, Dalva's half-Sioux grandfather (who reveals family secrets only hinted at in Dalva), and Nelse, Dalva's illegitimate son, who at age 30 seeks the mother from whom he was separated at birth. Naomi, Dalva's stoic mother; Paul, the adventurer-brother of Dalva's father; and finally Dalva herself, also make their way into this literary documentation.

A family tree in the frontispiece, upon which the reader is teased with a note that not all affairs are noted, enforces the aura of a story which can only be told, not lived, because there are several generations involved. The journal entries are written more or less in the same voice, although the identity of the diarist is clear from the details. Even though the diaries are first-person, the reader gets the distinct impression that someone else is telling the story. Perhaps the land itself has been able to see the inner workings of all these characters. Perhaps it's poet Harrison who enters and reports.

Harrison says his poetry is the portion of his life that means the most to him. We could take this to mean that without it, he could not give us the vision we get in The Road Home, and the work which led to it. The Road Home comes to a cataclysmic ending in which it's revealed that the road home can take many different forms. Perhaps this knowledge is Harrison's reward for having taken the time to live so close to the land, and the life therein contained.

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