James Harms.JPG


Poetry from James Harms

followed by Q&A

Father’s Day:  the Summer Solstice


How often do the grunion run?

The checking account is dry

and we’re out here in the moonlight,

Dad to his ankles in fish on the wet sand

grabbing, it seems, at slivers of mercury

while Caroline swings a butterfly net 

above her head fishing for stars.

Tom teeters and falls, his diaper

filling with ocean and sagging off

his ass; he’s holding a coffee can

drilled with holes.  And Marianne, eight-

years-old and too cool to care, not yet

smoking but thinking about it there on a dune,

her wet box empty beside her, Marianne

is watching her shadow tear away and walk

toward the sea.  I am nothing special 

there in the backwash, my own two cans 

brimming with slim silversides,

their milt and eggs spilling in the surf

like melting ice cream.  The darkness is nearly

complete, though off beyond Catalina, 

at the edge of the world, a pen line of pink

still stains the air, more memory of the year’s

longest day than scar, though even memories

heal over without vanishing.  There’s one now!

Dad read this morning about the run,

a boxed recipe at the bottom of the page:

“Sauteed Grunion with Sea Grass.”

So what shall we do for Father’s Day,

my mother asked, who’s gathering eel grass

in a plastic bag and wondering what next.

I hate knowing the answer to that.

The problem with memories is that they aren’t

discrete, never trapped alone in amber

like insects rescued from the life they’ll live,

held safe in solution until time builds a shell

to keep them safe; you can’t hold them to the light 

and say, Yes, that’s how it was that day, the smell

of fish frying at midnight, Dad singing hymns

at the stove while Tom slept on the floor

in a corner and Carrie washed the inedible

sea salad at the sink with Mom.  Marianne

was long gone, in her room entombed 

in headphones and Iron Butterfly, while I

held a grunion in each hand feeling their

wriggling grow weaker, unaware of anything

outside, anything beyond the fence and 

the alley and the parking lot, anything

at all in that sequence of pools and backyards,

though it seemed the sun was waiting to rise at the end

of the street, a word in my throat struggling 

to the surface, struggling toward the dark even then,

as if I were special, a coffee can of light.




The New Rainbow


The new rainbow can’t be seen

by the stubborn or insane,

though it sounds like a loose shutter

following them through their lives.


The new rainbow has twelve colors

and a dozen thin bands of silver velvet sash,

though it’s the smell of sage and thyme

that years later friends acknowledge remembering.


The new rainbow’s pot of gold

is pewter and holds coins the shape of hands.

And in each palm is a face, the faces of beggars, the newly born, 

the recently blind; and so each day the pot of riches grows.


The new rainbow is tended by men

in uniform, their epaulets the size of chessboards,

and in fact whole towns reside on their shoulders, the elves

and pixies the living bear, ever stalwart, toward death.


My little boy drew the new rainbow

(a box of crayons and a sheet of typing paper)

while I bargained with devils in worsted suits.

As it rained on the roof far above.  As the sky waited


for the new rainbow, waited to hear the verdict:

would I rise with ash at the end of an argument

or leave the house without my son, without my daughter

asleep beneath the eaves; would I walk over


the new rainbow, where my son says there are no blue

skies or bluebirds, no lullabies, no reason really to leave.

So we gather at the window, elves, children

and devils.  And even I, who knows not which I am, can see it.





Sonnet (with Extra Last Line) by Frank Gehry


Nationale-Nederlanden Building, Prague


She mistook the wine      in an old carafe

   for a place to put      her supermarket flowers.

      She lit a Dunhill      and ashed it in my lap,

         removed my pants,      then kept me hard for hours.


         There are three or four ways      to build a tower.

      Nearly all rely on      the tree’s reliance on sap.

   In other words,      it’s conversation and sour

breath, the heat of bodies,      the easy laughs


that keep a building up,      that stop its fall

   as surely as she      decided doubt

      made marriage      an overheated shadow,

         a hiding place      of false hellos, as though

      H-e-l-l-o was code      for knowing all about . . .

   O, h-e-l-l, she knew:      she knew nothing at all.





Quiet Heart


At the end 

of an autumn 

day:  a noise

like sound refolded

into silence or

the slim breeze of

a linen handkerchief

replaced in some

father’s pocket.

Simple, the bruise

of evening on

the western sky,

after which 

a planet draws

the last light

into a simple button

fastening night

to night.

Wings rise

and fall like

a blanket shaken

out on the lawn

behind the house,

the dark grass

where all summer

string and bits

of paper plate

and perhaps

the simple litter 

of letters

and receipts

and whatever else

the mockingbird

found or 

stole from 

the lidless ash 

can were fashioned 

into home.  No linnets

in West Virginia,

though the souls

of swallows

in a late autumn sky 

sound the same.




James Harms is the author of six books of poetry including the forthcoming Comet Scar (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2011). The winner of an NEA Fellowship and three Pushcart Prizes, he teaches at West Virginia University, and directs the low-residency MFA in Poetry at New England College.



"These poems come from all over the place: 'Quiet Heart' was inspired by Grant McLennan (of the Go-Betweens) and W.B. Yeats (those linnets); 'The New Rainbow' started out as an imitation of Bishop (I don’t remember which poem of hers I was imitating); 'Sonnet (with Extra Last Line) by Frank Gehry' was simply my attempt to imagine how Frank Gehry might write a sonnet; 'Father’s Day:  the Summer Solstice' is a wholly invented memory, though my parents and siblings are all recognizable within the imagined dramatic situation."



Q&A with James Harms


If you could create a soundtrack for your poem(s), what would it be?

Harms: Well, "Quiet Heart" takes its title from a song by The Go-Betweens, that greatest of all Australian bands, so I suppose I could easily fashion a soundtrack of their songs.  In fact, given the width and depth of their body of work, that would probably be a fairly simple task.  This poem is from a series of poems I wrote after Grant McLennan (one of the two singer/songwriters of The Go-Betweens) died a couple of years ago at the age of 48.


What direction do you face when you are at work on your writing?

Harms: I have no idea.  I don't write in any one particular place.


Opening move: Rock, paper, or scissors?

Harms: Paper.