February Mission is a collected volume of poetry and plays by a man who’s spent a lifetime paying attention to his muse. As a young boy in rural Alabama, Jim Harrell was introduced to the pleasures of writing, and though he made his career as a businessman, he continued to educate himself about prosody and poetic and dramatic form, writing, always writing, as he is still.
Jim Harrell’s volume is expeditionary, ranging back in time over his own rich history, visiting places he’s been and wars he’s experienced, friendships shared and loves lost, and life on the littoral coast, which inspires much of his work and describes his emotional home. Like more famous poets before him, Harrell honors what he remembers. From the big and autobiographical, such as the book’s fine title poem about his experiences in WWII, to the intimate and slyly amusing, Harrell’s work celebrates life in reclaiming his memories about it.
The poetic and dramatic styles in February Mission are as far-ranging as the topics are broad, but throughout the author’s ear is attuned to the complexity of the human experience and our shared humanity. Harrell, though, is no pedant. When you least expect it, he turns turns cleverness to good effect and with a passing fillip reminds of the humor in a situation, bridging the distance between our histories and his and showing remarkable psychological acuity as well: “Reality, we know is fact/Love, we surmise, is fear and fun/One day life is right side up;/And one day upside down.”
In the end, a lovely balancetopical and tonalpresides over this collection of poems and plays. It’s present in Harrell’s voice, which is simultaneously wise and humble, compassionate and seductive. Wade far enough into the book, and you will experience its tidal pull, which is the author’s love of words and ideas and his hope that we too should know the pleasures which define this collection and which bespeak life on the literary coast. Maybeyou can almost hear him whisperyou have a poem or a play in you.
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About the Author
James Harrell was born in Selma, Alabama in 1924. He flew 28 missions as a B-17 gunner during World War II. After the war, he attended the University of California (Berkeley), and did post-graduate studies at The Sorbonne. After a career with an international hotel chain, he joined his brother in a health care business. Married with two daughters, Harrell lives in Sarasota, Florida. His keen interest in the American Civil War is partly driven by the fact that his grandfather lost his right arm at the battle of Gettysburg.
In 2006, Harrell announced the Jim Harrell Poetry Scholarship Awards, open to Alabama high school students. Winners will be recognized at the Mentevallo Literary Festival, held every year in April. Additionally, Harrell donated to the libraries of every Alabama high school and college, public and private, a copy of These I Would Keep, an anthology of verse by Alabama’s poet laureates, edited by Helen Blackshear, eighth poet laureate, and his Civil War novel, Their Last Ten Miles.
In making these gifts to Alabama school children, Mr. Harrell shared that at the age of 12 he was encouraged by one of his teachers to study and write poetry and that doing so opened his mind and changed his life. He says he also “discovered that reading and writing poetry was fun.” Mr. Harrell said he had long wanted “to find an opportunity to encourage the interest of students in Alabama in the written word.” The creation of the poetry competition and scholarship was one step toward that goal. While working on that project, he read and was inspired by the Alabama voices represented in These I Would Keep, which led to the second part of his gift.