Joy Harjo, the Poet of American Memory
The poet Joy Harjo, who was recently named the U.S. Poet Laureate, and who is the first enrolled member of a Native American tribe to hold the position, has said:
Harjo has spent her career trying to fulfill this credo. Since she published her début collection, in 1975, she has produced eight books of poetry, a memoir, and children’s books; received just about every prominent poetry award that the literary world can offer; and embraced the universal in her work without being burdened by it. She has made each of her stories—even ones that predate her, or dwarf her in scale—in some way part of her own story of survival.
Her latest collection, “An American Sunrise,” continues that theme. The book begins with land stolen—a passage about the Indian Removal Act and a map marking one of “many trails of tears”—and ends with thanks for a land ravaged but reborn. Even destruction brings blessing, according to Harjo, “for new shoots will rise up from fire, floods, earthquakes and fierce winds.” The poems are interspersed with short prose passages about Native American displacement and her family. There are some familiar Harjo motifs—celestial bodies, mythic and anthropomorphized animals—and a few heavy-hitting abstractions: “Grief is killing us. Anger tormenting us. Sadness eating us with disease,” she writes in one poem. It can be easy, reading Harjo, to lose footing in such intangibles, but some of her themes achieve a strange resonance. Of these, memory is at the forefront, whether appearing, as it does, as an abstract obsession, or personified, slipping into a dress and red shoes.
Years ago, in her oft-quoted poem “Remember,” Harjo begged us to “remember the sky,” “the moon,” “the wind,” and “the dance language is, that life is.” Here, again, she asks the same. In the long poem “Exile of Memory,” Harjo draws on the associative nature of memory to create her formal structure, introducing brief scenes that feel like reveries, soft around the edges, unencumbered by detail. Still, there are enough signifiers of a larger story—a contemporary scene in a bar, the Mvskoke adoption of Christianity—to highlight Harjo’s two modes. Her understanding of memory is both singular and collective. Although she dived into the autobiographical in previous collections, most successfully in the heartbreaking “A Map to the Next World,” here her “I” is often distant, present only as a vehicle of witness. More often we encounter a “we,” a kind of legion that Harjo creates, and from which Harjo’s grandfather Monahwee, a recurring figure in the prose sections, occasionally steps out. At certain points, the narrator encounters Monahwee on the page, and he becomes more than just a symbol of the past. In one lovely passage, during a drive, Harjo sees a vision of Monahwee riding a horse alongside her. “My grandfather had come back to show me how he folded time,” she writes. “The Old Ones will always tell you, your ancestors keep watch over you. Listen to them.”
Harjo is at her most overtly political in her prose passages, which detail how the prejudices of white America erode the lives of Monahwee and other Native Americans. But her poems, too, veer into critique, though their strength varies. In an early collection, “She Had Some Horses,” Harjo painted this arresting picture:
Harjo is stunning in these moments of brutality, when she exposes the human potential for evil. In “How to Write a Poem in a Time of War,” from the new collection, she shows a deft manipulation of structure, her dramatic enjambment (“What they cannot kill / they take”) giving depth to narrative turns and images. But, elsewhere, her control falters. The spectre of Trump haunts poems such as “Advice for Countries, Advanced, Developing and Falling,” but, in cases when the object of Harjo’s invective is vague (“dictators, the heartless, and liars,” as she writes in another poem), she loses the bull’s-eye strike of her specificity.
Though some poems toss shade in the direction of anonymous political powers, others explore the complex political position of Harjo herself. “And then what, you with your words / In the enemy’s language,” she writes. It’s one of the most striking, though underexplored, subjects of the collection: the space one occupies when assimilated into a powerful majority. Harjo interrogates both one’s responsibility toward one’s culture and the fear of being buried under its weight. The result gives a sense of nuance to her work, implicating the very words on the page. This “trade language,” as she later calls English, is weak, insufficient. It’s the language of the American story, and it comes freighted with all of that story’s history, atrocity, and false hope. How, she asks, can we escape its past?
Formally, Harjo leans toward short, clipped declaratives in “An American Sunrise,” to varying effect. The lines grant her authority, particularly in moments when she imparts tidy—though vastly poetic—adages, but they occasionally box in her language. (“I have fought each of them. / I know them by name. / From before I could speak,” she writes in the halting “The Fight.”) At their best, Harjo’s poems inform each other, linking her different modes, facilitating her tendency to zoom from a personal experience to a more empyrean one. Perhaps the most formally intriguing works are Harjo’s ekphrastic poems; a series of them, based on paintings by the Native American artist T. C. Cannon, is scattered throughout. Some feel knowingly plucked from context, their lyricism pleasantly restrained (“The right hand knows what the left / Hand is dreaming”), but they harmonize well with Cannon’s visual art, which are splashed with bold colors and patterns that conjure psychedelic, almost hallucinatory, portraits of Western landscapes and Native American life.
“The Past rose up before us and cried,” Harjo writes in “Song 7,” of the Cannon poems. The line brings us back to the book’s center, a space of retrospection. Of all the poems in the collection, it is “Becoming Seventy,” near the end, that is most in service to this project. In stanzas that gradually swell to short paragraphs, Harjo creates a loose meditation on memory, full of chameleonic images in which familial scenes intermix with mentions of a fox guardian and “Star Wars” and the sax solo in “Careless Whisper.” The muddle is intentional; Harjo’s canvas is sprawling, complex, but she wants to make the act of seeing it challenging. She sets the syntax of her sentences at odds with her stanzas, imbuing them with momentum, and the effect, for the reader, is of being ushered through a Whitmanesque cataloguing of time, thought, and feeling. Indeed, Whitman is a certain influence, but he and Harjo diverge in their sense of scope. Whitman placed his vision of humanity within his vision of America. Harjo, though very much a poet of America, extracts from her own personal and cultural touchstones a more galactal understanding of the world, and her poems become richer for it. Here, she says, is a living, breathing earth to which we’re all connected. Here is unbridled potential for the poetic—in everything, even in ourselves. In that fact is beauty, and perhaps redemption. “All memory bends to fit,” she writes. “We become poems.”
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