In Search of Small Gods
by Jim Harrison
Copper Canyon Press 2009
Reviewed by Melinda Wilson
In Search of Small Gods smells like a book from the Fremont Public Library, but admittedly this has nothing to do with the author or his skills. It’s simply a friendly reminiscence, a nice connotation I have with the book, and perhaps with the Fremont Public Library which was a tiny, one-room schoolhouse type building with a small desk in a dingy corner. The librarian’s name was Mrs. Bassett. Or perhaps she was the third grade teacher at the public school which I went to only for a day. Enough, though.
Jim Harrison’s most recent of around 30 books is packed with melancholy parables and fireside reminiscences. It opens with a translated passage from Antonio Machado’s “Proverbs and Songs #29.” Machado is a Spanish poet of the 20th Century and the passage contains both English and Spanish versions. It depicts a traveler warned by Machado’s speaker that the road is not pre-existent, but rather is created by the act of walking. The passage ends with the following lines, perhaps more beautiful than any in the actual Harrison book: “Walker, there is no road / only foam trails on the sea.” Foam trails disappear, and in other words, there is nothing in human life but that which is crafted. Its meaning is cheesy, yes, but its implications of self-exploration and discovery of the world first through the self are significant and threaded throughout Harrison’s work.
There is a lot of threading in the book, especially with the titular “small gods.” The first poem, whose title comes from the religious notion of faith and belief, ends with the following lines: “the fluttering unknown gods that I nearly see / from the left corner of my blind eye, struggling / to stay alive in a world that grinds them underfoot.” We see several themes here. First, there are the gods and faith. Next, there is the walker suffocating the gods “underfoot”—the world is constant grinding and change, is a billion small gods suffocating a billion others. There are social implications, perhaps—we’re a largely disaffected society—but to that end, the poem just throws its punch and runs away.
How else can a list poem end, though? “I Believe” is most certainly a list poem, as are at least five others in this long, laborious collection. There is nothing inherently bad about list poems; every poet writes at least one. But rarely are they capable of conjuring much than the sense that a writer has checked thoughts and images of the metaphysical checklist. Yet another list poem, “Larson’s Holstein Bull,” is probably the finest poem in Harrison’s book. The first four lines begin with the word “death,” and the poem proceeds to tell the story of a farm girl with limited mental capabilities who was killed by a bull. The poem is memorable, but spoiled by its final threading: “Death steals everything except our stories.” Harrison’s poem is strong, but smudged by his urge to tell us its “point.”
A finer idea that consistently comes up in Harrison’s book is one that first appears in a poem called “Hard Times.” The idea first presented itself to me through a friend who once told me that after his death, he hopes his ashes will be eaten by birds. Then he (as a part of a larger more complex consciousness) will experience (or fuel) flight, something he will never otherwise experience (see also Mary Oliver’s “Vultures). Harrison’s version reads: “within the bodies / of birds. I’ll be a simple crow / who can reach the top of Antelope Butte.” The entire poem, the man tries to reach the top of this butte, so his perceived ability to reach it at the end is a victory; however, this ability comes through something like reincarnation instead of something rooted in his own human experience. The obsession with birds carries through the ensuing poem, titled “Age Sixty-nine”: “I hope one day to be a spiral / but to the birds I’m a circle.” Harrison reaches out to touch mortality, and finds that it touches back.
Another area of Harrison’s work that consistently impresses is his flare for the natural. In a longer poem, “The Golden Window,” he writes:
I continued west toward the snake den to try to catch
the spirit of the place when it’s asleep, the sheer otherness
of hundreds of rattlesnakes sleeping in a big ball
deep in the rocky earth beneath my feet.
This passage does two things that I admire. It captures the natural world, the rattlesnakes underground, and it discusses a sense of “otherness” that we feel about nature, perhaps the very reason why some hunt. Harrison is able to form a connection with this sensation—an impossible blend of fusion with nature and separation from it—that is often difficult to form on one’s own.
Clichéd ideas and awkward levels of reminiscent melodrama become problems in many of these poems. For instance, in “Hard Times” Harrison writes, “my mind begins to learn / my heart’s language.” Harrison also refers to “a compass without a needle.” Overdone. Reading these poems helped me to develop the “Harrison Test.” I read the poems in a pretentious tone and see what happens. Try it. Here’s the start of a poem from In Search of Small Gods called “Cow Meditation”: “Whenever I’m on the verge of a book tour…” Nevermind.
Finally, I’d like to comment on one other facet of Jim Harrison’s work… “The World’s Fastest White Woman” first appeared in Playboy.