(Carnegie Mellon)James Harms is a name-dropper. There's Cary Grant with his "specs" along with his friend David Niven. There's Red Foxx and Captain America, Chet Baker (in a song being sung by Harm's friend Lynda), R. E. M. and Jimmy Cliff and Bill Murray (in a poem entitled "Though not about Him or for Him / a Poem Called Bill Murray.") Also, there's Georgia O'Keeffe (although Harms misspells her name which seems to go with the territory: I did the same thing in a review about ten years ago; fortunately the net lets you cover your ass; I went back and corrected it last year.)
Let me hasten to add that Harms doesn't claim to live with or even play with these people. I suppose he is doing some leg-pulling.
The last time I saw Cary Grant, he was tearing apart bread
at the marina, a cloud of gulls around him. He let me
try on his glasses, those heavy black specs he wore
toward the end, and I bought a pair just like them
though I didn't look like Cary Grant, so I went back to not trying.
In fact, like all good fabulists, Harms is doing no more than the rest of us: dreaming about hanging out with stars. For me ... forgive me ... it was Bing Crosby. But then again it was 1944.
So when Harms says "The night before he died, Cary called from Iowa to talk, / just to talk..." I find myself thinking that we can see this as "poetic fantasy," especially when he tells us that
Cary was quiet a while before he said, "Goodnight, my dear..."
because at the end, he manages to turn a Mitty dream into something more:
I didn't ask for his glasses that morning
at the marina, he just handed them over. "Wait till you see
what I see," he said. And he held my hand while I looked.
Harms has good fun when he is fooling around like this. There is not much Eric Satie I could find in the poem titled "Satie" except for a whistled version of Je te veux but there is much about de Kooning who "forgot his name / but not the moment his wrist should turn / and end the stroke..."
We don't find much of Bill Murray, either. His poem is all about groundhogs and making snowmen with pieces of coal stuck in them for eyes and wondering if Santa Claus does "really bring coal / for bad children, says the boy ... / but that's another poem, / a poem called Jimmy Stewart."
§ § §
I think Harms is at his best when he is burying grief in details ... only letting it out at the end. "We Started home, My Son and I" has the two of them en route and both boy as boys (the poet becomes boy, briefly) find fantasy in the sidewalk, "each spot of light / was a great land, each span / of darkness the sea." With such a vision, the two of them "rowed when we could, swam / the last few miles." Then the moon "reared up like an old man / startled from his nap."
And the reader is startled too, for when they get home
I watched him climb
the brick stairs to the front door,
whose key I no longer owned.
We know something is awry. For then Harms has to get home, to his own home, and
I felt the waters rise
around my feet, heard in the distance
the loose rigging in the wind, a buoy bell
So far from the sea, I rolled up
my trousers, wading in
for the walk back.--- Lolita Lark