Whatever else you’re reading, whatever you’re doing besides looking at this review — stop. Stop and find Jeffrey Harrison’s new book, and read the second half, paying special attention (not that you’ll need to be told) to the sequence titled “An Undertaking.” It is eight kinds of pain from scalding to pounding to mournful and back again: an account of coming to terms with his brother’s suicide, covering everything from the phone call to cleaning up the apartment to feeling the shock of it all over again on the anniversary of the death. In the mainly genially modest world of American poetry it is an astonishing and near-major work of art.
Surprising then that Harrison named his fourth collection Incomplete Knowledge after the first poem in the book, a mild revision of his late teacher (mine too) Kenneth Koch’s poem “Taking a Walk with You,” in which the poet takes inventory of his misunderstandings. Where the young Koch riffed energetically on mysteries that may or may not have actually been mysterious to him, Harrison treats the theme in the manner of Koch’s later work, simultaneously displaying and disavowing an impressive but not intrinsically useful range of knowledge.
Try not to think Go look it up! when Harrison writes “Herakleitus / (am I spelling that right?) said something / about how we hide our ignorance, / but I can’t remember exactly what it was.” Harrison, like Koch, is compelled to make a point in his poems, in fact seems incapable of letting a poem into print that cannot be summarized in a sentence. For example, the title poem: Walking in the woods, the poet notes that while he is a poor botanist and in fact is slow to recall facts about everything from nature to art and philosophy, despite his limits he nevertheless feels delight in the world around him.
His more narrative poems succumb to paraphrase too. Take the second poem, “God’s Penis”: The connection between the divine and the sensual is mysterious and a dangerous subject to consider, much like the sexual tension between teacher and student. “Pale Blue City”: Fleeting experiences of beauty — of any resonant present moment, for that matter — recall feelings of love and intimacy, which although they also occur in time, will continue.
There are rhetorical satisfactions to his poems, too. In “Fork,” an act of revenge against a workshop leader who tells the poet “over and over, in front of the class, / that I was ‘hopeless,’ that I was wasting my time / but more importantly yours, that I just didn’t get it,” the opening stanza’s indictment-by-anaphora is resolved by the next to last stanza’s justice-by-conceptual art, as the poet steals his teacher’s silverware then mails her photographs of the fork next to the monuments of Europe, “balanced on Keats’s grave in Rome,” the implement going farther in poetry, Harrison implies, than the teacher ever will.
That his poems are paraphrasable doesn’t reduce Harrison’s accomplishment. Neither does the step back that the poems in the first half of this new book take from the breakthrough he seemed about to make in his 2001 book, Feeding the Fire. There, in tense and sweetly phrased lines about adolescence, tricks played on family members, random encounters with deranged strangers, even in a series of elegies more portrait than passionate remembrance, Harrison gave the impression that his gift for tone and anecdote could break open into spontaneous, even irrational emotion, at any time. For example, in “Golden Retriever,” he seemed about to throw over the poetry of memory, chiding the title character for:
…bounding again into those childhood fields
with the dumb trust that nothing found in them
can hurt you. How long can this willed
innocence go on? Endlessly, it seems,
as long as you can make yourself believe
the world loves you. It’s an old trick:
no matter how many times the stick
is thrown into the past, those days come back
drenched in the slobber of nostalgia.
Some dogs will go on fetching like that
until they literally drop dead
from exhaustion, faithful to the end —
but not to the way things really happened.
Harrison, whose tendency to announce his WASPiness is muted in his new book, ends that earlier poem with the painful advice to the dog-poet of childhood to “Forget the fucking stick. / Go find something really putrid to roll in / and smear all over your golden fur.” This is memorable advice; whether it is good advice is a question Incomplete Knowledge takes up.
In the best poems of the first half of the book, such as “Breakfast with Dan,” “My Worst Job Interview,” “My Personal Tornado,” and “The Day My Mother Drowned,” Harrison seems more or less comfortable with his faithfulness to “the way things really happened.” In these poems, Harrison has close calls with unstable people and unfortunate situations, but gets away with his sense of self mainly intact. “The Day My Mother Drowned” inverts “Our Other Sister,” his 2001 poem about tormenting his sister by inventing an absent older sibling; in “The Day,” his grandmother drives the poet and his brother into a frenzy, convinced beyond a doubt that their mother has drowned herself in the lake. In the earlier poem, Harrison acknowledges the cruelty of his lie, arguing unpersuasively that he too mourned the loss of his imaginary older sister; in the new poem, he lets the story resolve itself without much special pleading on his own behalf:
Just then our mother appeared through the mist
like an apparition, in her yellow slicker.
“We thought you were dead,” our grandmother wailed.
“For Pete’s sake, Mother, I was just taking a walk.”
My brother and I just stood there, unable to expunge
the world we’d imagined without her.
There is no such pleading in “An Undertaking” either. Its objective correlatives are absolutely mundane: coffee grounds, refrigerator magnets, skis, a pile of socks. Its quest to conquer loss through understanding is absolutely unattainable. And it is bigger than any paraphrase of it can manage; the closest Harrison comes within the poem to pinning the point down is in an aside:
The detective sounded weary, which was no
surprise: it was 2 a.m. He patiently explained
what he could, then sighed, “You’ll never really know.”
Real feeling comes through in every line of “An Undertaking.” While there may be sound reasons to be wary around the certainties of drama, and while depicted suffering may not be anybody’s Plan A for art time, there is always room in poetry for genuine experience. Small consolation, and yet.