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Poet's Sampler: Joseph Harrison

Joseph Harrison writes like an angel. By this I mean that a suave, urbane sonorousness infuses his every line with a sweet authority and poise akin to the "slow elegant bass voice" in his poem "R.M.H." But the instrument that is Harrison's voice is also supple, wide-ranging, full of unexpected and disconcerting turns. Thus Harrison's superb manuscript The Fly in the Ointment, while its structure is tight and shapely, includes drastically contrasting kinds of material.

Harrison writes that in his work "the high cultural, or aesthetic, is repeatedly threatened, waylaid, interrupted by something very different: low cultural, contemporary, political. I suppose that on the most basic level I am trying to articulate the predicament I find myself in, trying to write beautiful poems in 1990's America, which does seem at times a rather Quixotic project." Beautiful indeed the poems are, but rarely or never unthreatened or, perhaps, unthreatening. The commodification of Frost ("Frost Heaves"), the dangerous and cruel whirlpool of seduction ("Scylla and Charybdis"), such subjects, for all Harrison's beguiling geniality, are presented in a mordant, sometimes acrid fashion. All are versions, variously demotic and sublime, of the central theme of the fly in the ointment, or more loftily, the expulsion from the garden ("Adam").

The repeated threat Harrison mentions is the more unsettling because what is presented as under attack in his work, while never simply personal or local, feels achingly precious and vulnerable. Beauty, tranquility, the achievements of art -- what Harrison's poems touch upon, they celebrate, line by resonant line. At a time when so much American poetry is preachy, simplistic, sentimental, or flat (and when did we not live in such a time?), Harrison's work combines technical mastery, range (he can be down-home and very funny), and vision in such a way that they cannot be separated again, let alone forgotten. Poetry is the ointment, then, and life the fly? But in Harrison's deft hands, poetry is a gadfly too.

--Rachel Hadas

R. M. H.

A slow elegant bass voice--my father's?

Not quite. The roll, the pause, the sweet, firm kiss

Of irony -- my Uncle Robert's -- gone.

With all his clear experience of the world,

Songbirds and scalding zones and growing seasons,

Sharp desert flowers, striped sandstone formations,

Dust storms and freshets, winter constellations...

The silver names snap off and drop unspoken.

An old man lays his head against a stone.

The breath a boy struggled for in Virginia,

Seized in the fierce air of the desert, gone,

And echo in the voice of my father

Crying into the darkness of the phone.

Scylla and Charybdis

As Shakespeare's Beatrice ruled any room

She turned on any speaker's careless phrase

And, in a carefree tone, lowered the boom.

They mumbled off in an embarrassed haze

Or lingered to be cut up twenty ways

While the whole room had one long laughing fit.

That summer she was in her vicious phase.

Few came within the coiled reach of her wit

Who were not charmed by her, and then picked off by it.

Or she, swirling in circles as the moon

Kept changing faces in the summer sky,

Pulled men to her. Her voice's softer tune

Appreciatively called each passer-by,

Each lover shone in her all-loving eye.

She kept the toothbrush and the dressing gown --

She barely even knew it was a lie.

Few came within her arms who did not drown

In whirls of her confusion, down and down and down.

And he, too, hovered on her precipice,

Her vortex always swallowing the sea,

Drawn by the inspiration of her kiss

That sucked the travelers in then spit them free

To float as wreckage of her history,

For he was tempted to ignore the cost,

Urging himself that this was "meant to be"

And not a maelstrom that could not be crossed,

Pure chaos, where what love he carried would be lost.

But then he hesitated. He could boast

A little self-control (or so he thought),

And so he steered his craft toward Scylla's coast.

Somehow she seemed exactly whom he sought;

They felt compatible, which really ought

To make things work. It was good at the start;

It wasn't very long before they fought,

And then she picked his character apart

And plucked his ego, crying, from his open heart.

If somehow he survived (did he survive?)

It wasn't through his faith in one sure place

Where someone waited for him to arrive.

His old dissatisfaction with his face

Returned, and he resolved to quit the chase

To catch whatever beauty would appear

To turn men's heads and make their fool hearts race.

The choices that we make are rarely clear.

We make them out of pride, or selfishness, or fear.


Adam had it good in Paradise.

He didn't have to work, there was plenty to eat.

He gave names to the things around him and that's what they were.

The woman was soft and sweet.

God said there were things he might as well not know.

That made him curious: the tree was forbidden, what for?

One day he felt like eating an apple, so he ate one.

He ate the skin and flesh, he ate the core.

He had a moment of perfect clarity.

He saw himself in relation to the world.

The names he had given to things were arbitrary.

His sense of his own importance was absurd.

But with that knowledge came a different freedom.

If words were false, one couldn't help but lie.

Soon everything in his head was one big lie.

He'd blame it all on Eve, Eve and the Devil.

He told that version to God and God believed it.

They both got punished for falling, but Eve got it worse.

He told it to her so often she almost believed it.

If she wasn't guilty, why did she keep getting hurt?

His narratives of deception grew more elaborate.

But Eden wasn't the best place for his art.

It was too pretty for words, the angels were watching.

He decided to leave the garden, to "make a fresh start."

Eve didn't want to go, but he talked her into it.

Life on their own would be more full, more real.

But it had an emptiness Adam didn't anticipate.

There was nothing to violate, nothing to steal.

With no God to trick, his lies were pointless.

He needed language to organize the world.

He started naming again, as if he believed it.

As if there were such a thing as the literal word.

From that day forward his life was vaguely sad.

It was cold outside, for days it would rain.

Work was hard, Eve was under the weather.

The kids were fighting again.

Frost Heaves

In a quirky corner of New England,

Between two pummeled spines of the Green Mountains

Worn by two million rainy centuries

To granite relics of prehistory,

Squat a town and college, Middlebury,

That used to host the poet, Robert Frost.

They claim him ways some dead would find offensive:

Just read the markers on the road to Randolph

Where the new writers come and go like leaves --

First the Robert Frost Memorial Bridge,

Then the Robert Frost Memorial Drive,

The Robert Frost Interpretive Nature Trail,

The Robert Frost Memorial Wayside Area,

Then a crooked sign flashing crude letters,

Warning of cold, stubborn weather: FROST HEAVES.

And who could blame you, memorialized

Comically in every wrong direction

Like any Vince Lombardi or Joyce Kilmer?

Or should we rather blame that side of you

Who packaged your keen words like maple syrup,

Dripping with smug provinciality,

Sticky with rhyme? As if you never contrived

To warp the ripe world through thin panes of ice,

Or plotted the marshy ground in fours and fives

Crisp to the cut of your long whispering scythe,

Or started the couple arguing on the stairs,

The narrow, clumsy, stoic will defied

By love's white backward gaze of grief at loss

Till call by liquid call the songbirds changed,

Or hid the goblet behind the children's playhouse.

And now it seems you've gotten me lost again

Although I thought I knew these woods by heart:

Splashes of yellow and alizarin,

Pulse of magenta, every fist in flame.

Something coaxes the trees to dress themselves

In the last colors of the alphabet

Then strips them in the nick of the hard north wind,

Something crisps the trail, ices the bridge,

Encrusts the plaque in the wayside area

And hoists the pavement buckling it like clay.

Long after your crumbling image is forgotten

(Beside the hero on inauguration day)

Frost will wrestle stone from underneath

And crack our polished, placid surfaces,

Wrenching apart the road we thought we'd taken.

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