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Unread 05-14-2019, 01:32 PM
R. S. Gwynn's Avatar
R. S. Gwynn R. S. Gwynn is offline
Join Date: Feb 2001
Location: Beaumont, TX
Posts: 4,312
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This poem has raised a lot of comment on Facebook:

Lisle’s River

Dust followed our car like a dry brown cloud.
At the river we swam, then in the canoe passed
downstream toward Manton; the current carried us
through cedar swamps, hot fields of marsh grass
where deer watched us and the killdeer shrieked.
We were at home in a thing that passes.
And that night, camped on a bluff, we ate eggs
and ham and three small trout; we drank too much
whiskey and pushed a burning stump down the bank -
it cast hurling shadows, leaves silvered and darkened,
the crash and hiss woke up a thousand birds.

Now, tell me, other than lying between some woman's legs,
what joy have you had since, that equaled this?

Jim Harrison (1937-2016)
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Unread 05-15-2019, 02:54 AM
Ann Drysdale's Avatar
Ann Drysdale Ann Drysdale is offline
Join Date: Feb 2009
Location: Old South Wales (UK)
Posts: 4,661

Hmm. I can hear the sound of a spoon scraping the side of a pot. What are you stirring here, Sam? What is Facebook saying?

I am but two cups of Twinings English Breakfast away from the horror of tangling with your Transformer. I am a husk, I tell you.

But, for what it's worth, here are a few sparks from synapses in what's left of my brain.

What larks!
Tom Sawyer.
Papa Hemingway.
Iron John.
Was it the stump of a birch someone had swung on?
The light, the light of the spinning, burning wood. Mmm. Chesterton! In the gloom black-purple, in the glint old-gold.
I was there, in my dungarees, hiding behind a bush. They didn't see me.

What's wrong with it? Light the candle-stub and look at it again...

Is it that bit about lying between the legs of a woman, the unequivocal image of the orgasmic whoopee?

Well, of course, by modern standards that is probably unacceptable. In order to avoid accusations of bias he should have made it clear - "other positions are available".
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Unread 05-15-2019, 04:04 AM
R. S. Gwynn's Avatar
R. S. Gwynn R. S. Gwynn is offline
Join Date: Feb 2001
Location: Beaumont, TX
Posts: 4,312

Discussion touched on the gender of the campers--two men, man and woman, etc. It's clearly two males if you pay attention to the progress of the "we" and the "you" in the final stanza. But most women were angry about the ending, especially that "some woman," so angry that they started attacking the whole poem. Alicia Stallings did note that the simile in the opening line is pretty dead: a dust cloud like a dust cloud.

My feeling is that this is a grown man speaking to an old friend about a camping trip they took as adolescents. It's nostalgic and verges on sentimentality. Harrison was a very macho-looking guy who wrote poetry and novels, a lot about the outdoors. But he was also married to the same woman from 1959 to her death in 2015. He died the next year at 78. Incidentally, it was through his work that I discovered the ghazal, though Adrienne Rich published hers at about the same time.

I argued that if he had written "your woman" instead of "some woman" he might have squeaked through.

It is very hard for men to write about non-sexual love for other men. Crane's "The Open Boat" gets it right about the "subtle brotherhood of men," which is something the four men know but won't say. Women don't, I would argue, have a comparable problem talking about their non-sexual love for other women. But a man who brings it up, even to a close friend, is probably going to hear "Brokeback Mountain!" So Harrison knows he's treading on dangerous ground; even so, he makes one fatal misstep.

Whitman's expressions of "manly attraction" are sometimes sexual but at other times not. That quality of "adhesiveness" he talks about doesn't always happen in a pup tent. This is something that I think Tim Murphy understood pretty well, though sometimes he could be a bit naive in extolling the virtues of some fine farm boy he'd met. Men who have worked together or have fought together probably understand this "band of brothers" type of love, but they have a damn hard time articulating it. I think Harrison tried but came up just a bit short.

The "better than sex" trope is used in the South, mainly by women being naughty.

Last edited by R. S. Gwynn; 05-15-2019 at 04:09 AM.
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Unread 05-15-2019, 04:25 AM
Matt Q Matt Q is online now
Join Date: May 2013
Location: England, UK
Posts: 3,106

(cross posted with Sam)

A couple of initial thoughts:

Lying is an ethically dubious practice at the best of times, and possibly more so when one is between a woman's legs, especially if that's how you got there in the first place. (Although given the acoustics and the probable position of the mouth to tell a lie between a woman's leg, it's possible the lie might not be heard, which might be a mitigating factor: perhaps he is lying only to himself?)

