The Law of the Unforeseen


Edward Harkness writes about family, history, family history, the natural world-its beauty, its degradation-the strange miracle of consciousness. Nothing is off the table. In fact, everything is on the table, including the kitchen sink. They move from the personal to the universal, to the quickened heart of shared emotion.



The Law of the Unforeseen is about family, history, family history, the natural world—its beauty, its degradation—the strange miracle of consciousness. I write about the blues, failure, great apes, time passing, icebergs, massage therapy, the Civil War, crows, bats, potatoes, spoons and drones. Nothing is off the table. In fact, everything is on the table, including the fabled kitchen sink.

The poet Galway Kinnell once said that when writing a poem, the deeper you go inside yourself, and the more intimate you become in the process of composing and engaging language with your whole being, a strange thing happens. The poem, Kinnell said, becomes both personal and universal. By diving deep, the poem discovers—or uncovers—what binds us, what we all feel: the quickened heart of recognition and shared emotions.

That’s what I’ve aimed for in The Law of the Unforeseen: to plumb deep, to find “the best words in their best order,” as Samuel Taylor Coleridge said in his famous distinction between prose (“…words in the best order.”) and poetry “…the best words in the best order”).


To his everlasting regret, Edward Harkness did not see Elvis when the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll visited Seattle during the World’s Fair in 1962. Other than that, Harkness is a happy husband to Linda, father to Ned and Devin, and grandfather to Clio and Hilde. Having retired after a 30+ year career as a writing teacher at Shoreline Community College, he now devotes his time to other pleasures: gardening, cycling, visiting the kids and, now and then, making poems. He is the author of two full-length poetry collections, Saying the Necessary and Beautiful Passing Lives, both from Pleasure Boat Studio. His most recent chapbook, Ice Children, was published by Split Lip Press in 2014. Two poems in this collection, “Tying a Tie” and “Airborne,” won the annual poetry prize for 2017. He lives in Shoreline, Washington, about a mile from the north Seattle home where he grew up, and where his mother, Doris Harkness, whose art works grace the covers of this book, still lives.



A delirium of blossoms, he recalled.

Here we are on the bank of the Huzo,

walking in pink snow.

They were Americans, in love with love,

spellbound by pictures of Mount Fuji

they’d seen in National Geographic.

And there it was, appearing at sunrise

on the train window. How about that,

he’d said, waking her. It seems to hover.

It’s a vision, a floating island,

a perfect cone, just like the photos—

so symmetrical, so ideal, darling, like you.

In Kyoto, the river glided,

bright as mica, tinged with glacial till.

All the city, it seemed, had come to savor

the soft explosions of cherry trees,

just as they had come, these newlyweds,

arriving in a rickshaw, crowding with others

onto boats poled by young men

whose tanned arms glistened in April sun.

Then, excursions to temples and gardens,

where the azaleas had just begun to ignite

among the Zen stones. Such tranquility,

he told her on a stroll. Such harmony

with the natural world, don’t you think?

You won’t find that back home.

They even made love in a bamboo grove,

he remembered, thinking at the time

they were alone, with only the calls

of the different birds high in the green light,

then noticing as she rolled off him onto the moss,

her skirt askew, they were being watched.

An old woman in a conical hat smiled.

They smiled, mortified, unable to answer

the woman’s slight bow and greeting: Konnichiwa.

So long ago it was, that afternoon in the city

of pagodas and monuments, markets thronged

and rich with smells they’d never smelled.

Now, for Christ’s sake, they want to try out

the new bomb—Fat Boy, or Fat Man, or something—

on Kyoto, our Kyoto, where we climbed above the river

to that temple. What was it called? She wept, even,

when statues of the Buddha would appear

as if by magic, like sudden awakenings, among the pines.

He could imagine the shrines flattened,

ancient timbers blown to kindling by the blast,

the curved black roof tiles of ten-thousand buildings

swirling in typhoons of white fire.

Our city, for God’s sake. Our city.

