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.
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
Simple, the bruise
of evening on
the western sky,
a planet draws
the last light
into a simple button
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
the simple litter
and whatever else
the lidless ash
can were fashioned
into home. No linnets
in West Virginia,
though the souls
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?