Biography of Jeffrey Harrison
Jeffrey W. Harrison is an American poet. His most recent poetry collection is The Names of Things: New & Selected Poems (The Wayweiser Press, 2006). His poems have appeared in literary journals and magazines including The New Republic, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Poetry, The Yale Review, Poets of the New Century. His honors include Pushcart Prizes, Guggenheim, National Endowment for the Arts, and Amy Lowell Traveling fellowships. He has taught at George Washington University, Phillips Academy, and College of the Holy Cross. He is currently on the faculty of the Stonecoast MFA Program at the University of Southern Maine. He lives in Dover, Massachusetts.
Honors and awards
The Singing Underneath selected by James Merrill for the National Poetry Series,
1999 Guggenheim Fellowship
National Endowment for the Arts
two Pushcart Prizes
1988-1989 Amy Lowell Poetry Travelling Scholarship
Lavan Younger Poets Award from the Academy of American Poets.
Jeffrey Harrison's Works:
The Names of Things: New and Selected Poems. Dufour Eds. June 2006.
Incomplete Knowledge. Four Way Books. October 2006.
An Undertaking. Haven Street Press. January 2005.
Feeding the Fire. Sarabande Books. November 2001.
Signs of Arrival. Copper Beech Press. October 1996.
The Singing Underneath. E.P. Dutton. May 1988.
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Jeffrey Harrison Poems
Rilke's Fear Of Dogs
had less to do with any harm they might inflict than with the sad
John Clare wrote poems on scraps of paper,
Christopher and Helen, our new expatriate friends, meet us at their favorite winery where they fill their plastic jerry cans from hoses exactly like the ones at gas stations, as though they were planning to go back home to Aix and treat their lawnmower to a nice red. Instead, they take us in their forest green Peugeot to the home of their old friend Brigitte in a village at the foot of Mont Ventoux— actually, not a village, Brigitte corrects me, but "un hameau," a hamlet. The French are exacting about such distinctions, but Brigitte has a kind, mischievous smile. Back in the car, we tear along a series of rutted, stony roads that web the mountainside, with Brigitte directing Christopher, "à droite, à gauche, encore à gauche," until we come to a grove of pines, cedars, and oaks, where she says the mushrooms are hidden. We fan out under the trees, searching the slope, while Brigitte, looking elfin in her orange hoodie, waves a stick like a wand, pokes at the dried pine needles or the dead leaves under the wild boxwood bushes, and sings, "I think there are some over here," like a mother leading her toddlers toward the Easter eggs. We laugh and follow after her, cutting the stems with a tarnished knife she lends us, warning "Faites attention," because the blade is sharp. And gradually we fill our plastic shopping bags with gnarled orange caps, stained green, which, much later, back in the States, I learn are called Lactarius deliciosus or orange-latex milky, like a shade of paint, the field guide commenting "edible, although not as good as the name deliciosus suggests"— but we already suspect that (they look awful), and we will later unload most of ours on Christopher and Helen who clearly think of them as a delicacy… but right now we're having fun just hunting for them among the sunspots on the forest floor, filling our bags, and shouting through the trees to one another, the whole afternoon gathering into the giddy moment that Brigitte keeps calling us back to—and it's delicious.
THE NAMES OF THINGS
Just after breakfast and still waking up, I take the path cut through the meadow, my mind caught in some rudimentary stage, the stems of timothy bending inward with the weight of a single drop of condensed fog clinging to each of their fuzzy heads that brush wetly against my jeans. Out on a rise, the lupines stand like a choir singing their purples, pinks and whites to the buttercups spread thickly through the grasses— and to the sparser daisies, orange hawkweed, pink and white clover, purple vetch, butter-and-eggs. It's a pleasure to name things as long as one doesn't get hung up about it. A pleasure, too, to pick up the dirt road and listen to my sneakers soaked with dew scrunching on the damp pinkish sand— that must be feldspar, an element of granite, I remember from fifth grade. I don't know what this black salamander with yellow spots is called—I want to say yellow- spotted salamander, as if names innocently sprang from things themselves. Purple columbines nod in a ditch, escapees from someone's garden. It isn't until I'm on my way back that they remind me of the school shootings in Colorado, the association clinging to the spurs of their delicate, complex blooms. 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 means "sorrowful."
