Eyewear is very pleased to welcome Richard Harrison (pictured) to this week's feature. I have known him - and his work - for, I think, twenty years (meeting him first at Concordia's Norris building in 1987), though we long ago moved to different parts of the world, and haven't seen each other, in person, since the early 90s, I'd say.
In '87, Harrison was a passionate, engaged thirty-year-old (he turned a valiant 50 this year) from the ROC (rest of Canada) who had come to Montreal, and surprisingly become the Quebec representative for The League of Canadian Poets.
I was immediately struck by his handsome, tall presence, his mellifluous voice, his energy, and his rigorous approach to poetry. Harrison is one of the significant male poets of Canada, because of the scrupulous way he has researched - no other word will quite do - the ethics of language in relation to sexuality, to gender, to desire, to stereotypes, to roles - in the process, creating poems of alarming tenderness, shocking in their integrity, that think through what it is to wear a mask (for hockey, or for being a superhero, or in bed), to wear a body - and to use words to touch, or harm. He's tested lyricism, and run it against the grain of truth. His poems sometimes hurt us, because they emanate from painful worlds, but they are written out of compassion. His work is moving, and it is measured by the most stringent craft of care, and I recommend it to you.
His poetry collections, many from Wolsak & Wynn, include Fathers Never Leave You (1987), Recovering the Naked Man (1991), Hero of the Play (1994), Big Breath of a Wish (1998) and Worthy of His Fall (2005). Big Breath of a Wish was nominated for The Governor General's Award for Poetry and he is winner of the City of Calgary Book Prize. He teaches English and Creative Writing at Mount Royal College, in Alberta.
Small as God
It’s his voice on the phone.
And I couldn’t write this poem
except a century of machines
spread our families across
the terrain, and drew
every city along black arteries
for miles from its name – and still
we called them the same cities.
We have asked, How few
are the intimacies we need
to make us believe we are all
together? The telephone answers:
a voice alone, like a poem.
Hello, reader. Hello.
We cannot reverse the way
my father’s brain is forgetting
his memory – cell by cell,
taking its time, the way a river
erases its water with silt.
You’d hardly notice day by day.
But he might go suddenly, too;
his heart is weak, where two
years ago that heart beat back
the dead from their second attack,
this one on the table, and I remember
the day that he, full of donated
blood and drugs still had it in him
to make a list with me of all the things
that tried to kill him:
The Imperial Japanese Army, it began,
a big joke now between son
and surviving man: Acute
Appendicitis in Singapore.
The Anti-British Army of Malaya.
More: The time that fuel line dropped
to the tar, spitting sideways sparks
and gasoline down Highway 401.
And we were laughing then, so I did not say
the ruptured ulcer, when I was 10,
and he was never again immortal.
But he came back, wrapping his words
in his cartoon-dog-with-the-mailman’s-
pants-between-his-teeth wheezy chortle:
50 years of marriage. Today he whispers,
Catastrophic from his hospital bed.
He, who’d placed his fingers
across the width of the world
at its farthest shores, he, with my own
consent for the final bars of the song of
his life to fall without a last,
heroic measure should all
that given blood collapse and pool
in the great basin of his veins, he’s
saying catastrophic though nothing
has exploded beyond the orbit of
the sharpest human sight,
but shrunk overnight
to fit what the ordinary eye
can hold – and less. You never know
how solitary a single room can be
until it frames the portrait of
your reach and grasp. He clasps
the phone (again the phone)
and his voice quickens to my ear.
Catastrophic, he said, alone,
like the first man, who prayed for
the invisible to listen, and,
having listened, reply
with a word as small as God.
poem by Richard Harrison