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Norwich Poet’s Manuscript Sees Print After 30 Years

  • Pamela Harrison, of Norwich recently released her sixth book, a "memoir in poems," of the year she spent with her husband, Dennis McCullough, a doctor with Project HOPE, and their daughter on Carriacou, a small Caribbean island, July 24, 2017. She will read from the book during the Bookstock festival at the North Unitarian Universalist Church in Woodstock, Vt., on Friday at 1 p.m. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Pamela Harrison reads "The Long Wash," a poem from her "Glory Bush and Green Banana" at her home in Norwich, Vt., Monday, July 24, 2017. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Pamela Harrison, of Norwich recently released her sixth book, a "memoir in poems," of the year she spent with her husband, Dennis McCullough, a doctor with Project HOPE, and their daughter on Carriacou, a small Caribbean island, July 24, 2017. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Pamela Harrison and Dennis McCullough and their daughter, Kate, during the year they spent on the Caribbean island of Carriacou in the mid-1980s.



Valley News Staff Writer
Friday, July 28, 2017

Pamela Harrison, a poet, and Dennis McCullough, a doctor, had gone through just about everything together in their 45 years of marriage. Well before they settled in Norwich, there was their time in Uganda when he caught malaria and nearly died, their time in Finland when she experienced a crisis of language — and their service year on Carriacou, a 13-square-mile island in the west Caribbean Sea.

This latter experience inspired Harrison’s newest poetry collection, Glory Bush and Green Banana, which is also not her newest at all. She finished the manuscript in 1987, the year after she returned to the U.S. from the Grenadine island that had been her family’s temporary home. The collection came out this April. Harrison will read selections from the book this afternoon at the Bookstock literary festival in Woodstock, and at other venues around the Upper Valley in the coming months.

She’d gone to Carriacou (pronounced carry-a-coo) because McCullough was volunteering with Project Hope (Health Opportunities for People Everywhere), an organization that sends health care workers to places in need. And Carriacou was in great need, despite its small size. Nearly all of its 8,000 residents were descendents of African slaves, left behind by French and British masters who gave up on the island’s sugar industry, and the legacy of colonial oppression had left its mark. In 1985, there was only one physician other than McCullough on the island, and scarce medical resources.

“It was a wonderful, wonderful, difficult, beautiful year,” said Harrison during an interview on her Norwich patio, over cold glasses of mango lemonade. It was certainly a far cry from her upbringing in rural Oklahoma. Though she found a position teaching English to schoolchildren on Carriacou, she, too, “learned so, so much” in that year. Like how to ward off insects by keeping mosquito coils burning under her chairs, and how to wait three weeks for a letter from home, and how a vibrant but impoverished culture became resilient by taking care of its most vulnerable members.

Upon her return, Harrison was excited to share what she felt was a document of her family’s experience, but the collection ended up languishing in a drawer for 16 years before it once again saw the light of day.

Its long confinement was not for lack of trying to get it published, though. The manuscript had been named a finalist in 12 different literary contests in as many years, including the Walt Whitman Award from Graywolf Press and the Brittingham Prize in Poetry from the University of Wisconsin Press. After a while, the poet shrugged, stuck the thing in her study and moved on to other projects. She’s published five collections since.

Harrison had more or less forgotten about the manuscript until the Christmas before last, when her publisher called her up to wish her a happy holiday. During the conversation, he mentioned that he was extending his reading period, and did she know if any of her poet friends had a unpublished manuscript kicking around?

For the first time in years, she thought of the drawer in her study, where her own manuscript was, as she put it, “mouldering away.”

But maybe it wasn’t mouldering. Maybe it had just been ripening, and was now ready.

“When I went back to the book, I saw immediately why it was never chosen as the winner,” Harrison said. Some of the poems in Glory Bush and Green Banana felt like green bananas themselves — on their way to becoming delicious, but not quite there yet.

Much of this had to do with form, which many poets find is one of the most difficult but essential elements to get right. A poem needs to fit its structure; otherwise, its essence cannot express itself fully.

She jokingly blamed her poems’ original forms on Robert Bly, a leader of a mythopoetic men’s movement that arose partially in response to feminism.

“It was the 1980s, and Bly was big,” she said. Bly had popularized what Harrison called “waterfall poems,” which had three or four words per line “that just sort of spilled down the page like a little rivulet of water.”

