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Jeffrey Harrison Returns to Campus for Poetry Reading

“Maybe we need some kind of bifocals to take it all in — the darkness and the light, our own lives and the lives of others, suffering and joy, if it is out there,” read Jeffrey Harrison from his poem “Vision.” Harrison, a lauded poet and former Writer in Residence and Instructor in English, returned to campus for a reading last Friday in the Freeman Room of the Oliver Wendell Holmes Library. Harrison read a selection of his favorite and most celebrated original works from throughout his career. In his poetry, Harrison covers a variety of topics, all inspired by his experiences and surroundings. “[Inspiration] could be almost anything. Something might trigger a memory about my past and I’ll write about that, or it might be something I see while I’m taking a walk and I want to write about something right now in the present. It’s just more a matter of… some connection coming in your head, or a first line. A poem will come in different ways,” said Harrison in an interview with The Phillipian. Growing up, Harrison wrote fiction, but reading English and French poetry in high school sparked an interest in the subject. “I kind of wanted to cast that spell that poetry can cast, [the spell] that I was experiencing reading poems in English and French class,” said Harrison during the reading. Harrison began the reading with a poem entitled “The Other Sister,” in which the speaker recounts a childhood lie he told his younger sister about having an estranged older sister named Isabel who had run away to California and become a drug addict. “What my motives were I can’t recall: a whim, or was it some need of mine to toy with loss, to probe the ache of imaginary wounds?” read Harrison. Next, Harrison read a poem entitled “Listening to Virginia,” which chronicles the speaker’s experiences sitting in a car and listening to Virginia Woolf’s “To The Lighthouse” on audiobook. The speaker of the poem describes the reader, Virginia Leishman, possessing him with her voice and the words she is speaking. “It is almost Woolf herself sitting beside me like some dear great aunt, who happens to be a genius, telling me stories in a voice like sparkling waves,” read Harrison. Harrison also read a poem called “Cross-Fertilization,” which used the forced fertilization of flowers as a metaphor for the loss of virginity. He described the challenge of pollinating a flower with a Q-Tip, creating a metaphor for the awkwardness associated with early sexual experiences. “[This] leaves me in the dark, transported back to a state of awkward if ardent unenlightenment, a complete beginner figuring it out as I go along, giggling a little and humming an old song,” he read. Harrison’s expressive tone struck audience members and left them with a deeper appreciation for free verse poetry. His voice recognized the dips and turns of his own work, shedding a deeper light on their significance. Sydney Olney ’17 said, “[Harrison’s] poems were just so beautiful. They brought forth this kind of nostalgia. The free form was just really different. You don’t see that a lot because so many writers are so obsessed with making everything perfect and his were intentionally imperfect, and I really enjoyed that.”