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In 1925, the young Russian poet Sergei Yesenin (five wives by the age of thirty, one of them Isadora Duncan (!), immortality already assured) wrote a farewell poem in his own blood and hanged himself.

In 1973, the thirty-five-year-old poet Jim Harrison, married happily once, two small children, was living on a farm somewhere or other, drinking too much and contemplating killing himself. He wrote a book of poems, one day a month, addressed to Yesenin. They are sort of an anti-suicide note, a 'tell me why I shouldn't do this'. He didn't do it.

Surprisingly enough, given that they were composed so quickly and, more tellingly, that there is frequently not much literary value in other people's therapy, the poems are very good.

Harrison is fixated on Yesenin's mode of death, on the spatial resonances of it, the distance between foot and floor. He circles it obsessively, finds commonalities and differences in their lives, both having their troubles with alcohol, both farm children who made it to the city, but he looks at Yesenin and says drily "It was no fun sitting around being famous, was it? I'll never have to learn that lesson."

He works his farm. He shoots a neighbor's cow, by mistake, in the woods out hunting, backtracks in his own footsteps in the mud and drives nonstop to New York City so as not to think about it for a while. He loves his baby daughter. All the while there's the pendulum, swinging, will I, won't I, will I, I can't.

This is not the sort of poetry I usually like: I mean it isn't formalist, it does not have rhyme and it does not, really, have meter. But what it has is discipline. Harrison will tell himself the truth, or at least admit when he is lying, or at least admit when he doesn't know, to Yesenin if to no one else. Which is probably why he came out of it.

There are lines here that are very precisely perfect. He asks, upset, "What if I own more paperclips than I'll ever use in this lifetime?" I have to say this question bothers me also. It's a fair point. Talking about ways he'd rather die (other than hanging) he ends on the right moment:

as poets we would prefer to have a star fall on us (that meteor
got me in the gizzard!) or lightning strike us and not while we're
playing golf but perhaps in a wheat field while we're making
love in a thunderstorm, or a tornado take us away outside of
Mingo, Kansas, like Judy Garland unfortunately. Or a rainbow
suffocate us. Or skewered dueling the mighty forces of anti-
art. Maybe in sleep as a Gray Eminence. A painless sleep of course.
Or saving a girl from drowning who turns out to be a mermaid.


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March 2017

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