Nationality: Scottish. Born: Glasgow, 1944. Education: Attended McGill University and Concordia University, Canada, M.A. in literature and creative writing. Career: Faculty member, Dawson College, Montreal; part-time lecturer, McGill and Concordia universities. Since 1981 poetry editor, Signal Editions, Véhicule Press. Awards: CBC Literary Competition, 1988; Canada Council Senior Arts award, 1990.
Sparks. Lasalle, Quebec, New Delta, 1976.
Grace. Montreal, New Delta, 1978.
Miss Emily et la Mort. Montreal, VLB, 1984.
In Transit. Montreal, Véhicule Press, 1985.
New and Selected Poems. Montreal, Signal Editions, 1992.
Editor, The Signal Anthology: Contemporary Canadian Poetry. Montreal, Véhicule Press, 1993.
Translator, Veiled Countries/Lives, by Marie-Claire Blais. Montreal, Véhicule Press, 1985.* * *
The two linchpins of Michael Harris's considerable achievement are the sequences "Death and Miss Emily" and "Turning Out the Light" in, respectively, Grace and In Transit. Both illustrate Harris's characteristic duologue between swarming action and stillness and between inner and outer rooms. Often Harris's work depicts vulnerable confinement, indoors or outdoors: a claustrophobic interior, an agoraphobic exterior.
Miss Emily (based on Emily Dickinson) has a calculating, quietly ardent suitor in Death and lives trapped in a small room, imagined at one point as an aquarium. Inside her imprisoning house, a bell jar, Miss Emily senses another space of breadth, depth, and ecstacy. Yet when she ventures out to pick berries, the blueberries seem "like mute dead planets" or "the shadowed eyes of children /in an orphanage." She observes a scene of desolation, "a battlefield of green shoots and brittle canes, /the canes brown as bone, with air for marrow." Miss Emily is Death's accomplice, his fiancée soon to become his bride. In the climactic moment of her last day, images of an outer, untraveled room enter her chamber. So does Death.
"Death and Miss Emily" unfolds in graceful, almost serene couplets. "Turning Out the Light" is no less controlled, though the artfulness is more understated, and the stanzaic forms more flexibly structured. In it the poet's brother is confined to a room in a terminal cancer ward that becomes a grave or casket:
These walls are white doors
without handles. The surfaces
are mirrors that won't work.
Harris is unsparing in depicting the filthy minutiae of a slow death, but there is no masochistic wallowing, only intensely involved clinical accuracy. Chemotherapy, the putative cure whose excruciating effects may be worse than the disease, is thematically linked to "Some Ways of Dying," in New and Selected Poems, in which Elizabethan tortures and executions are compared to the ordeals undergone by a modern medical martyr.
Harris often ends such a poem with bleak humor. In "Some Ways of Dying" the patient shrieking in pain invokes the Virgin, who "allows her martyrdom, but evidently from a great distance. /Her immediate neighbours wish her dead." The poet, desperately willing his brother to health, is implicated in the processes of death by his very presence. Deathwatch poems are practically a genre in themselves, but seldom have they been controlled so powerfully and with so little self-indulgence.
"Turning Out the Light" is not the only witness to loss. Although the memorial quality of some poems in the "Family Album" section of New and Selected Poems (many of the pieces here are untitled, suggesting that the poet may regard them not as separate entities but as interlocked parts of a larger body of work) is relieved by glimpses of a new baby, the poet's brother haunts them, and he is joined by other deceased family members.
Another aspect of Harris's work is a special interest in ekphraseis, descriptive poems about works of art. Many poems are full of aqueous or insectivorous imagery, and often winter and spring are contrasted. But the poet keeps returning to rooms. "Bearskin Rug," in Grace, shows the outer, wild room of nature tamed and subsumed within the inner, domestic one, with a bear killed to make a rug. The dualism of interior and exterior is sustained in "The Hunting-Cabin in November." Inside the cabin "the twelve-gauge glistens /with bluing and rests frozen on its rack." Outside "the white-tail keeps her blood warm in the woods." The potential for death lurks within and without.
At the very least, adjourning to the outer room is ambiguous. "Spring Descending," in New and Selected Poems, consists of untitled quasi-sonnets composed with an almost Shakespearean density. The mise-en-scène involves a couple secreting themselves in the countryside, nature's complexity paralleling the tensions of requited or unrequited desire.
"The Force of Love" concerns the complications of marriage. One poem here is the wickedly satirical "Epithalamion" ("Warthogs shuffled up truffles for boutonnieres. /Goats handled the giving of the rings"). In "The Saints" Harris says,
We have confined them to small rooms
and narrow beds. They have to live in silence, but with
mice breeding hourly in their walls. Though our furnaces
steam fullbore through the night, we keep
the rooms of the saints very cold.
Harris implies that a fertile imaginative life is possible only in confinement and solitude. Elsewhere he mocks poets' egomania and monomania, perhaps even his own. But he is also saying that lyric poets introject everyone and everything in order to create a distinct, individual, and undivided voice. Harris has such a voice.