Madison Jones reviews Jim Harrison’s SONGS OF UNREASON

November 14, 2014 0 Comments Book Review 6714 Views

Songs of Unreason Cover.

Songs of Unreason. By Jim Harrison. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2011. 143 pp. $22.

Harrison’s Songs of Unreason gives us the voice of ecological erosion through the perspective of the aging poet. A cerebral bolt between the eyes, Songs of Unreason will spin you through place and time, right out of your own skin. He often begins with absurd lines like “It’s better to start walking before you’re born,” the opening of the piece called “Arts” (9). The penultimate and ultimate lines tend toward uncomfortable resolutions, which are occasionally didactic, and often ironic. This work speaks with both wisdom and disillusionment, always asking, is there is a difference? Harrison’s message, revealed slowly through confessional sarcasm, youthful angst, and specific truth, is reminiscent of Sharon Olds’; his language is as sharp and true as Mary Oliver’s, and his resilience in the face of time is compelling.

Songs of Unreason grabs a dusty bottle of wine (embracing a poetic tradition spanning from Li Po to W.S. Merwin), and takes a broom to modern ecopoetics. It is clear he refuses to romanticize topics like aging, death, and a vanishing sense of wildness. Instead, readers are offered a kind of sardonic redemption, one which simultaneously venerates and mourns the dying earth, the swift passage of time, while questioning man’s ability to alter our course of destruction. In doing so, he asks if it is foolish to believe we can control our environments and repair them. This collection, full of wisdom and insight, functions as a how-to guide for undoing anthropocentric thinking, offering “unreason” as medicine for those plagued by “the inconceivable” which “is clearly the inconceivable” (47).

His landscape, every bit as unforgiving as a McCarthy novel, is just as tragic, as in “American Sermon” where a young girl’s displacement from a pastoral childhood to the harsh reality of the city is compared to an unsuccessful transplanting of wildflowers. Sublime revelations are ever present in this work, especially evident in the apocalyptic lines which could have just as easily come from The Road: “that morning the sun forgot to rise/ and for a while no one noticed/ except a few farmers, who shot themselves”(8). Harrison looks to his surroundings for answers, but never for reasons.

Though his style is quite distinct, his love of women, wine, wild horses and dogs are ever-present themes. Songs of Unreason is something new, even when compared to such recent works as In Search of Small Gods, because of the short, but potent stanzas of “The Suite of Unreason” which proliferate the even-numbered pages of the text, creating an exchange Harrison hopes will “examine [the] phenomenon” of his “atavistic, totemistic, primitive” way of thinking, which he believes “can be disturbing to one fairly learned” (4). I found the Haiku-like fragments possess an intoxicating, effervescent effect that unites the text. Harrison plays a bit of a trickster, mocking the “fairly learned” and elevating the “primitive,” agrarian world to the elegiac level we find in Berry and many others in the poem “Bird’s-eye View” where he wonders, “who am I that the gods and men have disappointed me,” but discovers that “you walk through doorways in the mind you cant walk out/ then one day you discover that you’ve learned to fly” (11). From this view-point Harrison sees that “from up here the water is still blue, the grass green/ and the wind that buoys me is 12 billion years old” (11). The poem’s perspective change suggests that poetry gives the caged mind wings to soar up, resist the disjunction of individual life, and see with new eyes the connection to community, to home, or as he later says “whoever destroys their home rapes the gods” (124). It is impossible for Harrison to separate the ordinary world from the sacred. The everyday acts as a vessel for the supernatural world.

This work reveals as much about the frustrations in the workings of a modern poet as it does the specific memories of Harrison’s life. He mockingly compares “book reviewers and politicians” to the “sad-eyed burros, those motel paintings” (131). He complains in “American Sermon” that a “friend Sam” “has made/ five hundred bucks in 40 years/ of writing poetry” (the amount Harrison earned for his first book of poems) and goes on, saying “he has applied for 120/ grants but so have 50,000 others. Sam keeps/ strict track. The fact is he’s not very good” (7). This “sad-eyed [motel room painting of a] burro will have to disagree. In the words of Andrew Lytle, “a farm is not a place to grow wealthy; it is a place to grow corn.”

These are not simply poems of despair, but of anomaly and revival. This work, as if voiced by a muse inebriated with the wine of lyric genius, is as full of dreams, and merriment, and rebirth as it is of death and mourning, which doesn’t always make meaning easy to discern, but there is a true richness in its complexity. With his ruminations on the mystery of dreams, death, birth, and becoming, Jim Harrison creates a profound nebulous which yields only to careful readings. You may leave this book saying “I’m unsure if all of me has returned,” but you will walk away with so much more than you leave behind (44).


About the Author

Author Photo

Photo from Copper Canyon website.

Jim Harrison is the author of thirty books, including Legends of the Falland Dalva, and has served as the food columnist for the magazines Smartand Esquire.His work has been translated into two dozen languages and produced as four feature-length films. As a young poet he co-editedSumac magazine (with Dan Gerber) and earned a National Endowment for the Arts grant and a Guggenheim Fellowship. In 2007, he was elected into the Academy of American Arts and Letters. Mr. Harrison divides his time between Montana and southern Arizona.


About the Reviewer

M.P. Jones is the editor-in-chief of Kudzu House Quarterly. He recently received an M.A. in English from Auburn University.  Recent poetry has appeared in The Painted Bride Quarterly,Harpur Palate, Portland Review, Tampa Review, and Canary Magazine, among others. He has poems forthcoming in Camas, The Tusculum ReviewThe Greensboro Review, and Southern Humanities Review, among others. His poetry has been awarded Auburn University’s 2013 and 2014 Robert Hughes Mount, Jr., Poetry Prizes, sponsored by the Academy of American Poets, among others. He has reviewed books for Southern Humanities Review, Valparaiso Poetry Review, Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, and others. Live at Lethe, his first collection of poetry, was released by Sweatshoppe Publications this past fall (2013), and his second manuscript, Reflections in the Dark Water is seeking publishers. For more information, visit his author’s page:

About author

Related articles


No Comments Yet!

You can be first to comment this post!

Leave a Reply