Even the ice-fed Huzo would boil,

its boats aflame by the collapsed bridge

they’d walked across a dozen times,

and the young men who poled the boats—

they’d be burned to death in seconds.

So charmed the couple had been, so taken

by the politeness of the bowing Japanese,

so delighted were they when,

pulling their phrasebooks from their rucksacks,

they’d stutter a few words to a shopkeeper

or a woman planting rice shoots

along a road, and be understood.

He would demand that the committee

remove Kyoto from the list of targets.

Surely there were other cities more suitable

from a military standpoint,

more appropriate strategically.

What about Kokura’s munitions plants?

What about Yokohama or Hiroshima?

No matter what General X said or what General Y

argued would be the Emperor’s next move,

no matter what logic or tactical line of thinking

they’d array on their table of maps,

damage projections, casualty estimates,

he’d hold the line. He would not stand by

to see Kyoto—their Kyoto—

reduced to miles of radioactive ash.

The bomb, he vowed, would be dropped,

just not on the city he loved, his Kyoto.

His decision would be final.

Was he or was he not Secretary of War?

He’d go to Truman, if necessary,

get the full backing of the President.

Not one Shinto shrine, goddamn it.

Not one Zen pavilion. Not one pond of koi,

not one boy—I see him plain as day—

little canvas knapsack on his back,

riding his rickety bike to school,

pausing on the bridge to cover his ears

against the howl of air raid sirens.

I see him turn for home at the instant

the sun comes down to earth, flowering

like God knows what—a rose, a death rose

of heat and fire. No, no and no.

Not in Kyoto. Not in our Kyoto.

They’ll have to add another city to the list.

[Author’s note: Henry L. Stimson (1867-1950,) US Secretary of War, 1940-1945, was de facto head of the Manhattan Project. This poem is loosely based on an event from Stimson’s life.]



Thrift store find. Fifty cents. I like how stout

it is, carved of some uncertain hardwood,

one black scar on the handle suggesting

its owner snatched it off a hot burner.

I like the wear on the tip of the spoon.

Someone stirred and stirred, sanding the right side

of the bowl to near-flatness—the stirrer

left-handed, it appears, more than likely

a woman, perhaps living—wild surmise—

in Iowa in the thirties, baby

balanced on her right hip while she stands

in the heat of her Monarch cast iron stove

stirring porridge or corn mush or mutton stew.

Now it’s my turn to keep milk from scalding,

milk into which I will stir chocolate

pudding powder. It’s three a.m., the third

of January. I can’t claim to see

the light snow that dusts the cars parked out front,

since I’m at the stove stirring the pudding.

I can, however, see grains fall like salt

on the outer sill of the near kitchen window,

just as she too might have seen snow

or rain fall as she stood and stirred, switching

hands when her left grew tired, as my left hand

does now. Yes, it was a woman who carved

the much-used spoon in my hand. And if not

on an Iowa farm, then somewhere else,

preparing countless meals, hanging the spoon

on its nail, through the augured off-center

hole in the handle, taking down the spoon,

putting it on its nail, taking it down,

putting it on, down, on, the years passing,

kids having grown and left the farm, removed,

I’d venture, to the city. So the spoon

contains all the sadness of her left hand.

Even the spoon journeyed away from her,

settling against all odds in my kitchen

to stir the just-now-bubbling pudding.

It’s as if I’ve entered another life,

one where I cook, clean, give birth, raise children,

watch snow whiten a stack of cordwood.

It’s as if she’s beside me as I write, as if she has

given me the spoon and taken my free hand

in hers to stroll the garden of our two worlds.

