Saturday, May 26, 2018

WHERE THE WATERS TAKE YOU

When I returned from a trip out of state, tired and my mind devoid of any kind of poetic thought and found a new book of poetry from Pinyon Publishing in my mailbox, I felt an infusion of energy. Where the Waters Take You by Neil Harrison is that kind of infusion. He speaks to my condition with a voice of lucid tones, writing about the natural world and what his clear eyes see in that world.

However, he is at his best when he writes about childhood, drawing readers in from the beginning of Where the Waters Take You in “The Lost Child,” a simple but complex poem about “an entity of perpetual change,” the child who is eventually lost to the world, “still forming and forever adapting/[to]this eternally unfinished home.” In these lines, the reader gets his first glimpse of an underlying wisdom permeating three sections of absorbing verse.

After reading these powerful and unflinchingly honest poems, I surmised that Harrison is a solitaire and a “poet of place” settled in Nebraska. He acknowledges this sense of place in an amusing poem entitled “Already There.” We enter into this idea of regional verse through the lines “I think we all knew he was going somewhere,/the way he’d take off on his tricycle,/though it’s clear now he was already there./On that big red-and-white trike he’d tear/down the sidewalk as fast as he could pedal/and we knew one day he was going somewhere…on his roundabout way to New Orleans, where/he lived for a time, then faced death so well/we all still believed he was going somewhere./Though it’s clear now he was already there.” The poem reminds me of a friend from Alabama who was always riding her tricycle westward to California to “find herself” and ended up in the South writing nostalgically about The Road Home to Alabama. I also thought of Thomas Wolfe who began writing about his native North Carolina while he lived in Europe.

Harrison’s impassioned elegy about death, “Spring Burial in the Sandhills,” reveals how deeply he plunges, then emerges, bringing us a poignant message that deserves numerous readings: “A carnival helix of the great wild birds/spirals upward far to the west,/winged escort singing you/up from the season of planting and birth,/out of the cyclic skein of time, where/what we here consign to the earth/has already flowered.” 

Another favorite of mine is entitled “Addiction,” in which Harrison uses a bird as metaphor — it could stand as a statement for the current obsession with opioids: “Nothing quite so human as this/quest to get higher than ordinary/on whatever wings come to hand —/food, drink, sex, drugs, some/elusive degree of wealth or fame./Gambling on those hollow feathers/fastened with that ancient glue, the dream,/another hero almost touching the sun/begins to awaken, already engaged/in the all too common fall.” Again, we hear the poet’s voice simple, yet complex, profound, yet funny, speaking of human willfulness and the tragic consequences of addiction.

We watch with Harrison as the outdoorsman performs his evening watch in his native Nebraska in the end poem, “The Evening Watch,” where “down through the ages bison died…as the day winds down, in the fading light/the view of that broken ridge brings to mind/a painting of a man at prayer, long ago,/ three friends fast asleep nearby…and from the river bluffs to the horizon and on/the stacked bones watch with me.”  The poet is alone in a wild place at dusk, and he paints a picture as vivid as scenes depicted in Wilderness Essays by the naturalist John Muir, his “sudden plash into pure wildness — baptism in Nature’s warm heart…” Harrison’s poem speaks of his mystic communion with nature, enticing readers to view the loveliness and the mysteries of the natural world.

Neil Harrison has written several books about the natural world: In A River of Wind; Into the River Canyon at Dusk, and Back in the Animal Kingdom. He is a former instructor of English and Creative Writing at Wayne State College in Wayne, Nebraska, and at Northeast Community college in Norfolk Nebraska where he also coordinated the Visiting Writers Series. He now resides in Norfolk, and according to Pinyon Publishing, “makes diamond-willow walking sticks, wine from various wild fruits, and excursions to the local fields and streams with his third Deutsche Drahthaar, the Happy Dog.”


More kudos to Pinyon for publishing another banner poet. Available at Pinyon Publishing, 23847 V66 Trail, Montrose, CO 81403.
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