Natural Memory: The Poetry of Judith Harris


It's often said that the most difficult part of writing is the editing. It is at this point that writing is distilled to what is absolutely necessary. Here, words are wrung; and the dregs of ideas abandoned or forgotten.

For Judith Harris, a poet who lives in an airy, bright loft in Eastern Market, memory works the same way. If lives are built on an elusive "best-of" film reel, Harris' poems work as snapshots. "That child in memory alters and revises who I am in the present," reflects Harris in an interview. "We never really remember things accurately."

In her newest collection of poems, Night Garden (Tiger Bark Press, 2013), Harris tackles this amorphous world of memory. She wields recollections and natural imagery in an attempt to create a universe is built on persistent impermanence.

From the book's title poem, she writes:

This world is a mirror glass.
How is it we find images
of ourselves in places
we can't bear to see.

For Harris, nature and memory are entangled. Recalling an exercise she often asked of her students at George Washington University, she observes:

"I always told my students 'remember yourself at three or four years old. You're looking at a tree ---does that tree seem human?' Children never think of nature as something that's insentient, or dead, or as an object...everything is alive to them."

Harris' poems are brimming with this child-like wonder. In Part I of Night Garden, Harris thrusts herself back into her early years; in the poem Gathering Leaves in Grade School, she describes "samples of evergreen" that lack "branches or roots/ or even a sky to hold on to." For Harris, childhood works this way too--rootless and marked by standalone moments.

Harris' mother, a figure in many of these childhood memories, is a major presence in Night Garden. "The maternal type is dominant in poetry--our first primitive emotions tend to be directed towards the mother," Harris asserts. In A Memory, Harris recalls a cherished night with her mother: "just she and me/floating on TV laughter/her hand clasped over mine/like a first date's." In the immediate aftermath of Harris' mother's death a few years ago, the poet's writings became more caustic and jarring. Now she says, "My memory of her is more realistic, past that grieving shock. I'm putting her back in my poems as almost a character in life."

Other poems in the anthology take on a decidedly meditative and internal tone. In All Soul's Day, Harris immerses herself in the natural world, describing "two mottled leaves from/the same stem of ivy." "I can catch their desire/as I knew that desire. What wondrous souls we are/to want what they want," she writes. In her interview, Harris describes this cession of self as "obliterating the ego, to the point where I'm in a state of non-being."

Nature and memory are both eternal, but constantly revise themselves. "When I write this way, I'm at home in a way that's beyond language, beyond family, beyond the movie of my life." In Night Garden, Harris doesn't just aim to commemorate experience, she seeks to create it.

Night Garden can be found at jharrispoet.com and in-store at Politics and Prose


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