The Frozen Sea Within Us
Beltway Editions, 2023
his overdue collection of new and selected poems explodes easy notions about place in literature. Often, “a sense of place” is associated with writers who emphasize the local and particular—they are priests faithful to a parish—whereas “cosmopolitan” writers are supposedly pluralistic as they tap into a wide variety of influences.
In The Frozen Sea Within Us, Jonathan Harrington manages to do both. He is incontestably a poet heavily invested in a sense of place, but his range, his multiple locales, embracing the South, New York and Mexico, as well as interior landscapes of a re-imagined Middle East, can only be described as cosmopolitan.
In one obvious sense, this is a reflection of the poet’s bio. Harrington grew up in central Florida, spent many years in New York, before settling in Yucatan, Mexico, where he also works as a literary translator. What unites these disparate places artistically is a distinct individual voice that is also full of curiosity about what others see or search for.
For instance, on the streets of New York:
“drunks, staring blankly at some inner vision,
and the blind, like Tiresias,
Or amid ruins in Yucatan:
among the rubble and broken gods
was some lost part of themselves”
Or with relatives in “County Mayo, Ireland”:
“And they stare at us,
reflections of what
they would have been
and we at them,
of what we are—"
Pulling citations out of context is tricky but these examples and others share a desire to connect, or a grief at a lost connection, which amounts to the same thing. There are poignant poems about a broken marriage (“When We Said Goodbye”, “Blind” and “X”) or dreamlike poems about incongruous encounters with the speaker’s deceased father (“A Visit from Dad” and “Dad”). Harrington brings to mind Faulkner’s line in Requiem for a Nun: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
In the aftermath of 9/11, many writers set to work trying to dramatize or explain the horror—a tall order indeed—and some of the results have struck me as foolish or downright irritating (I’m looking at you, Don DeLillo). Harrington’s “The Ledge” in contrast is utterly convincing, the bravura piece of this collection, bold yet sober, ever questioning. With sixteen stanzas, the poem defies ready paraphrase as it considers both victims and onlookers, as well as the wider world and the human predicament beyond the event.
“Perhaps it is better to take another’s hand and die
than live forever in the prison of this grief.
Yes, it’s true that morning a world ended
and yet another world was being born
as those two clung there trembling.
This “birth” echoes Yeats’ “Easter, 1916” but 9/11 offers no “terrible beauty”—it is simply terrible.
Elsewhere, in a sonnet sequence entitled “Lift Up the Stone”, Harrington ventures further back in time, retelling the Gospel of Matthew in the present-day Middle East, against the backdrop of conflict in Israel and Palestine. Familiar biblical characters appear while jet fighters scream over the Gaza Strip, and the estranging effect renders afresh the outright weirdness of many religious source texts that over the centuries have hardened into lazy familiarity or dogma.
Lastly, grand narratives aside, some of the most memorable poems are one-off, idiosyncratic and surreal, with a sly undercurrent of humor, like “The Myth of Sheep” or “A Rain of Bicycles”. In the latter, bicycles explicably fall out of the sky:
are lying all over backyards and baseball diamonds.
in the trees
like weird fruits.
For all its variety, this collection never strays from a fundamental premise that poetry should break us out of habits of seeing, joggle our perceptions and—no small thing—never be boring. Its title comes from Kafka’s observation that “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.” Harrington’s poetry is sometimes harrowing, sometimes funny, but always with an edge. The voice is both wise and vulnerable, cutting through multiple territories, simultaneously local and cosmopolitan. As a volume of “new and selected” poems, it offers a summation of a career to date. Impressive for its breadth and singularity, this is work that matters.