At the time, she thought this seemed like an elegant way to structure her own poems. As a result, between one-quarter and one-third of the original poems in Glory Bush and Green Banana materialized as “these very narrow, anemic little waterfalls.”

Looking back on these early stylistic choices, she said, she had to laugh. “I said, ‘Lordy!’ Any experienced reader would read it and know it wasn’t finished. The poems hadn’t been lineated. They hadn’t been made into song.”

And so she lineated. She played around with line breaks and enjambment and stanzas. In doing so, she started to hear the music she’d been trying to capture all along, complete with tragedies, triumphs and the occasional tarantula.

Sydney Lea, the former poet laureate of Vermont, heard that music loud and clear. Lea has been following Harrison’s career since its early days, and he admires her ability to blend the personal with the universal.

“She has always had a marvelous capacity to merge private, including everyday domestic experience, with all the Big Issues: Death, Love, Parenthood, Family, Time’s Passage,” Lea, a Newbury, Vt., resident, wrote in an email. “In Glory Bush and Green Banana, her keen sense of recall shows this capacity to unprecedented advantage. She’s written some very moving stuff from the start of her poetic life, but this volume to me represents a kind of apex.”

Lea said he regards Harrison’s latest collection as her strongest yet, and Harrison herself expressed pleasant surprise at the difference 30 years can make. She believes the manuscript has improved not despite its age, but because of it.

“Time is a wonderful editor,” she said.

It can also be great for developing context. To her, the poems feel somehow more timely than they did in the ’80s.

“(The book) is coming out during this time in our country where people actually have to put signs out in their yards that say Black Lives Matter,” she said. Harrison, McCullough and their 8-year-old daughter were three of 11 white people living on the island, and she feels that being in a minority group on Carriacou — even a privileged minority group — deepened her sympathy for what people of color in America survive on a daily basis.

The book’s resurrection also came at a poignant time for Harrison. McCullough, who had recently recuperated from an autoimmune disease, died unexpectedly last year on June 3.

In speaking to Harrison, it’s evident how much she misses him. She teared up a bit, thinking back on last winter, the first she spent without him since she was 23.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m a crier.”

In light of McCullough’s passing, the release of Glory Bush and Green Banana is especially important to her. She considers the collection an homage to one of their many adventures together.

“Poetry used to tell all the big stories. The Iliad, The Odyssey. Then that sort of got taken over by prose,” she said. “Well, I wanted to tell a story in poems.”

The central, irresolvable tension in that story — and it is a story, with an arc and a definite chronology — is between her and McCullough’s sometimes wildly diverging worldviews. Harrison is a romantic who sees meaning and metaphor all around her, in the simplest tasks and most familiar of objects. This contrasts with McCullough’s stern and clinical realism, which for him was one of the side effects of watching people die of avoidable causes.

This juxtaposition appears sharply in the book’s titular poem. In it, Harrison and McCullough regard the same fisherman, who is standing on the same spit of rocks under the same flock of birds. But the husband and wife see very different scenes.

She sees a man “coiled about a rod of muscled concentration/on the sea-furred, dripping rocks of Bogles town.” To her, “the amber hour leaned, and everything around him/poured and ran in rhythmic sway.”

This is what McCullough saw: “The puling rasp of scavenging birds/the ulcer on his leg that oozed, and painful truth/his son inherited an illness borne by the love/that brought him to be born. Reality, you say.”

The man has sickle cell disease, a disorder of the blood that was common on Carriacou, in part because the disease is genetic, and the population of the island so small.

But these two visions complete, rather than compete with, each other. By the end of the book, Harrison’s lofty idealism has been tempered, but not negated, by her growing awareness of McCullough’s realism, and what she learns from those for whom Carriacou is home.

Thirty years later, Harrison shares her own version of that complicated year. It’s about time — which is often all that poetry, like green bananas, needs.

Pamela Harrison will read from Glory Bush and Green Banana today at 1 p.m. at the Bookstock Literary Festival in Woodstock, along with Laura Foley. Harrison’s next readings are at the Norwich Public Library, on Wednesday at 6:30 p.m.; the Town House Forum in Strafford, Aug. 24 at 7 p.m., with Ina Anderson; Howe Library in Hanover, Sept. 14 at 7 p.m.; and Left Bank Books in Hanover, Oct. 3 at 7 p.m., with Anne Shivas.

EmmaJean Holley can be reached at eholley@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.