Posts filed under ‘James Harms’


James Harms


Across the room behind the mirror
he slips a quarter in the slot.
She can’t see him, doesn’t want to, isn’t interested
in being touched.
How are you? she says; it’s what
she always says: safe and friendly, not really
a question. What would you like to talk about?
He doesn’t answer, which isn’t rare, not
unheard of, just dumb.
He drops a quarter in the slot.
She wraps a finger in a strand of hair.
My sister died of fever, she says, it’s what
she always says, it sounds personal, like
she means it. My mother healed herself
by baking bread for eight days straight,
until the racks of loaves reached the kitchen ceiling.
He drops a quarter in the slot.
She has a bruise
the size of a knuckle below her collarbone
and she shows him, which she sometimes does,
though not often. Her husband pushed her there
on his way to work everyday
on his way to poker, on his way to bed.
He’s been gone six years, she says, but it won’t go away.
It’s like a botched tattoo, a smudge of blue ink.
He says something, he says, A tattoo is like a marriage.
He taps the mirror with a coin.
She says, How long were you married?
She says, Sometimes
I can hear the river from my bedroom window.
Sometimes it’s the sea. But I know it’s just the highway,
just traffic passing through .
He drops a quarter in the slot.
She starts to say something else, how she’s been to Hawaii.
She hears the door open, close.

Inspired by Wim Wenders’ 1984 Palm d’Or winning Paris, Texas. As I’ve said elsewhere, Harms is one of my key discoveries of the month – a deceptively plain-speaking poet whose work, at its best, has the vividness and immediacy of a Hopper painting. All poets are, in a sense, storytellers, but Harms’ poems have the feel of good short fiction, of storylines stretching out before and beyond, of authentic incident raised to the pitch of poetry.

Today’s poem comes from Harms’ 2001 collection Quarters – my favorite among his four books. Quarters is fascinating in part because it’s a collection of 25 poems (divided, inevitably, into four parts), each of which includes some reference to quarters. If the writing was less adept, this would seem gimmicky, but as it is the bulk of the poems resonate with a simple, down-to-earth beauty, a quiet depth of emotion against which the repeated coin motif barely stands out.

At one level, ‘Bruise’ is connected to Wenders’ film rather tenuously. While the one-way mirror arrangement it describes closely parallels that in the film (you can see the relevant scene here – though it’ll spoil the film for you) none of the lines in the poem occur in the script, and the coin arrangement Harms describes is his own invention. Yet for all that the poem is true to the spirit of the film, to the psychological reality of the interaction between these two people, so that reading it, and imagining the scene it describes, is like watching an alternative take from the movie, a scene that got cut out perhaps, a fragment from the larger drama that got left on the cutting floor.


July 21, 2007 at 1:42 pm Leave a comment