Amid the losses suffered this year by the music industry, the death of writer Jim Harrison has been largely overlooked. Harrison was one of this country’s finest and most prolific writers, who lived most his life in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
He is best known for his novella Legends of the Fall, which became a movie of the same name starring Brad Pitt and Aidan Quinn, but his published works include twelve novels (among them the brilliant Farmer), nine collections of novellas, three nonfiction collections, a memoir, and a children’s book.
What the general reading public often overlooks is that Harrison was also a prolific poet with 18 different collections to his credit. But Harrison wasn’t simply a writer who published poetry he was, in fact, a very, very talented poet.
The poem below remains one of my all time favorite poems. Interestingly, I discovered this poem (and Harrison’s poetry) while I was living down in Chicago in the early 1980s. Simultaneously, my father, who was here in Door County, called me to tell me about a collection of poems by Jim Harrison that he was reading. And, during the course of this conversation both of us raved about the poem “Rooster.”
There are many qualities that make this an exceptional poem but one is its accessibility: anyone can read and understand this poem. I love the way my mind creates an image of an old man/farmer, sitting on his porch step looking out at the rooster in the yard, perhaps sucking on a blade of grass – all done with very little imagery. This is a monologue after all, so it takes place within the narrator’s head, or perhaps the narrator is saying all this to someone unnamed and unseen in the context of the poem. It can be read as an extended metaphor, or it can simply be read and taken as it is presented.
We lost a major literary talent on March 26 of this year, but like the giants of music that we have lost this year who left their music behind, we still have an incredible collection of Harrison’s work to read and enjoy.
By Jim Harrison
I have to kill the rooster tomorrow. He’s being an asshole,
having seriously wounded one of our two hens with his insistent banging.
You walk into the barn to feed the horses and pick up an egg
or two for breakfast and he jumps her proclaiming she’s mine she’s mine.
Her wing is torn and the primary feathers wont grow back.
Chickens have largely been denatured, you know. He has no part
in those delicious fresh eggs. He crows on in a vacuum. He is
utterly pointless. He’s as dumb as a tapeworm and no one cares
if he lives or dies. There. I can kill him
with an easy mind. But I’m still not up to it. Maybe I can hire
a weasel or a barn rat to do the job, or throw him to Justine,
the dog, who would be glad to rend him except the neighbors
have chickens too, she’d get the habit and we would have a beloved shot
dog to bury. So he deserves to die, having no purpose. We’ll
have stewed barnyard chicken, closer to eating a gamebird than
that tasteless supermarket chicken born and bred in a caged
darkness. Everything we eat is dead except an occasional oyster
or clam. Should I hire the neighbor boy to kill him? Will the
hens stop laying out of grief? Isn’t his long wavering crow
magnificent? Isn’t the worthless rooster the poet’s bird brother?
No. He’s just a rooster and the world has no place for him.
Should I wait for a full wintry moon, take him to the top of the
hill after dropping three hits of mescaline and strangle him?
Should I set him free for a fox meal? They’re coming back now
after the mange nearly wiped them out. He’s like a leaking roof
with drops falling on my chest. He’s the Chinese water torture in the barn.
He’s lust mad. His crow penetrates the walls. His head bobs in lunar
jerks. The hens shudder but are bored with the pain of eggs.
What can I do with him? Nothing isn’t enough. In the morning
we will sit down together and talk it out. I will tell him he
doesn’t matter and he will wag his head, strut, perhaps crow.
From Selected & New Poems, published by Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 1982