The Dialogue of Origin and Ear: Zach Savich on Joshua Harmon’s Scape

Scape, Joshua Harmon, Black Ocean Press, 2009

In the next century, the broad-minded technicians who assemble their Museum of Prosody—animatronic renderings of Nathaniel Mackey and Gjertrud Schnackenberg helping tour groups tell rhetorical emphasis from metrical stress, meaning from manners—will be interested in Scape, Joshua Harmon’s first book of poems. Even in lines that initially seem “muddy-roaded, / in dithers” and “window-perplexed” (19), as though stitched with too-thick yarn, Harmon’s torquing and burbling barrages of sound spool his sleeve-pulled scarves into cat’s cradle mandalas that thrum in the tree limbs around him. The pleasure of such vivacious melapoeia is immediate—“These scabbed leaves loosely north, / landslipped: otherwhorled in vacancies / of bough-bladed stripling” (56)—but does more than sweeten one’s ears with raspberry jam: Scape’s high-voltage sonic pulse needles through the personal and the pastoral to uncover ore-flexed sorts of “kneeling exactitude to fathom” (23). It forges a realism of performed, purposeful digestion, not posed reflection.

As Andy Frazee notes in The Quarterly Conversation [], Harmon’s poetry, in which music and cosmology blend (“within, a name says what a saw was” (51), showing “the dialogue of origin and ear” (23)), echoes Hopkins and Zukofsky, while using modes of seriality, variation, and language-as-enacted-dowsing-rod you can see in contemporary poets such as Dan Beachy-Quick and Andrew Zawacki, both of whom have recent books that extend our notions of the bucolic. For Harmon, the naturalistic extends, in part, by how his poems’ speaker burls through the thick of things, wanting to “molest a field, fondle its fronds, tickle fallen leaves, finger its weed and hummocks, pull up some roots, scrape away a little dirt, see what was hidden” (24), as though a landscape can be known best by the burrs it leaves on your sweater. This full-bodied involvement of the personal lets us know who is holding the paintball gun with which Harmon depicts his scenes:
I hazarded a ravening twang:

the rough drafts of laundry-lines
a ballad for the daylight,

the dusty coherences
of getting better (25)


I’ve always lacked such tendencies: so if
new weather replaces these needs with loans

of billowed geometry, ribcage-raw,
remanent: or if life daggers us most

thoroughly in its suspended moments,
grant me a witness: let my injuries

bed down amid the bungled like slow-mo
pleasures shaken from troubled instruments— (18)

Shades of comedy in the above passages—the ambivalent attitude about “getting better”; the flat contrition of a poem that begins “I’ve always lacked such tendencies”—resemble the frequent dry, self-deprecating moments in Scape that contrast thrillingly with Harmon’s loftier flights: “(I’ve forgotten my lines again)” (32); “Whatever leftovers of night I might / claim” (12); “I can’t outlast the outdoors” (43); “I’d prefer a recording of silence” (11). Such statements do not guffaw, but help portray the “brittle self” (43) which needs its “shyness [to gain] coherence” through exchanges with nature. More than just responding sensitively to the world, however, Harmon’s speaker has a task: by showing the “rustle [that explains] the underbrush in a gum-snapped metrics” (43), his poems give coherence back when the “landscape can no longer / hold itself together” (43). His rough-shod lines perform a kind of cobbling.

Harmon receives psychic coherence; Harmon provides musical coherence—while this treatment of nature is Keatsian, Harmon’s articulation is not based in how “Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft, / The red-breast whistles from a garden croft,” as in “To Autumn,” but depends on a more wily binding of seeing and speech, as though some flowers are held together by nothing but a scrap of electrical tape or a single verb:

Nothing betrays nothing, nor
truss of lipread nothing-
in-particulars, rustic
and numinous:
velocity’s skin-split souvenir,
pistilled hymns
in gunglinting profile
to disarm oneself further
from hallowed mistake. (31)

This poem—one of the untitled verses in Scape’s central sequence—goes on to note “the habitual limits / of summoning,” an acknowledgment of language’s failing that is key for this insistently fluent poet. But I’m more interested in the above stanza as an example of innovative fluency, not as a demonstration of linguistic loss; like with much of Harmon’s work, a closer look shows that his lines make enlived sense, not just sensation. To paraphrase them may be treasonous to his poetic intent, but is doable: this stanza shows “pistilled hymns”—a kind of off-kilter short-hand for blossoms—in “gunglinting profile,” providing a “rustic / and numinous” relief to one’s humanly “hallowed mistake.” The poem’s meaning—about how particulars can tease us out of thought—is not muddled but bursts juicily against one’s palate.

Despite their hospitality to some interpretation, Harmon’s poems don’t ask for close reading but for re-reading. They reward it with clarity that reduces nothing, shimmering between types of focus, so you can see how “snow snooze-buttons // the day” (4); “a furl limns tips split, a sleaving” (51); and “Ten leaves amidden mast the hammering / yaws. Ware wind their color: florid stipple, / trebly grain.” Such mouthful phrases are vivid, strong as a shark on your line, and mindful of the “origin” within the “original.” They give a dream of language that is inseparable from sensory perception, even as its syntax and reasoning veer between receiving the world and transforming it into human speech.

Frazee and other reviewers have discussed Harmon’s poems’ connection to his prose (he is the author of a novel), to experimental poetics, and to traditions of landscape and epistle, but I’m most excited by how Harmon refreshes traditional rhapsodic gestures through his singe-browed use of the “ineluctable / tangent” (20), much as Roethke invigorated his nature poetry with nonsense, associative lunges, and song. For Harmon, repeated, oblique jabs echolocate the outline of something like the human heart, showing how “rivered eyesight” follows from (and reveals?) “some vast affection // of unexpected presences” (30), as “day parachutes / and settles” around a “bewildered sun-sick bulb.” In the space between neologism and archaicism, we see “singular tatters” (34). Such laser-show brilliance may not seem like part of nature, at first, but neither do the Northern Lights.

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