Dead Man Talking
*Jim Harrison—poet, author, essayist—died on March 26, 2016. What follows is a conjured, fictional conversation. Fictional as in non-factual, but as the poets persistently tell us, facts often have little to do with the truth.
Harrison: I was sorry to hear about your dog. When my dogs died, I broke into tears every time. Blubbered. It never got easier.
Blase: Thanks. The decision to put him down was hard, harder than anything I’ve done in recent memory. I didn’t have peace about it, but I knew it was the right thing to do. Does that make sense? And yes, blubbered would be an understatement.
Harrison: Sure, makes sense. There is a specious fear of that kind of blubbering, especially in American culture, especially for males. The energy required to maintain the appearance of “a cool character” must be exhausting. It’s beyond me why anyone would want to ignore the true emotional content of our lives. Life is sentimental.
Blase: Thankfully no one has said anything to me about “closure” or “healing.” I think you once referred to such talk as “verbal turds.”
Harrison: To me, absolutely meaningless words born from a psycho-therapeutic approach to life. I simply didn’t have time for such nonsense. You know, because you read me quite closely (thanks for that by the way) that I held everyone has traumas—sickness, death, the “almost fatal blows.” But what’s unique, or can be unique, is our cures. In other words, how do we endure these sufferings?
Blase: I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. It doesn’t diminish the suffering, but at some point you begin to realize that you’ve no special dispensation that exempts you from heartache. Like Buechner said, “Here is your life. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.”
Harrison: I can’t say I ever read Buechner, but that’s right on the money. You remember my one-line epigraph in Julip, don’t you? From Rilke? “When the wine is bitter, become the wine.” Or, I suppose you could translate that as “When the drinking becomes bitter, become the wine.” Live long enough and bitter’s on the menu. Then you have to choose what to do.
Blase: I do remember that. We’ve currently got this almost allergic reaction to any sort of hyper-individualized-pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps mentality, and that’s good. But I fear we’ve forgotten sometimes you do have to do something, pull yourself up in ways maybe large, yet maybe just as often small. But there is effort involved, that “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” stuff. But it does get complicated as some don’t have straps, much less boots.
Harrison: Reminds me of your poem “The Bravest Thing.”
Blase: You’ve read that? I’m impressed.
Harrison: You oughta be (laughs). Back to something I said earlier, about how closely you’ve read my work. I never spent much time worrying about such things, but I am curious—what is the attraction? I ask because I never saw myself as selling well in the Christian market (laughs).
Blase: Ha, no, that’s true. The gateway drug was Legends of the Fall. I know you weren’t completely pleased with the film. You saw that story as more raw, bloodier, not so many Ralph Lauren wardrobe changes. But it was enough to woo me to read the novella, which was indeed bloodier, and from there to read everything else you’d written. That “life is sentimental” take is something I’ve always felt is true, a feeling that grows stronger as I age. Not sentimentality—that goofiness lulls you into taking a selfie in front of a herd of bison just before they trample you, or into brazenly staring directly into a solar eclipse.
Plus, your “life is sacramental” view, although you never used that phrase. But anyone with one eye and horse sense can tell it oozes in all your work. From your love of dogs and thickets and birds and red wine and garlic and sex and sauntering and music and that time of day “just before dark,” it all struck the resonant chord in me. I knew I’d found a friend. And there was also that “off to the side” stance you constantly took, refusing to dilute your vision and calling in order to make more money or boost your reputation because you felt it was so important that somebody “stay outside.” I believe that too, Jim.
Harrison: I must say I’m impressed.
Blase: You oughta be—forgive my chuckle. And while by no means all, a fair number of Christians I meet or have met are missing both the forest and the trees. I see so many busily defending the Church or the Faith or the Orthodoxy or the Political Party, or there’s some strict adherence to a morality that seems to sprout from a consistent diet of milk and bread, and man needn’t live by milk and bread alone, not when there’s garlic and red wine to be had!
It’s not my job to change anyone’s mind, I’m simply here to be a witness to my life, and that means my appetite for peanut butter and sadness and Linda Ronstadt’s music and…well, the dizzying beauty of being alive. You’ve taught me that. One of these days I want to hear, “Well done. You lived and loved robustly.”
Harrison: Guess what? I heard almost those exact words.
Blase: That doesn’t surprise me at all.
Harrison: Do you think you’ll get another dog?
Blase: Maybe, in time.
Harrison: Just don’t forget, and I’ll quote myself here: “In a life properly lived, you’re a river. You touch things lightly or deeply, you move along because life itself moves and you can’t stop it.” And John, it’s costly, but if you can find a way to get to that hotel in Arles, the Nord Pinus, it’s worth the struggle. Trust me.
Blase: I do. And I’ll try. Thanks, Jim.