Pushcart 2014: Jeffrey Harrison, “Listening to Virginia” from Hudson Review, Summer 2012

…until it is almost Woolf herself sitting beside me
like some dear great aunt who happens to be a genius
telling me stories in a voice like sparkling waves
and following eddies of thought into the minds
of other people sitting around a dinner table
or strolling under the trees, pulling me along
in the current of her words like a twig riding a stream
around boulders and down foaming cascades,
getting drawn into a whirlpool of consciousness
and sucked under swirling into the thoughts of
someone else, swimming for a time among the reeds
and glinting minnows before breaking free
and popping back up to the surface only to discover
that in my engrossment I’ve overshot
the grocery store and have to turn around,…

I find I have different approaches to poems. Sometimes, I dive into a poem. Sometimes I run into it, like a brick wall, and smack it with a sledgehammer until I get a piece I can use, or I accept its invulnerability to my efforts. And sometimes, I ride it all sorts of places.

This one is one of the latter.

It’s a lovely poem (available online). I just happened to have read To The Lighthouse last summer, so I could appreciate how the imagery and structure of the poem – the water whirling and swirling, the walking around the boeuf en daube dinner, the foaming of that incredibly sexual scene, the breaking free of all sorts of strictures – captures the novel. The rhythm of the language itself perfectly conveys it all, the swirling and carrying and foaming and then the ten-year-gap, the different points of view both in the moment within a section, and overall through the three sections. And I completely understand the attachment to a particular reading of a literary work; I felt that way about Jayne Atkinson’s terrific rendition of Julie Otsuka’s “Diem Perdidi.” I even found another writer, John Gaudet (nonfiction) who’s very fond of Virginia Leighton’s Lighthouse recording and recounts an experience very similar to the poet’s: “…one of my greatest iPod moments, on my bike listening to Virginia Leishman reading Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Leishman considers herself more a composer and musician than a thespian and sounds elegantly Victorian. Indeed, her breath control and phrasing superbly express the ornate diction of that era’s prose.”

But while To The Lighthouse is a work that I admire (and I came to that admiration late, it took three reads over 35 years), it’s not “mine” in the sense that I inhabit it as I read. Same for the poem.


I found another of Jeffrey Harrison’s poems that I do inhabit: “Fork, ” published in Yale Review in 2003. I think part of my captivation is the presentation, as a video, by a high school communications class, of all things; it’s marvellous. It isn’t just the video, though; the poem is a perfect execution of irony. And there’s a reason it’s titled “fork” and not “spoon.”

So while I appreciate the craft evident in “Listening to Virginia,” I am most grateful to it for providing transport to places where I can leave the boat, and dive in and swim around a while. It may not be where I was supposed to get; it may not be what the poet hoped for. But it was wonderful, just the same.

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