Over a quarter of a century ago, Ed Harkness and I were teaching in China. One day in Tianjin, we rode our bikes through the street markets, shopping for bread, the air so thick with winter coal-stove soot that when we wiped our faces the cloth turned black. In the poems of The Law of theUnforeseen, Ed is still showing that enthusiasm for entering whole heartedly into whatever life he finds around him, even if it tarnishes his skin and threatens his lungs.
It could be small things: the three Italian prunes that rolled off his desk, “bruised and bleeding now,” or roses “fallen, one brown petal after another, / like burnt potato chips on the lawn,” or “the smooth-as-a-baby’s-butt / slides from the 3rd fret to the 5th” in a tune by Mississippi John Hurt. What Harkness does is make those small things matter.
And the bigger ones. The “rattling emphysemic rasp” of a workmate, “asking would I be so kind as to spot him a Big Mac.” The poet’s father mowing the lawn, “straining, muttering, wrestling the mower’s wooden / handles like a man who’s had it, who knows futility / and puts his whole being into its resistance.” The woman of the poet’s imagination whose thrift store spoon “contains all the sadness of her left hand.”
The collection is divided into six parts, each named after one of the poems it contains, while the other pieces in that section take up, subtly and sometimes tangentially, certain themes, images, or feelings from the title poem. “Airborne” illustrates the imaginative range of perspectives gathered under the section’s title. There are poems about “the plunge and rise” of swinging, a meadowlark, a balletic bat, girls jumping rope, and Walt Whitman tossing notebook pages in the air where “they rise like gulls.” In one poem, the poet remembers his child self “flung from the jackknifed / tractor about to roll.” In another, a neighbor flies a model plane while a military man somewhere in the U.S. remotely directs his drone to kill a foreign girl whose water bottle “could in his mind be a bomb.”
Maybe what strikes me most about this collection is not only its ability to enter so empathetically into both the joys and the sorrows of all creatures, but to insist on the power of just keeping on keeping on in the face of despair about the current condition of our war-ridden, climate-threatened, frustrating world. When I mentioned this to Ed, he pointed out how poets believe so strongly in the power of words to save us. That belief crops up often in these poems.
I like poetry reviews that include large chunks of the poems, so I’ll end this one with the “chunk” that concludes the book, where Harkness most explicitly reveals his belief in words to encourage us to keep on:
If we knew the words we might keep the world, its rivers, its ice, its bitterroot, its winter wrens, its hemlocks, its moonlight, its children, its Shakespeare, its Szymborkska, its rosehips, its green and orange lichens, its Dylan, its kora players, its hummingbirds, you, me, and our Muslim neighbor, Maya, alive.
Sibyl James is the author of 12 books of poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction, including most recently The Grand Piano Range and Hard Goods & Hot Platters. She has taught in the U.S., China, Mexico, and—as Fulbright professor—Tunisia and Cote d’Ivoire.