Introducing The Literary Life, featuring "Bridge," by Jim Harrison

I first moved to the Midwest from the East Coast in January of 1999. I remember hunting the library stacks for books by Midwestern authors. It was the best way I knew of getting to know my new home—by learning the stories of the place, coming to know its images and the music of its language. I’ve lived in the Midwest now for 17 years, long enough to have built up some Midwestern stories and music of my own, but still, the search continues. You can never get enough stories and music. Hence this program—a quick weekly glimpse into the heart and soul of the Midwest, as conceived of by its writers. I’ll be featuring the work of local writers from right here in Champaign-Urbana, as well as those who make their homes a little farther afield. They’ve all got wisdom and beauty to offer.

This first episode happens to coincide with the recent death of a beloved Midwestern writer. Jim Harrison, best known for his novella Legends of the Fall, which was made into a popular movie, grew up in Michigan and wrote everything—from poems to essays to novels to screenplays. His prolific writing reflects his abundant appetites—for food, drink, sex, literature, and the natural world. He published close to 40 books over the course of his lifetime.

This poem, “Bridge” comes from his most recent collection of poetry, called Dead Man’s Float, published earlier this year by Copper Canyon Press, and is used with permission.

by Jim Harrison
Most of my life was spent
building a bridge out over the sea
though the sea was too wide.
I’m proud of the bridge
hanging in the pure sea air. Machado
came for a visit and we sat on the
end of the bridge, which was his idea.
Now that I’m old the work goes slowly.
Even nearer death, I like it out here
high above the sea bundled
up for the arctic storms of late fall,
the resounding crash and moan of the sea,
the hundred-foot depth of the green troughs.
Sometimes the sea roars and howls like
the animal it is, a continent wide and alive.
What beauty in this the darkest music
over which you can hear the lightest music of human
behavior, the tender connection between men and galaxies.
So I sit on the edge, wagging my feet above
the abyss. Tonight the moon will be in my lap.
This is my job, to study the universe
from my bridge. I have the sky, the sea, the faint
green streak of Canadian forest on the far shore.