Sunday Jul 14

CometScar Comet Scar
by James Harms
75 pages
Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2012
Reviewed by Andi Stout

 Accessible Beauty: A Review of James Harms’ Comet Scar, by Andi Stout

Jim Harms’ Comet Scar is a reminder that there is a beauty and complexity in accessibility. It is what gets remembered. From the seasoned academic to the retired grandmother standing in the 20 items or less line at the supermarket, we remember Harms’ words like lyrics to our favorite songs. He’s published seven books with the same press, Carnegie Mellon, and this most recent collection is another must have.

He writes in the title poem of the book, "Comet Scar":

For months after his death
Phoebe sings along
in the backseat
to “Comet Scar”
without a word
except the words
to the song. Then,
one day, she asks
“What’s a comet scar?”
and I say it’s what’s left
from coming so far…


In these lines, Harms uses an accessible image and accessible language to demonstrate a very difficult and abstract idea: growth. We see careful refinement in this book—a clean beauty in language and sound akin to music, which creates crisp and fluid movement all at the same time. Part of how he accomplishes this is through the number of beats per line. He stays within a four to five beat range only exceeding the count pattern he has established on the set up and the turn. Harms' work reads like music sounds, and he strips the human condition down to its ears as if one voice singing along to another, much like the best musicians often do in popular music.

There’s a new kind of authority present in this collection, a perspective from somewhere left of center, as Suzanne Vegas might say. With multiple teaching awards and three Pushcarts, Harms' teacher stripes are certainly showing. In this new collection, he’s breaking everything down to its most accessible terms to reach that varied audience. There is no line length, word choice, syntax, or phrasing decision that is too difficult for an audience to grasp. A reader does not need to go out and purchase an MFA or Ph.D. to read, enjoy, or find meaning in Jim’s work, but having this background makes the reader appreciate just how much time and care goes into creating something so able to bridge the gaps. Putting in this time and attention is what makes Jim is one of the leading voices in contemporary American poetry. He’s the conductor and we’re all singing in harmony.

Harms continues in "Comet Scar":

            ...And without looking
            in the rearview mirror
            I’ll say, “Can you see him
            beside you, Phoebes?”
            and I know she’ll say
            yes because she believes
            in all sorts of things
            she can’t see, which is
            a kind of seeing. And while
            the song is playing
            and maybe longer
            we’ll both sing along,
            which is a kind of seeing.


This section demonstrates a sophisticated recognition of sight as perception of the nearly tangible. This recognition reflects the narrator’s own “kind of seeing,” the character’s own insight into the complexity of the human condition. The metaphor of seeing initially seems to have a dual purpose. It reflects a moment of growth for the narrator and daughter, and the author’s recognition of that moment as significant or important. There is a third move as the accessibility of the language and images prompt the reader to share this same awareness. In this case, that relationship is established through practice—singing the song. And finally, while the young Phoebe accepts the magical world around her, Harms facilitates our doing the same.

The audience is left with an ear that’s been retrained for deep listening—the kind of listening that requires controlled breathing from the diaphragm. We not only see a new relationship to language and sound, we feel it and think we might be able to almost replicate it if we keep practicing. It seems tangible. The inner circle is just waiting for us to pull up a chair. We’re left thinking, “why not me?”

After reading Comet Scar, my grandmother leaned in close to me over dinner and said, “I don’t think he ever stops thinking.” She owns over a third of his collections and has read them each half a dozen times. Since she started reading Harms' work, she started writing poems on wrapping paper scraps. Daily. And this, in the end, is Harms' payoff for tempting the fates with an "accessible" collection of poetry. An untrained fan read his work and now believes writing her own poetry is possible. In a book replete with gifts for the reader, this one might be the most valuable. I cannot recommend this book strongly enough.


  Andi Stout Photo Andi Stout is a native West Virginian. She enjoys teaching composition to first year students at West Virginia University, and her favorite color is purple. Andi’s work was previously featured in Connotation Press: An Online Artifact. One of her poems is currently on tour in So. Cal. with Nicelle Davis’ Poetry in Motion project. Recently, Scissor and Spackle published Andi’s poetry in their August issue.