On Borrowed Wings: Sometimes I Dream That I Am Not Walt Whitman, by Joseph Harrison

Joseph Harrison’s poems are studded with literary quotations. I don’t mean epigraphs, but lines, phrases, and anecdotes he has assimilated and adapted, extending them to the knowing reader in an impulse of solidarity. This gesture, often delivered in conspicuous rhymes, intricately patterned stanzas and strophes, traditional verse forms, and regular meters, would mark a lesser poet as merely schematic. Bookish references and an ability to ventriloquize dead authors in idioms they would understand too well—such assets can be liabilities at any time, but never more so than in today’s literary climate. Many poets now writing (not to speak of their readers) are insufficiently steeped in his source material to assess his fidelity to it.

Harrison’s riffs on the canon have drawn praise from Harold Bloom, most recently in what may be the final blurb he wrote for any book of poems. Yet even the terms of his approval rely on making Harrison an anomaly, on measuring the distance between the sensibilities of this poet and his peers. Bloom’s plaudit reads, in part, “We are at a moment in the history of literary culture when traditional standards of clarity, eloquence, aesthetic splendor, refined comedy, and civilized pathos have been set aside. I have read a great deal of contemporary poetry. Not many volumes hearten me, Joseph Harrison’s new one does.”

As a Yale undergraduate in 1979, Harrison had taken a class on “Contemporary American Poetry” from his future benefactor, as he recalls in a tribute that appeared in these pages (see Literary Matters 12.2). Bloom’s dogmas about the long shadow of the literary past had a strangely liberating effect on the young poet. Harrison writes:

If influence is inevitable, there is no point in being anxious about it: I came to believe that the best way to deal with it was to go straight at it. If one is condemned to be a ventriloquist, one might as well embrace it. Much of what I know about poetry I learned from reading, or misreading, Harold. Specifically, my whole sense of intertextuality, an important component of what I do, is influenced by his analysis of the hidden dynamics between poems.

On the strength of this testimonial, one may conclude that Harrison is strategic in his borrowings, that he strives to elicit a post-post-modern frisson by channeling or “misreading” other poems when composing his own. But this view scants Harrison’s best work. More often, the ghostly lineaments of his forebears give him cover to achieve lyrical heights he may not have scaled alone. Gleanings from prior poets and poems accelerate his progress in accessing and communicating emotion. If they are a form of shorthand, then they also permit him to range freely across realms of abstract diction and old-time musicality.

Harrison’s “Aubade” is a superb distillation of “Tithonus,” if such a feat is possible for a quintessential poem, albeit a dramatic monologue in blank verse. Despite the presence of one loud pun, Harrison smoothly redirects Tennyson’s theme and tropes into three quatrains styled after the poet’s “In Memoriam A.H.H.”

Recall your gift, my love. Recall
What I so longed for in my youth.
I wanted beauty, thought it truth.
I wanted love, and thought it all.

I thought the ecstasies of song
Whispering immortality
Would ransom me and rescue me
From my old anguish, I was wrong.

But, beautiful, your sunrise steals
In flakes of fire far up the sky.
I tell myself my mourning lie:
Your shining tears, your silver wheels.

Until the final stanza, the reader is unaware of any comparison Harrison may be making with the lover of Eos in Tennyson’s poem. And yet it seems unlikely that the poet would have deployed all those abstract nouns and easy rhymes (“beauty,” “love,” “immortality,” and “youth / truth”) without the assurance that they would be underwritten by Tennyson’s signature in the final line.  “Aubade” ends with a dawning revelation that, given the persistent “old anguish” of Harrison’s speaker, “song” (or literary “immortality”) is as unavailing as to him as Eos to Tithonus.  Rather, “Your shining tears, your silver wheels” are a hollow emblem of inspiration. The repetitions of words and phrases (“Recall,” “I wanted,” “thought,” and “ransom me” paired with “rescue me”) and the A-B-B-A rhyme scheme lend a brooding, circular motion to this brief lyric. The poet mourns his Muse as a personal loss, Hallam to his Tennyson.

