First Poem of Words
Trafford, 157 pages, (paperback) $13.96, 9781466910348
(Reviewed: September 2012)
Jef Harris’ collection of poetry is filled with the specificity of a traveler, an observer of all
things that catch the eye. And no subject is too small for his observations. From the
crooked mouth of a singer in Seoul, South Korea, to the desire to dance himself naked
after seeing Michelangelo’s David, the worldview presented in Harris’ poems surprises
and often delights.
Poems in First Poem of Words range from haikus and TriWords (a form of the author’s
own invention) to more melodic poems using rhyme, rhythm and refrains. A natural
storyteller, Harris is most effective with poems involving travel. The first poem, “Paris
1980,” tells the story of how he and other men lifted and moved a car in order to park a
bus in Paris. It ends with the note of explanation for the Renault’s owner that was never
left, as he did not know French at the time. Another travel poem about his childhood
home of Chicago is enchanting for its tension between loving a long-ago place and
feeling that he should be spiritually located in the here and now.
Serious readers of poetry might struggle with the lack of revision in Harris’ poems. While
it’s easy to love a word or line because it sounds good to the inner ear, it’s a sign of
weakness in poetry not to support these sounds with equally appropriate meaning. His
TriWords, which place three words together based on their sound, are a troubling
example of the lack of unity between sound and sense in his work.
Novice poetry readers, however, may find Harris’ playfulness with words intriguing and
his sincerity welcoming. The photographs and illustrations enhance the themes of the
Also available in hardcover and ebook.
Three Stars (out of Five)
Various themes, including music, war, love, and faith, make up this dense array of
passionate and volatile poems.
In his collection First Poem of Words, Jef Harris dives into various modes of poetic
license and expression. The poems are sectioned off into what he terms “TriWords,” which are
used, as Harris writes in the author’s note, for their “linguistic allure” as opposed to their
“conventional denotations.” This makes for a particularly interesting freedom in the way these
poems can be read; the TriWords function as a kind of mantra for what is to follow. Like the
poems themselves, the TriWords demand the reader to become engaged in the linguistic
inventiveness that Harris employs throughout the collection.
Following the TriWord “Rejoice/Conviction/Asymmetric,” the poem “Peeling” uses the
metaphorical subject of an orange to supply the speaker with a kind of emotional skin. “I’m
being peeled like an orange” leads into the quiet conviction of the poem’s only one-line stanza:
“A soft voice whispers, ‘Go through it.’” The emotions that follow are full of rejoicing, closing
in on a layer of confession clothed in the subtle shift of the prepositions that differentiate the last two lines: “This is a new thing being done to me. / This is a good thing being done in me.”
While these variations are sometimes overextended and pursued down the page without the aid of image, a poem like “Peeling” incorporates a soft, surely humble tone that captures the kind of calm and collected vernacular this poetry seems to yearn for.
While there is an emphasis on a sometimes heightened and forced rhyme that dilutes
certain poems to an almost purely linguistic element—“definition devoid of distinction / belittles
the season for serious reasons”—the haiku and love poems that dot this collection provide a
subtle minimalistic pause amid such lyric intensity. The poem “Tennis” is a fine example of the
haiku form. The poem reads, “In Seoul, old warrior’s / Backhand lobs soft bouncing balls /
Amid patriarchs.” The setting of Seoul precedes the image of the warrior, setting up the final
line with the subtle dark overtone that often runs underneath this poetry.
Photographs are often set alongside the poems in this collection, many of them credited
to the author himself. This gives an interesting visceral, almost photojournalistic quality to
certain poems, especially those that deal with undertones of war. “The Holes in the Rain” is a
poem that is on full display in both its photographic quality and its theme of the wartime
experience. The first photo above the poem displays a tiled floor dotted by raindrops. It’s a
surreal image that symbolizes a certain kind of calm sadness emphasized by the poem’s
repetition of the word “ataraxia,” which is a noun for a state of serene calmness. This is
juxtaposed to images that are beautifully written and of a shocking quality: “I had opium for
pain but nothing for the shock / Of seeing the smoking body of a fried man.”
As Harris notes in the epilogue, these are poems that—while sometimes lyrically dense
and various in their themes—deserve more than one read for their voices to be unraveled.
Author’s Current Residence
Bel Air, Maryland