In Search of Small Gods
Copper Canyon Press, 2010
Human beings faced with the reality of their own mortality often turn to God for comfort. Poet Jim Harrison, approaching age seventy, looks not to Heaven for answers, but to the “small gods” here on Earth. He finds meaning in life’s simple pleasures: dreams, memories of youth, and the beauty of the natural world. The poems which make up In Search of Small Gods record his reflections on death, his observations of the life surrounding him, and his encounters with the deities he finds in nature.
In “On Horseback in China,” Harrison recalls a man who once told him “everything is to be found in the ordinary.” Harrison embraces this theme wholeheartedly, filling his poetry with the elegantly mundane. He sees his “gods” all around him: in the faces of sleeping dogs (“Late”), in the fatally shot rattle snake curled into the shape of a question mark (“Complaint & Plea”), in a goat snoozing in the sunlight beside a barn (“Goat Boy”). “I Believe,” the very first poem in the collection, immediately establishes this reverence for the mundane. Among his beliefs are “the overgrown path to the creek,” “brush piles,” and “turbulent rivers”—he values not the abstract, but the tangible, the concrete. This respect for the power of simplicity extends to his stylistic choices. Few of the pieces in the collection fit traditional poetic forms, foregoing even conventional meter and lineation. He allows the straightforward language and imagery to dictate how each poem flows.
Harrison’s poetic imagery places a special emphasis on the simple beauty of the natural world. Peonies, which grow “too heavy with their own beauty” and “slump to the ground,” but always “remember to come alive again,” feature prominently in two pieces (“Late Spring” and “Peonies”). The moon, too, plays a recurring role. In “Age Sixty-nine,” it “rolls over the mountain.” In “Night Ride,” it burns “dark orange from another forest fire.” In “Eleven Dawns with Su Tung-p’o,” it “speaks […] with the silence of a sleeping dog.” It is in these things, Harrison asserts, that we might glimpse the gods that really matter: “Back when I was young and still alive there were almost too many gods. You could see them ripple in the water before the lake’s ice melted in April, the loon’s and curlews giving them voice.”
Harrison mourns the loss of such natural beauty with equal passion. The image of “golf clubs left on the moon” appears at least twice (in “Manuela” and “Eleven Dawns with Su Tung-p’o”), suggesting that Harrison feels humanity’s exploration of his beloved moon somehow diminishes it. In “The Golden Window,” he reflects on mankind’s destruction of nature, bemoaning “this overmade world where old paths are submerged in metal and cement.” The small gods’ greatest enemy, however, is man’s preoccupation with time. “Time’s poison,” Harrison writes, “is in the air we breathe and the faint taste in the water we drink.” Worrying about time—or, more specifically, how little of it we have—distracts us from the things that really matter. In “Calendar,” Harrison reflects, “Of late I’ve escaped those fatal squares with their razor-sharp numbers for longer and longer.” Instead, he measures the days in the birds he observes (“Seven Dawns with Su Tung-p’o”).