A few pages on, Harrison’s “On Time” recruits the Metaphysical poets, not only to chart his logic with syntax or to explore dualism through conceits, but also to produce shapely rhymed verse in a single-stanza poem of variable line length. Here is two-thirds of it:

Slow, previous time: with every year your pace
Accelerates, as weeks speed past like hours,
Plummeting into darkness and dead space,
Till mind forgets the body’s slackened powers.
Each season flips its scenes of scene and rain
……….To race aslant across
……….Our little field of loss
……….And come and go again.
The pleasures the once greedy self-consumed
As individual now blur, entombed
In riddled memory; even that kiss,
When two good hearts conjoined for mutual good,
Turns joyless, taken by the darkening flood:
……….Our past, dead on the line.
You, signified, present your form. We sign.

The final line, the longest in the poem, ends on an apostrophe, “And thee o time.” As with much in “Aubade,” the antiquated form of address is less precious than it might seem otherwise, because Harrison has so completely fused his voice with his medium. In these two poems, and his translation from Victor Hugo’s “L’expiation” (the section on Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow), we see that traditional verse forms can be revived without recourse to topicality or contemporary references. For all his sampling of canonical writers, Harrison’s best poems have a sheen of anonymity.

Admittedly, a handful of poems in the book treat current events or preoccupations (gun violence, freakish weather, political malaise). The most successful of these is “Runaway Blimp,” about an expensive folly in the sky:

…..Symbolic of the bloated
Unindustrious complex, bought
And sold, the useless, shamelessly promoted
Gadgets unneeded in the wars unfought,
As representatives who know the score
Protect the massive boondoggles they floated
…..And, past the fast revolving door,
…..…..Get paid for how they voted;

…..And now, as if to make
A show of excess run amok
And prove its project one big fat mistake,
A multi-billion dollar clusterfuck,
Taking advantage of some windy weather
The blimp has wriggled loose and made a break,
…..Dragging its mile-long Kevlar tether
…..…..In its destructive wake [….]

On the whole, the more seamless is his integration of contemporary subjects with literary history, the better he is at portraying them. In “The Forsaken Singer,” a poem bearing the epigraph “ACS”—for Algernon Charles Swinburne—Harrison likens the Victorian poet’s decline in readership to the phasing out of small bookstores and libraries in our time. The final stanza starts with Yeats’ fetching statement of self-regard when announcing Swinburne’s death.

Oh yes he was king of the cats, whose fame
Seemed permanent, scripted by stars. And yet
How many, today, remember his name?
The world doesn’t end, but we do forget.
A singer falls silent a hundred years.
Rare bookstores vanish. Small libraries close.
What happens to music when no one hears?
…..…..No one knows.

Obsolescence is, of course, an evergreen topic for poets. In Harrison’s work, it shades into concerns about losing and finding oneself during poetic composition (most notably in “Autopoiesis” and in the striking “Echolocation,” one of the best poems in the book). Two of Harrison’s previous volumes are titled Someone Else’s Name (2003) and Identity Theft (2008), respectively.1 In “River of Song,” the first poem of the present collection, the first words are: “Who said that?” It’s not entirely fanciful to link this line with the opening of Hamlet (Barnardo: “Who’s there?”), given Harrison’s literary ghosts. His last volume but one is named Shakespeare’s Horse (2015). In Sometimes I Dream That I Am Not Walt Whitman, “Shakespeare’s Head” revisits greed as a subject—to greater effect than in “Runaway Blimp”:

Ladies and gentlemen, I stole Shakespeare’s head.
At some point in the past, I won’t say how
—Strings pulled, palms greased, equipment commandeered—
I slipped past lime trees, found an open door,
By candlelight crowbarred his ledger stone,
Jabbed my right hand right through his threadbare shroud,
Fingered vermicular dust to find his skull
Then gripped it through the eye sockets and took it.
It’s sitting on my desk, watching me now.