More seriously: The poem seems to be a celebration of male (hetrosexual) friendship. (The N might be a gay man or a lesbian, and/or the friend a lesbian, but that seems unlikely). So, the two men do manly things, at least in terms of a certain view of what's manly: they drink whiskey, swim and canoe in rivers, fish, hike though forests, camp, and set fire to things.

The joy they share in doing this is only really surpassable by sex with "some woman", which seems to indicate that only the physical joy of sex is being considered, as which particular woman it is doesn't seem to be a factor: the joy being contrasted is not the (arguably greater) joy one experiences when having a sex with a woman one loves, for example. Also, the possibility that deep friendship with a woman or a romantic relationship (sex aside) with a woman might bring similar joy seems to be discounted.

If you wanted to see a metaphor in the stump they burn and cast into the river (that they destroy, discard or liberate), I'd say it might stand for their metaphorical emasculation/castration.


Last edited by Matt Q; 05-15-2019 at 05:34 AM. Reason: typo
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Unread 05-15-2019, 05:06 AM
John Isbell John Isbell is offline
Join Date: Mar 2017
Location: TX
Posts: 4,086

What I was mostly reminded of was the young man on the West Coast who videoed himself setting fire to dry brush and put it on Facebook and is currently, i am told, in custody. Times change, i guess.

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Unread 05-15-2019, 05:33 AM
Jim Moonan Jim Moonan is offline
Join Date: Aug 2016
Location: Boston, MA
Posts: 2,047

I like it.
Nothing gold can stay.
I don't think there are any other (intended) metaphors to decipher, no genders to parse. Just one man's thoughts. Just passing through.

Last edited by Jim Moonan; 05-15-2019 at 05:47 AM.
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Unread 05-15-2019, 07:08 AM
Ed Shacklee's Avatar
Ed Shacklee Ed Shacklee is offline
Join Date: May 2010
Location: Takoma Park, MD
Posts: 3,692

I wonder what river it was? Lisle, Illinois, is somewhere near the DuPage River, but not near enough to account for this, at least from the maps I've seen. Much is lost with time.

"Some" woman as opposed to "your" woman seems to me a way of signaling your heterosexual nature while displaying an affection that you're afraid will be misconstrued as homosexual -- or correctly construed as homosexual, for that matter. This particular attempt hasn't aged well, but men are like this. We're a bunch of damn fools, I mean.


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Unread 05-15-2019, 08:25 AM
Daniel Recktenwald's Avatar
Daniel Recktenwald Daniel Recktenwald is offline
Join Date: Mar 2019
Location: Louisville, KY
Posts: 158

My two or three cents:

I haven't read much of Harrison's poetry, because I don't like it. He's always struck me as a kind of Big-Sky Bukowski-- and I don't like Bukowski, either.

Not that this poem's first 11 lines did much for me, but the last two are so disappointing. So . . . Now, why'd ya have to go and write that? Not just the blase misogyny, but the measuring of one joy against any other joy-- asking whether it "equals" this or that. As rustic and unpretentious as all the camping trip pleasures are, the rating/comparing belies the mindset of narrow, shallow hedonism.

A poem like this one just begs to be parodied. But that got done already, anytime anyone parodied Hemingway.
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Unread 05-15-2019, 09:52 AM
Allen Tice's Avatar
Allen Tice Allen Tice is offline
Join Date: Nov 2006
Location: Brooklyn, NY USA
Posts: 4,280

I’m not on other social media. Just lucky about that, I guess. I laughed at Ann Drysdale’s parting remark. Not quite sure about the burning stump. It’s very much a “guy thing” poem, and as a slightly outdoorsy guy with imagination, it works for me. But I think it makes one heck of a lot of difference who the woman is. Totally. In every possible way.

Where’s the rhyme? Where’s the attention to syllables? It’s all imagery. Is that legal?

As for women reading it, mileage will doubtless vary. Can’t be sure, of course! but some I have known a little (or a lot) here and there, I think could understand it as an appreciation. I’d welcome a woman’s version of the same that could be equally engaging. Yes, I do.
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Unread 05-15-2019, 01:34 PM
Bill Carpenter Bill Carpenter is offline
Join Date: Oct 2010
Location: Minneapolis
Posts: 2,259

Thanks, Sam. Excellent poem. The rude "some woman" phrase is a shaded contrast to the still glowing significance of the burning stump crashing down the river bank into the water. Drunken fiery destruction, hooray!

As for guys' camaraderie, at a party in high school, talking with friends, I used the word "homoerotic" to describe it, which I thought was the correct use of the word. They've never let me forget it!

Is the meter "loose syllabic"? The lines have more or less 10 syllables, as if there were a distant recollection of IP as providing a desirable standard line length.
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