December 31, 2015
Review: Men of Letters, John Updike and Jim Harrison, and Their Poems
John Updike and Jim Harrison are an odd couple to bring together in a review. Updike, who died in 2009, was a finicky and cerebral writer, fundamentally a neatnik. Mr. Harrison is backwoodsy and satirical. The shirt of his prose is perpetually untucked and perhaps stained with a splash of red wine.
Yet these extremes — urbane versus rural — do meet. These men are roughly of the same generation. Updike was born in 1932; Mr. Harrison, who is 78, was born in 1937. Like Updike, Mr. Harrison has been almost dementedly prolific.
Like Updike, too, Mr. Harrison is best known for his novels, yet is a committed and talented poet. Their poetic themes intertwine, especially as regards sex, which each explores with uncommon ardor. Both are close watchers, in their poems, of the natural world, especially birds and dogs. Both confront old age and death with grace and frequently with wit.
December by John Updike
Updike’s best verse is presented now in “Selected Poems,” edited by Christopher Carduff with a wise introduction by Brad Leithauser. Updike’s gift for close observation, in these poems as elsewhere, is near to supernatural. In an early poem, “Seagulls,” he writes:
Are they intelligent?
We imagine so, because they are ugly.
The sardonic one-eyed profile, slightly cross,
the narrow, ectomorphic head, badly combed,
the wide and nervous and well-muscled rump
all suggest deskwork: shipping rates
by day, Schopenhauer
by night, and endless coffee.
When Updike’s poems miss, it is usually because they are tense and linguistically ornate. (When Sylvia Plath felt that her poems reeked of the thesaurus, she referred to herself as “Roget’s trollop.”) Such misses, in “Selected Poems,” are rare.
These poems are darker than you may remember Updike’s poetry being. In “Spanish Sonnets” he writes, in a manner that resembles Philip Larkin, “Prayer’s a joke, love a secretion;/the tortured torture, and worse gets worse.” Even the lovemaking might not have been as good as this author would have had us, in his fiction and nonfiction, believe. In his long poem “Midpoint,” he wrote: “we always exuded better sex than we had.”
Condescend to Updike’s golf poems at your peril. In “Golfers,” men are glimpsed in a locker room almost as carcasses headed for the abattoir:
Breathing of bourbon, crowing, they strip;
the hair of their chests is grizzled, their genitals
hang dead as practice balls,their blue legs twist;
where, now, are their pars and their furor?
Emerging from the shower shrunken,they are men,
mere men, old boys, lost, the last hole a horror.
That last line reminds me of a sentence of Mr. Harrison’s that I’ve been unable to shake. In his collection of novellas “The Beast God Forgot to Invent” (2000), he had a character intone, “I’ve certainly rounded third base and am headed for home plate, which is a hole in the ground.”
Mr. Harrison’s novels and poems over the last two decades have been increasingly preoccupied with mortality, never so much as in “Dead Man’s Float,” his very good new book of verse. Here he details the shocks of shingles and back surgery, as well as the comprehensive low wheeze of a fraying body.
The joys in Mr. Harrison’s world have remained consistent. If sex is less frequently an option, his appetites for food and the outdoors are undiminished. In one poem, he goes out into a rainstorm at night and sits naked at a picnic table. In another, he writes: “I envied the dog lying in the yard/so I did it.” His dog thinks he is being bizarre. That poem ends: “We humans can take off but are no good at landing.”
About his bird-watching, Mr. Harrison declares, “Without birds I’m dead.” In the prose poem “Whimsy,” his manias for birds and food collide. “I am the bartailed godwit of poets,” he declares. “I fly 7,000 miles from the Aleutians to New Zealand without stopping. Unknown to the ornithologists I pause in China for a bowl of noodles. I can’t help it. I am full of noodle love.”
Mr. Harrison’s unrhymed verse is far less rhetorically organized than is Updike’s, but this is part of his work’s charm. His earlier poems were ruder in their embrace of the world. Here, his mellow advice is “Seize the day gently as if you loved her.”
This poet turns over in his mind the things he wishes he’d done differently. In a harrowing poem called “Vows” — Mr. Harrison’s wife, Linda King Harrison, died in October — he writes:
I feel my failure intensely
as if it were a vital organ
the gods grew from the side of my head.
You can’t cover it with a hat and I no longer
can sleep on that side it’s so tender.
I wasn’t quite faithful enough
to carry this sort of weight up the mountain.
The title of this volume, “Dead Man’s Float,” refers to a way to stay alive in the water when one has grown tired while far from shore. As a poet, however, Mr. Harrison is not passively drifting.
He remains committed to language, and to what pleasures he can catch. A short poem, “Zona,” printed here in its entirety, sums up this late-career collection:
My work piles up,
I falter with disease.
Time rushes toward me —it has no brakes. Still,
the radishes are good this year.
Run them through butter,
add a little salt.
A version of this review appears in print on December 23, 2015, on page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: Sharp of Eye, Men of Letters in Verse Mode.