Additional information

Weight .446 oz
Dimensions 6 × .305 × 9 in

Hardcover, Paperback

2 reviews for The Law of the Unforeseen

  1. Praise from the back of the book

    In The Law of the Unforeseen, the law Harkness speaks of requires us to know now and then. We walk under “the trees of unremembrance,” so that we may know who we are, how we got here, and who we came from. And we arrive in this lovely and threatened paradise called Earth, right now. The “endless replication of clam shells, ants, / hyacinths in spring”?—it’s true, we will lose those things, individually, but these poems savor such stuff, and in that savoring they give us hope for the future. –Robert Wrigley, author of Box and The Anatomy of Melancholy

    Ed Harkness’s great gift is for the lyric telling of “the heart’s winding chronicle.” Permeated with the keenly felt ache of life, “the world breaking your heart and, somehow, mending it,” these poems celebrate the sensuous beauty of “this gold world” in deep music line by line. Harkness’s poems are a necessary sustenance for our present perilous moment. -Alicia Hokanson, Author of Mapping the Distance

    Ed Harkness’ poems are always raising themselves up, always lifting off the ordinary. They are persistent, observant, sharply etched, hovering in the vicinity like mist off the woods and waters, invisibly stirring the clear air, offering unlikely gifts we might suffer from the lack of otherwise. -Paul Hunter, author of Clownery

    Suffused with tenderness for the earth and its fragile creatures, The Law of the Unforeseen contains poems—lyrical, sensual, often comic, sometimes savagely funny—that ride a current of melancholy, a certainty of loss which deepens the vitality Harkness brings to the page. This is a rich, generous-hearted collection, a moving testament by a man of passionate conscience. -Anne Pitkin, author of Winter Arguments

    In The Law of the Unforeseen, Edward Harkness confronts the living world as urgently as the world of ugly vase, thrift-store spoon, broken, half-buried beach shell, and the “floral design of pond ice.” The embrace of this important collection is truly Whitmanesque. I deeply admire how it keeps breaking me even as it pulls me toward its heart where every bloodied instant lives alongside some unlikely bit of mending. -Derek Sheffield, author of Through the Second Skin

  2. Russell Hill

    I…can’t settle on a favorite poem. ‘The Poetry Class’ — In my teaching career (50 years of high school English) I had students like that. She reminded me of a boy who showed up for first period, hair wet, often late. He lived in Muir Beach, a small cluster of houses on a bluff north of the Golden Gate.Muir Beach itself was small, surrounded by jagged rocks, cliffs and heavy surf.He was late because he was surfing each morning. In the dark. He went out on his board in the blackness and surfed in toward that tiny beach.I asked him how he avoided the rocks.“I listen,” he said. “I can tell the difference between the sound of surf on the rocks and ones on the beach.” It was an Advanced Placement class, and he often took off in a different direction in an essay.I reminded him that he would not pass the AP exam doing that. “No,” he said. “But I thought I saw something more interesting.” And he was right. He would not pass the AP exam and it didn’t bother him. Anyone who would surf in the blackness, listening to steer himself from life-threatening rocks was on a different wave length than my other students, who were there because they wanted desperately to pass with a high score and get into a good college. I have no idea what happened to him. But like that girl who stood in the hall, he marched to a different drummer. When the traditional essay format didn’t suit what he was doing, he veered off in a different direction.It must have been like listening to the surf in the darkness.

    “The Axe” is as perfect a microcosm of our history as I have seen.You managed, in those three short chapters, to encompass immigration, a war and the history of the plains. And the history of the man who lived that arc.

    Once, on a late afternoon in Iowa City, a bat suddenly clung to my shirt. In a panic I brushed it off. I thought of Theodore Roethke’s line, “something is amiss or out of place when a mouse with wings can wear a human face.” And your poem, “Bat in Daylight” resonated with me.

    Something else that resonated: you write of your ancestors leaving the coal mines of Cornwall, ending up in Iowa. My ancestors came from the coal mines of Wales and the arsenic mines of Devon and ended up in the coal mines of Spring Valley, Illinois. In one letter to his wife a great-grandfather wrote, “it’s good to see men coming out of the ground again.” My father and his two brothers were the first men of the family that did no go down into the mine.My father taught woodshop in Spring Valley, and told of young men who came up out of the mine in September to play football for the high school, only to return to the blackness when the season was over.

    The Law of the Unforeseen is a brilliant collection. I, too, have been at the House of Mystery just south of Garberville. I think in these poems, that you have opened the yellow door.

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