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Mary Jo Salter

Joseph Harrison, 1957-2024 [by Mary Jo Salter]

Joseph Harrison Sometimes I Dream That I Am Not Walt WhitmanOn Tuesday, February 13, 2024, the poet Joseph Harrison died at home in Baltimore, not quite five months after a diagnosis of brain cancer.  He was 66 years old. Just days before the end, he had received an advance copy of his Collected Poems from Waywiser Press, and although he could no longer read, he was delighted to hold it in his hands.

He was a dear friend of mine, and in January I posted five of his poems and my short commentaries on them on the Best American Poetry blog .  You can see them at the links below, or here:

Joseph Harrison was born in Richmond, Virginia, grew up in Virginia and Alabama, and earned his B.A. in English at Yale—studying with Harold Bloom, who became one of the major admirers of his poetry.  Joe became a Baltimorean when he went to Johns Hopkins for graduate work in English. He was the Senior American Editor of Waywiser Press and had directed its annual Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize, ongoing since 2006.  He published four volumes of poetry: Someone Else’s Name (2003), Identity Theft (2008), Shakespeare’s Horse (2015) and Sometimes I Dream that I Am Not Walt Whitman (2020).

Joe was the oldest of five children: all of his devoted siblings were with him at the end. He was a famous raconteur.  He loved to tell long, elaborate stories, and often found the turns in his own plots so funny that he was incapacitated by laughter, and would have to start over. He was a statistics-equipped expert not only in literature but in baseball, football, film, and American politics.  He was a marvelous, multitasking host, and grilled some of the best steaks I’ve ever eaten.  That mid-twentieth-century taste in food extended, unapologetically, to his writing style. He wrote in rhyme, mostly, and meter, always, and when he was told his work had elements in common with Anthony Hecht or Richard Wilbur (true), he was delighted. That said, he loved helping to discover and nurture younger poets who wrote nothing like him.  Joe had a nearly photographic memory and an awe-inspiring aural memory: he could quote passages at will by all of his favorite poets, who ranged from Horace to Shakespeare to Dickinson.  When he gave his own poetry readings, he barely glanced at the page: he declaimed his lines by heart in a unique Southern accent—an amalgam of Virginia, Alabama, and I don’t know where else—while training his eyes directly on his audience.

When he received his shocking prognosis—twelve to eighteen months, which turned out to be far too optimistic—he made a point of telling people what he loved and admired about them.  And he wanted, too, to spare us too much grief.  Around the time he turned fifty, probably thinking he had three or even four more decades ahead, he wrote the following poem, “To My Friends.” I want to pass it on now, not only to memorialize Joe but to offer comfort to you, reader, the next time you experience a major loss.   

                 TO MY FRIENDS

My good friends, when you’re under the illusion

That the common end of things has ended me,

Whether that end was sudden or wretchedly slow,

Peaceful or violent, untimely or, finally, wished for,

Don’t spend too much time grieving, as if I were gone

To some murky underground region of swampy water

And cavernous absence, metallic and silent and cold,

Or some plush resort in the stratosphere of our dreams

Pillowed with cumuli, graced by ethereal muzak,

Or some massive confusing impersonal processing center

With lines and obscure snafus and numbers not names,

Away from the sun and the sound of the wind in the trees,

But after a short ceremony, public or private,

Listen for the wings of the birds, and ask where we’re going,

Alabama or Delaware, Canada, Yucatan,

And wish me luck in the next life, who now have wings.

January 19, 2024

January 18, 2024

January 17, 2024

January 16, 2024

January 15, 2024

October 13, 2023

March 10, 2023

January 20, 2023

March 04, 2022

February 21, 2022

December 17, 2021

December 15, 2021

December 13, 2021

December 10, 2021

December 08, 2021

December 06, 2021

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I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman


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