6. His 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 high, though many of them were not balled up into pairs but loose, or tied to their mates. There were more in the dresser, more on the closet shelves, nests of them, like litters of some small mammal, sleeping— or dead, like the litter of newborn rabbits that froze when we were kids. We buried them in a shoebox. In every box my father and I went through, no matter what it contained—old papers, framed photos, cassette tapes— there would always be at least a few more pairs, and the one who found them would call to the other, "More socks," in sad amazement, or exasperated bafflement, because, for the life of us, we couldn't find an explanation. And what might have seemed one of his endearing foibles we couldn't keep from seeing as some dark obsession, one more thing about him we hadn't known, would never understand. Who could need so many socks? Nylon dress socks, gym socks of white cotton, gray wool hunting socks with an orange band on top, even a few, from deep in a trunk, with name tags our mother had sewn in decades ago. Enough socks for several lifetimes, though his one life was over. Socks whose heels were worn to a tenuous mesh, others in their original packaging, but most somewhere between. If I'd taken them all I never would have had to buy another pair, no matter how long I lived. But I kept thinking of his feet and how those socks would never warm them again. I took only a few pairs— loose-fitting cotton, gray— to wear to bed on cold nights, my own feet sheathed in the contours of his.
(New England Aquarium) Like fireworks, but alive, a nebula exploding over and over in a liquid sky, this undulant soft bell of jellyfish glowing orange and trailing a baroque mane of streamers, so exquisite in its fluid movements you can't pull your body away, this lucent smooth sexual organ ruffled underneath like a swimming orchid, offers you a second- hand ecstasy, saying you can only get this close by being separate, you can only see this clearly through a wall of glass, only imagine what it might be like to succumb to something beyond yourself, becoming nothing but that pulsing, your whole being reduced to the medusa, tentacled tresses flowing entangled in a slow-motion whiplash of rapture— while you stand there, an onlooker turning to stone.
It's come to this: I'm helping flowers have sex, crouching down on one knee to insert a Q-tip into one freckled foxglove bell after another, without any clue as to what I'm doing—which, come to think of it, is always true the first time with sex. And soon Randy Newman's early song "Maybe I'm Doing it Wrong" is running through my head as I fumble and probe, golden pollen tumbling off the swab. I transported these foxgloves from upstate New York, where they grow wild, to our back yard in Massachusetts, and I want them to multiply, but the bumblebees, their main pollinators, haven't found them, and I'm not waiting around. The only diagram I found online portrayed a flower in cross section, the stamens extending the loaded anthers toward the flared opening, but the text explained, "The female sexual organs are hidden." Of course they are. Which leaves me in the dark, transported back to a state of awkward if ardent unenlightenment, a complete beginner figuring it out as I go along, giggling a little and humming an old song as I stick the Q-tip into another flower as if to light the pilot of a gas stove with a kitchen match, leaning in to listen for the small quick gasp that comes when the flame makes contact with the source.
THE DAY YOU LOOKED UPON ME AS A STRANGER...
I had left you at the gate to buy a newspaper and on my way back stopped at a bank of monitors to check the status of our flight to London. That was when you noticed a middle-aged man in a brown jacket and the green short-brimmed cap I'd bought for the trip. It wasn't until I turned and walked toward you that you saw him as me. What a nice-looking man, you told me you'd thought— maybe European, with that unusual cap… somebody, you said, you might want to meet. We both laughed. And it aroused my vanity that you had been attracted to me afresh, with no baggage. A kind of affirmation. But doubt seeped into that crevice of time when you had looked upon me as a stranger, and I wondered if you'd pictured him as someone more intriguing than I could be after decades of marriage, all my foibles known. Did you have one of those under-the-radar daydreams of meeting him, hitting it off, and getting on a plane together? In those few moments, did you imagine a whole life with him? And were you disappointed, or glad, to find it was only the life you already had?
