His wife has asthma
so he only smokes outdoors
or late at night with head
and shoulders well into
the fireplace, the mesquite and oak
heat bright against his face.
Does it replace the heat
that has wandered from love
back into the natural world?
But then the shadow passion casts
is much longer than passion,
stretching with effort from year to year.
Outside tonight hard wind and sleet
from three bald mountains,
and on the hearth before his face
the ashes we’ll all become,
soft as the back of a woman’s knee.
- by Jim Harrison
I think this poem is simply lovely. A older man carefull indulges his smoking habit so that it will not bother his asthmatic wife, leading to a reminiscence on the role of love and passion in a long life. The closing two lines, recalling “ashes to ashes” and melding it into the freshly intimate back of a woman’s knees, are just so right, just so perfect in balancing what does abide in the warming shadow of passion.
Does the heat he feels on his face from the embers replace the heat of passion that has wandered back into the natural world? Isn’t it wonderful that in Harrison’s world, passion does not die or disappear – it wanders from love back into the natural world? And the shadow of passion outlasts the passion itself, stretching from year to year, but only with effort. There is more wisdom and wonder packed into these 93 words than you would find in a decade of Dr. Phil shows.
I first came across Jim Harrison as a novelist. His novels are like Raymond Carver writing about an adult Nick Adams. They are rooted in nature and solitude, but they are painted with a somewhat broader emotional palette, while retaining an admirable stoicism.
In a world where many work other jobs to support their novel-writing ambitions, Harrison’s devotion to his poetry is demonstrated by the fact that he works at novel-writing to support his poetry. His poetic attention to just the right words strengthens his novels, and his novelist’s attention to the nuances of human interaction fuels his poetry.
Harrison is a hunter, fisherman and all-around outdoorsman, and those interests are at the heart of almost all his work. You can find a reading, an interview, and more biographical information about Harrison here. As always, I encourage you to listen to the poet read his own work – it gains a depth in his gravelly voice that the written word cannot convey.
A simple gesture – smoking up a chimney – becomes a lovely meditation on love, loss, passion, mortality, and intimacy. That is the power of poetry in the hands of a mature master.