The erasure of self from Harrison’s poems is not quite a display of Keats’ negative capability (an ideal that derived from reading Shakespeare, after all). Harrison is too conscious of his debts for the formula to apply. The bibliophile is ever-present. He even invents a poet-critic named “Hobson,” who contributes an epigraph to the book, and who figures in a sestina. (There’s also a clever poem called “Hobson’s Choice,” about the Elizabethan stable-owner who bequeathed us the phrase, but that’s a horse of a different color.) Still, his creative renderings of the literary forms and lives of his heroes—and his sublimation of personality—prevent most poems from seeming belletristic.

“I’ll take the tops of heads right off,” Harrison writes in a sequence of ballad-stanza poems channeling Dickinson. The quotation alludes to her famous credo about poetry, from a letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson. (“If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”) The cover illustration of Harrison’s book is a play on Magritte’s Pilgrim: a top hat floating above a cloud and, further down, a work-shirt paired with suspenders, no head in sight. Midway through the book one starts to see the image as a declaration that whatever else these witty poems are, they should not be termed cerebral. In the Dickinson sequence, a propriety of form is shattered when she finds herself, posthumously, in even more straitened circumstances than she ever was at Amherst. The lead poem, about Dickinson’s work—and thus her life—becoming rearranged by her sister and male publisher, is titled “My Sister Cut Me into Pieces.” In “You’ll Pay to Quote a Word of Mine,” Harrison snipes at the royalties collected on her behalf, though he can’t resist (in the penultimate line) evoking Wallace Stevens in the bargain.

You’ll pay to quote a word of mine.
…..The “Dickinson estate”
Returns a profit every line,
…..Protectors at the gate

Whose racket is protecting me
…..So I can’t get to you,
Sister, reader, friend, ephebe,
…..The thieves won’t let me through!

The same note of dislocation is struck in Harrison’s title sequence, using Whitman’s cadences, Two contrasts emerge from the sequence: one between the poet who contained multitudes and the poet who has been pigeonholed by academia (“I hear it charged against me that I have become an institution…”) and the second between the disembodied voice of the dead Whitman and the physicality he once celebrated (“My old camerado, my body, how long has it been?”).

If the spectacle of Harrison inhabiting these poets is eerie on occasion, or, as with “Shakespeare’s Head,” downright spooky, then “Dickens on Fire” repays literary genius with boisterousness and bravado worthy of its subject. Here’s just one stanza of this impressive long poem, which closes the volume:

All so addictive, apple of every eye,
Charley was their darling, he was adored,
…..They found it riveting, sublime,
…..…..Loved the trial in Pickwick,
…..Loved to pity the little tykes
…..…..Like Copperfield, whose “I”
Was him, and Tiny Tim, “who did NOT die”
…..……….This Christmastime
…..…..……….(They roared),
…..…..Shuddered in fear when Sikes
…..Would finish Nancy one more time
…..(She pleads, he lifts the club, he strikes,
…..…..He flees the crime)
As murderer and murdered, he felt sick,
His body suffered as their spirits soared [….]

In “Dickens on Fire,” the punishing rhyme-scheme and the metrical derring-do are themselves an act of grand mimesis. Dickens’ relentless drive as a performer and his word-paintings, even his sometimes cartoonish scene-setting, are fully realized in this tour de force. The poem offers the best demonstration that one who draws so freely from venerable literary sources can produce works, which, far from seeming cramped, are big-hearted and magnanimous.

Footnote

1 All of Harrison’s volumes after 2003 have been brought out by The Waywiser Press, which employs him as its senior American editor. Disclosure: Your reviewer has been acquainted with him personally for many years.
Sunil Iyengar

Sunil Iyengar

Sunil Iyengar writes poems and book reviews. He lives outside Washington, D.C., where he works as an arts research director.
Sunil Iyengar

Author: Sunil Iyengar

Sunil Iyengar writes poems and book reviews. He lives outside Washington, D.C., where he works as an arts research director.