Friday, May 21, 2010


Billy Joe Harris, University of Kansas professor, spent a sabbatical year studying poets and painters, including artist Giorgio Morandi. He admires Morandi for “muted colors and radically reduced subject matter.” He employs this approach to his own verse. His work suggests narratives, but in such concise form that cultural referents may be minimal.

In the poem “Sympathetic Magpies,” the Chinese origin of the legend is secondary to the universal concept of bridges. Further, the stanzas’ own parallel lines suggest intervals of bridge girders. Love creates a bridge between mortal and immortal beings, and the interplay between heaven and earth are universal. The memorable magic here is the bridge made of magpies. The poem has parable-like directness, with love that can defy the decrees of heaven. Like bridges, romance between a young weaver and herder can be set in most times and places. The Milky Way itself is another kind of bridge. Then Harris shifts to present time, inviting readers to also become part of legends through the poem. With a few simple images—lovers, Heaven, and bridges—the poet creates a story, briefly outlined yet complete like a Morandi painting. Harris said of the painter: “His quiet visual drama tells you that you need no more than these few objects to tell the human story.” This also applies to “Sympathetic Magpies.”


There is an old Chinese legend
About a weaving girl and a cowherd
Falling in love and being punished
By Heaven because she was celestial
And he was a mere mortal

Heaven only allowed them to meet
Once a year
On the seventh day
Of the seventh month

The magpies were so sympathetic
Each year
On that day
They made themselves
Into a bridge
Stretching across the Milky Way
So the lovers could kiss

Poems are sympathetic magpies
Bridges between lovers
Bridges between selves
Bridges between worlds

Education: Harris received a BA in English (Central State University 1968), MA in Creative Writing (Stanford 1971), and PhD in English and American Literature (Stanford 1974).

Career: This poet and critic’s books are: Hey Fella Would You Mind Holding This Piano a Moment (Ithaca House 1974), In My Own Dark Way (Ithaca House 1977) and Personal Questions (Leconte Publishers, Rome, 2010). He has published in over fifty anthologies. He is the author of the critical work The Poetry and Poetics of Amiri Baraka (University of Missouri Press 1985) and editor of The Leroi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader (Thunder's Mouth Press, 1991, second edition, 2000).


©2010 Denise Low AAPP 46 ©2009 “Sympathetic Magic” by William J. Harris

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Robert Day's Committee to Save the World: Selected Nonliterary Nonfiction

If you have not yet read Robert Day's Committee to Save the World, with introduction by The Land Institute's Wes Jackson, do find a copy. Leo Oliva published it through Western Books (PO Box 1, Woodston KS 67675). This is one of the most engaging, honest, and funny descriptions of life between the Platte and Red Rivers; beween the Kaw and Sand Creek. Most essays are previously published in places like the Washington Post, New Letters, and Smithsonian. Day has one of the most engaging voices in contemporary belles lettres. He recounts the failed movie attempts to capture this part of the country in his essays about The Last Cattle Drive, his seminal novel--if you haven't read it, it eerily resembles Urban Cowboy. No accident. He also explains phenomena like Carrie Nation and genius-poet William Stafford from Hutchinson. He gives a participant-informer's insights into the culture of High Plains inhabitants, in contrast to Ian Frazier, who writes from a few summer tours of the place. Day grew up in small-town Kansas and still has a place in Luddell. He is cosmopolitan and local at once. It's a great combination. Wes Jackson writes: "Bob Day is a man of letters. But he is also a reincarnation of Don Quixote, Straight Arrow, Hopalong Cassidy, The Lone Ranger and Tom Mix." Color illustrations by Kathy Jankus Day embellish the book.