I just got back from the eye doctor, who told me I need bifocals. She put those drops in my eyes that dilate the pupils, so everything has that vaseline-on-the-lens glow around it, and the page I'm writing on is blurred and blinding, even with these sunglasses. I'm waiting for the "reversing drops" to kick in (sounds like something from Alice in Wonderland), but meanwhile I like the way our golden retriever looks more golden than ever, the way the black-eyed Susans seem to break out of their contours, dilating into some semi-visionary version of themselves, and even the mail truck emanates a white light as if it might be delivering news so good I can't even imagine it. Of course it's just bills, catalogues, and an issue of Time magazine full of pictures of a flooded New Orleans that I have to hold at arm's length to make out: a twisted old woman sprouting plastic tubes lies with others on an airport conveyor belt like unclaimed luggage, and there's a woman feeding her dog on an overpass as a body floats below. Maybe we need some kind of bifocals to take it all in—the darkness and the light, our own lives and the lives of others, suffering and joy, if it is out there—or something more like the compound eyes of these crimson dragonflies patrolling the yard, each lens focused on some different facet of reality, and linked to a separate part of the brain. We would probably go crazy. In my own eyes with their single, flawed lenses, the drops have almost worn off now, and my pupils are narrowing down, adjusting themselves to their diminished vision of the world.
ENCOUNTER WITH JOHN MALKOVICH
When I spot him in Tower Records, two aisles over, flipping through bins of discounted CDs at their going-out-of-business sale, his shaven head half-covered by the hood of his gray sweatshirt, my first thought is I want to tell my brother, but my brother is dead. And yet I watch him furtively, searching for some Malkovichian quirk, some tic that might make Andy laugh, but he isn't giving anything away besides his slightly awkward stoop over the racks. Then it comes to me that if I can't tell my brother about John Malkovich, I can tell John Malkovich about my brother, and my heart starts pounding. Normally, I don't believe in pestering celebrities, but there are exceptions: if Spalding Gray walked in right now, I would definitely talk to him— but that's impossible, since he, like my brother, though under very different circumstances, killed himself. But John Malkovich is alive and standing right over there, and my mind is racing ahead to the two of us leaving the record store together, then having coffee at a nearby diner, where I am already telling him how my brother was obsessed with the movie of Sam Shepard's True West and especially with him, John Malkovich, playing Lee, the older of two brothers; how Andy, who was my older brother, loved to imitate Malkovich, or rather Lee, everything from his small off-kilter mannerisms to his most feral outbursts—but even then he'd be smiling, unable to hide his delight; and how, every Christmas, he brought the video to our parents' house in Ohio, and our parents would groan when they walked through the room, and sigh, "Not this again," or call it "the most unChristmassy movie ever made." Which is probably true. But for us—him and me, our other brother and our sister, but especially him— you'd have to say it was our It's a Wonderful Life. And I have to tell him how Andy used to cue the tape up and ask, "Can we just watch this one scene before—" before whatever it was we were about to do, go out for dinner or visit our demented grandmother, and we'd watch him, John Malkovich, standing on a chair shouting pronouncements, or destroying a typewriter with a golf club, and we'd go off laughing and exhilarated to our appointed errand, his inflections ringing in our ears. . . . But now it's something about the way he thoughtfully considers his purchases, shuffling through them, then putting one back, reconsidering, his hand hesitating over the bins, that somehow reminds me of Andy, and makes me certain Malkovich would be interested in him, a sympathetic character if there ever was one: funny, gentle, a lover of dogs and kids (who had neither), with an odd sense of humor and some mostly unobtrusive symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder, who, like Lee, but to a much lesser degree (or so we thought), had trouble placing himself in the world— a part I'm certain Malkovich could play, all of it coming full circle, Malkovich playing Andy playing Malkovich playing Lee, or just Malkovich playing Andy, bringing him back to life, the way Lee suddenly springs back up at the end of the movie, alive after all, menacing as death, the phone cord still wrapped around his neck. . . . It turns out that John Malkovich and I do leave the store together: we check out at the same time, two registers apart, then head for the door, the moment coming to a peak for me as I realize my last chance is about to slip away. But Malkovich, in front of me, has to wait there while a stream of people coming in briefly blocks his exit, and I watch, in profile, his flurry of impatient blinking—or is it a display of exaggerated patience?—each blink counting off the seconds he is forced to wait, or the number of customers going by him, not recognizing him, it seems to me, though his hood is down by now. And I think, this is it, this little fit of blinking is the thing Andy would delight in most, the one detail he would rewind the tape to see again.
