Neil Heinen

Heinen: The power of remembering

Neil Heinen reflects on the legacies of James...

One of the responsibilities of a writer is to remember. It is simply part of what we do. We collect stories, images, experiences and ideas, and we put them into words to, among other things, save them. I was reminded of this responsibility as I reflected on the loss, the deaths, of Jim Harrison and Jim Baughman, two people I respected and learned from in very different ways for very different reasons.

I did not learn from Professor Baughman the way so many others grieving his death did. I never took one of his classes. I was a guest lecturer, once, I believe, at his opinion writing class. Instead, I watched with admiration his influence on hundreds of journalism students and his passion for journalism education at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. But mostly I enjoyed our discussions about journalism and politics and baseball, about our family ties to Wauwatosa and the grade school I attended with his wife Mickey’s brother. I loved the twinkle in his eye, his sense of humor and his warmth. I cared more about my alma mater and my work because Jim Baughman was an ardent supporter of both and that meant a lot to me. He and I were colleagues in a way and I will remember him as such.

What I would have given to be a colleague of renowned author Jim Harrison. The man was always bigger than life to me and, as intimidated as I probably would have been, I would have given anything to have shared a bottle (or two) of his beloved Bandol and listened to him tell stories. What I look for in writers is a voice, a distinctive style that I can hear as I read and that identifies the writer as unique. Harrison’s voice is as instantly recognizable as Tom Robbins or Billy Collins (to name just two other writers I similarly admire).

One of the things I most enjoyed about Harrison, as opposed to Philip Roth, for example, was the sense of growing old with him. Though older than me by 13 years, Harrison always seemed to find me at some crucial stage in my life, having, in his own way, already been there. His words could encourage or comfort or reassure me; there was just something in the rhythm, the syntax, the diction, that got into me and deeply affected me. 

I didn’t like everything he wrote, but I liked most of everything he wrote. And what I liked most was his poetry. I’ll remember his poetry most of all. And is there anything so worthy of remembering than poetry? Harrison’s poetry is a part of my life. I count on it. I look forward to it. 

My friend Doug Moe has already claimed as his favorite the line of Harrison’s poetry arguably most appropriate to this column, “Death steals everything except our stories.” It’s from a book published in 2009, and death was a regular theme of Harrison’s then. But I always remember a poem from 25 years earlier, in which Harrison wrote, “I’ve decided to make up my mind about nothing, to assume the water mask, to finish my life disguised as a creek, an eddy, joining at night the full, sweet flow, to absorb the sky, to swallow the heat and cold, the moon and the stars, to swallow myself in ceaseless flow.” And I believe on March 26, at his desk, writing a poem, that’s how he did finish his life.

One last thought on remembering. After my March column remembering Tony Robinson on the anniversary of his death, I got an email from my friend David Hart saying Tony’s mom Andrea Irwin wanted to meet me. And so we did. The three of us spent an hour talking about the importance and power of remembering. It was a writer’s gift—both giving and receiving—and I’m very appreciative to Andrea for sharing it.  


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