THE FICTION POETS BATTLE: STEPHEN DOBYNS V. JIM HARRISON

jim harrison

Jim Harrison: You want a poem? I’ll give you a poem…You want a novel? I’ll give you that, too. And a movie script. You can have one of those. Now let’s go have some lunch.

Dobyns and Harrison are both known for their fiction, and each has had two films produced from their work; one of Harrison’s: “Legends of the Fall,” starring Anthony Hopkins and Brad Pitt.

Stephen Dobyns (7th seed in the South bracket) is a late 20th century prose poem master, using the form for limitless accessible expression (there is no end to the possibilities of accessible poetry).

Allegorical Matters

Let’s say you are a man (some of you are)
and susceptible to the charms of women
(some of you must be) and you are sitting
on a park bench. (It is a sunny afternoon
in early May and the peonies are in flower.)
A beautiful woman approaches. (Clearly,
we each have his or her own idea of beauty
but let’s say she is beautiful to all.) She smiles,
then removes her halter top, baring her breasts
which you find yourself comparing to ripe fruit.
(Let’s say y ou are an admirer of bare breasts.)
Gently she presses her breasts against your eyes
and forehead, moving them across your face.
You can’t get over your good fortune. Eagerly,
you embrace her but then you learn the horror
because while her front is is young and vital,
her back is rotting flesh which breaks away
in your fingers with a smell of decay. Here
we pause and invite in a trio of experts.
The first says, This is clearly a projection
of the author’s sexual anxieties. The second says,
Such fantasies derive from the empowerment
of women and the author’s fear of emasculation.
The third says, The author is manipulating sexual
stereotypes to acheive imaginative dominance
over the reader—basically, he must be a bully.
The author sits in front of the trio of experts.
He leans forward with his elbows on his knees.
He scratches his neck and looks at the floor.
where a fat ant is dragging a crumb. He begins
to step on the ant but then he thinks: Better not.
The cool stares of the experts make him uneasy
and he would like to be elsewhere, perhaps home
with a book or taking a walk. My idea, he says
concerned the seductive qualities of my country,
how it encourages us to engage in all fantasies,
how it lets us imagine that we are lucky to be here,
how it creates the illusion of an eternal present.
But don’t we become blind to the world around us?
Isn’t what we see as progress just a delusion?
Isn’t our country death and what it touches death?
The trio of experts begin to clear their throats.
They recross their legs and their chairs creak.
The author feels the weight of their disapproval.
But never mind, he says, Perhaps I’m mistaken;
let’s forget I spoke. The author lowers his head.
He scratches under his arm and suppresses a belch.
He considers the difficulties of communication
and the ruthless necessities of art. Once again
he looks for the ant but it’s gone. Lucky ant.
Next time he wouldn’t let it escape so easily.

—Stephen Dobyns

Jim Harrison’s poem is taken from a series of prose poems published in APR called Letters to Yesenin. (Yesenin was a Russian poet who hung himself in prison.)  Harrison (10th seed in the South) is no stranger to the prose poem, either. He wrote these poem-letters in the early 70s while living on a farm (all the poets lived on farms in those days).  He was in his early 30s at the time, but he makes it sound like he’s an old man: a litany of ills verging on acute self-pity, resembling a Richard Hugo rant. (Has Harrison had a hard life? Yes.)  Anyway, the crumbling wreck of a soft/hard, self-pitying American man was all the rage in the 70s.

#9  (Letters to Yesenin)

What if I own more paper clips than I’ll ever use in this
lifetime. My other possessions are shabby: the house half
painted, the car without a muffler, one dog with bad eyes
and the other dog a horny moron. Even the baby has a rash on
her neck but then we don’t own humans. My good books were
stolen at parties years ago and two of the barn windows are
broken and the furnace is unreliable and field mice daily
feed on the wiring. But the new foal appears healthy though
unmanageable, crawling under the fence and chased by my wife
who is stricken by the flu, not to speak of my own body which
has long suffered the ravages of drink and various nervous
disorders which made me laugh and weep and carress my shotguns.
But paperclips. Rich in paperclips to sort my writings which
fill so many cartons under my bed. When I attach them I say
it’s your job afterall to keep this whole thing together. And
I used them once with a rubberband to fire holes into the
face of the president hanging on the office wall. We have freedom.
You couldn’t do that to Breznev much less Stalin on whose
grave Mandelstam sits proudly in the form of the ultimate
crow, a peerless crow, a crow without comparison on earth.
But the paperclips are a small comfort like meeting someone
fatter than myself and we both wordlessly recognize the fact
or meeting someone my age who is more of a drunk, more savaged
and hag ridden until they are no longer human and seeing
them on the street I wonder how their heads which are only
wounds balance at the top of their bodies. A manuscript of
a novel sits in front of me held together with twenty clips.
It is the paper equivalent of a duck and a company far away
has bought the perhaps beautiful duck and my time is free again.

–Jim Harrison

MARLA MUSE: The Harrison poem sounds a bit rambling, though of course it’s charming. The Dobyns poem has more art. I rather like the Dobyns; it’s very clever.

And Dobyns proves his worth on the court, Marla.  Dobyns wins 66-54.

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