I saw a brown shape in the unmown grass, half-hidden in a tuft, and crouching down to get a closer look, I found a young rabbit, no bigger than my hand, trembling there in its makeshift nest. And I thought of John Clare: this was one of his creatures in my own yard, pressed close to the earth, timid and alone, almost a visitation from the "bard of the fallow field and the green meadow," who loved the things of nature for what they are. It didn't run away when I parted the grass and stroked its soft fur, but quivered in fear, the arteries in its small translucent ears glowing red, its dark eyes wide. I thought of keeping it, at least for a few days, feeding it bread and lettuce, giving it water from an eye dropper. Then it did run away in little bounds to the edge of the woods, and into the woods. I thought again of Clare, how, after he escaped from the asylum, he walked almost a hundred miles home, lost, delusional, beyond anyone's care, waking soaked in a ditch beside the road, so hungry that he fed himself on grass.
LISTENING TO VIRGINIA
(Virginia Leishman reading To the Lighthouse) Driving around town doing errands, I almost have to pull to the side of the road because I can't go on another minute without seeing the words of some gorgeous passage in the paperback I keep on the passenger seat… but I resist that impulse and keep listening, until it is almost Woolf herself sitting beside me like some dear great aunt who happens to be a genius telling me stories in a voice like sparkling waves and following eddies of thought into the minds of other people sitting around a dinner table or strolling under the trees, pulling me along in the current of her words like a twig riding a stream around boulders and down foaming cascades, getting drawn into a whirlpool of consciousness and sucked under swirling into the thoughts of someone else, swimming for a time among the reeds and glinting minnows before breaking free and popping back up to the surface only to discover that in my engrossment I've overshot the grocery store and have to turn around, and even after I'm settled in the parking lot I can't stop but sit there with the car idling because now she is going over it all again though differently this time, with new details or from inside the mind of someone else, as if each person were a hive, with its own murmurs and stirrings, that we visit like bees, haunting its dark compartments, but reaching only so far, never to the very heart, the queen's chamber where the deepest secrets are stored (and only there to truly know another person), though the vibrations and the dance of the worker bees tell us something, give us something we can take with us as we fly back out into honeyed daylight.
Walking past the open window, she is surprised by the song of the white-throated sparrow and stops to listen. She has been thinking of the dead ones she loves- her father who lived over a century, and her oldest son, suddenly gone at forty-seven- and she can't help thinking she has called them back, that they are calling her in the voices of these birds passing through Ohio on their spring migration. . . because, after years of summers in upstate New York, the white-throat has become something like the family bird. Her father used to stop whatever he was doing and point out its clear, whistling song. She hears it again: 'Poor Sam Peabody Peabody Peabody.' She tries not to think, 'Poor Andy,' but she has already thought it, and now she is weeping. But then she hears another, so clear, it's as if the bird were in the room with her, or in her head, telling her that everything will be all right. She cannot see them from her second-story window- they are hidden in the new leaves of the old maple, or behind the white blossoms of the dogwood- but she stands and listens, knowing they will stay for only a few days before moving on.
It wasn't until we got the Christmas tree into the house and up on the stand that our daughter discovered a small bird's nest tucked among its needled branches. Amazing, that the nest had made it all the way from Nova Scotia on a truck mashed together with hundreds of other trees without being dislodged or crushed. And now it made the tree feel wilder, a balsam fir growing in our living room, as though at any moment a bird might flutter through the house and return to the nest. And yet, because we'd brought the tree indoors, we'd turned the nest into the first ornament. So we wound the tree with strings of lights, draped it with strands of red beads, and added the other ornaments, then dropped two small brass bells into the nest, like eggs containing music, and hung a painted goldfinch from the branch above, as if to keep them warm.
Walking past the open window, she is surprised
by the song of the white-throated sparrow
and stops to listen. She has been thinking of
the dead ones she loves- her father who lived
over a century, and her oldest son, suddenly gone
at forty-seven- and she can't help thinking
she has called them back, that they are calling her
in the voices of these birds passing through Ohio
on their spring migration. . . because, after years