At Last

It has happened at last. I’m not talking about the latest terror attack or presidential candidate gaffe or our vacation. I’m talking about my baby.

Not the one that graduated this spring. The one I’ve been trying to hatch for more years than I care to admit.

It was a long labor, and longer waiting for one of about ninety slowly-sent submissions to become an acceptance. But eventually, it did. Now, in the past twenty-four hours, I’ve had to catch up on work, write for my church, let family and friends hear my news, plan a couple of local book launches, and marvel at the two boxes full of books that are lounging in the middle of the dining room table like they own the place. (I won’t share the state of my house right now, but those boxes are the least of it.) But it feels like that sweaty, slightly breathless bliss of standing on the little mountain you’ve just topped and surveying a panorama of tree-lined mountains in mist.

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Word Tech, 2016 Encaustic art by Kathy Ligouri; book design by Susan Pearce

I’m just grateful it’s arrived at last–thanks in no small measure to the many poet-friends who mentored it out of me–that I’m happy to scoop it up in its buntings until I remember it’s really just words on paper. It won’t close the equity gap; it won’t provide clean water; it won’t end war.

But it’ll offer forty-eight poems to the world–whatever that’s worth.

When you write because you can’t imagine not writing, the boxes on the table are a surprise inheritance. Almost.

Arm-y: On Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus

Good and entertaining review of Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus.

Marilynonaroll's Blog

Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus was a finalist for the National Book Award, and I’m glad about that. I — in an ironic twist, as I love to eat octopus — was consumed by it. It struck me as a beautifully balanced braid of science, human interest, and philosophical inquiry. She informs us about this fascinating cephalopod and what research is discovering about them; gives us intimacy with both her own experience with researching the book and with the people she encountered who know about, work with, and love octopuses (yes, that’s the preferred form of it — octopus is a Greek-derived word, but the -i is Latinate ending)(or something like that), as well as the octopuses themselves, who stole the show; and uses the experience as a way to think about consciousness. This is what I love about this kind of nonfiction, that braiding technique. The philosophical…

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Sacred Sister: The Voice and Vision of Joy Harjo

 

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Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings should be required reading for each presidential candidate this year, as well as for the rest of us who crave air and earth, word and music, story and myth, who measure our lives in the woes of flesh and the joys of spirit.

To read Joy Harjo’s poetry, particularly Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings (W.W. Norton, 2015), is to feel like we’re in the presence of a vatic voice, a prophet singing with the power of a volcano and the hushed rustle of a breeze. The seeming simplicity of her style is complicated by the power of tradition and the adaptation of native forms like tribal legends, myths, songs, blues, jazz. Modulating all these art forms is a powerful voice. When asked how she conceives of the voice in her poetry, Harjo tells me, “I feel like the poetry voice is its own voice. It’s the same voice as my saxophone voice. It has its own heft and weight and size and shape and impetus, and it’s more than me. I don’t confuse it with me.”

Last fall I had the privilege of talking with the aptly named Joy Harjo, the Mvskokee/Creek poet who had just been announced as the Wallace Stevens Award winner and who stands as one of the pre-eminent voices in contemporary American poetry. The surface simplicity of her language belies a complex and multilayered approach to identity, ecology, politics, feminism, and pacifism as much as to the forms of art itself. She creates a fertile space for peace between and among the arts of story, poem, song, wisdom writing, ceremony, lament, story, dance, and visual art. Her most recent book, Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings, reads like her essential message to the world, quite personal, but always rising to the tribal and above the tribal to the universal and even the cosmic observation, offering a sense of history, interrelatedness, and the deeply human drive to create that transcends genres and forms. The book incorporates some pieces revised since her How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems, her memoir Crazy Brave, as well as new work.

Conflict Resolution alternates artfully between short, provocative, lyrical prose and poems, a technique her also used in earlier books like The Woman Who Fell from the Sky and A Map to the Next World. In these books her aim was to create a “sense of oral performance.” She laughs, “I don’t know if anybody got it.” Map ends with the poem “The Beautiful Perfume and Stink of the World,” a piece whose title illustrates the poet’s ability to embrace the ugly with the beautiful, and whose structure continues the conversation between prose and poetry. This embrace of dialectics is an overtly political act in her earlier work. In “It’s Difficult Enough To Be Human,” one of Harjo’s columns for The Muscogee Nation News in June 2007, reprinted in Soul Talk, Song Language: Conversations with Joy Harjo, she writes:

Maybe if we take care of our own story of our people, and make a story of justice, honesty, with a vision of caring for all within the tribe, we might inspire the same in others. If I remember the story correctly, we had no need for jails, for institutions, for military transport jets. We had everything we needed. We took care of each other. (100)

This ethos of compassion that she sees in her unvarnished view of Native cultures becomes a political stance: “Everything is political, whether you choose to see it that way or not. I’ve weathered fierce tribal politics, canoe club politics, music, poetry, and everything has politics . . . . And even that you are saying or doing something makes a stand” (Soul Talk 52). Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings is no less political, beginning with a quote from Phillip Deere which states that “Only the Indian people are the original people of America . . . . Every tribe has a trail of tears. We wonder when it is going to end” (1). Yet the structure, the force field, the life-giving water of Conflict Resolution is invoked in the second half of the volume’s title, which proclaims that we—all human beings—are sacred. We can relearn our interconnectedness to the earth and to each other. The school that teaches this is the school of art—of song, of poetry, of ceremonial dance, of story—and that school was built on Native ground.

As she reveals in her memoir Crazy Brave (W.W. Norton, 2012), Harjo chose early between life with a charismatic but alcoholic Native man and poetry. You can guess which won. Conflict Resolution showcases Harjo’s ability to make spiritual connections between her Native culture and what she calls the American “overculture” in a way that John Scarry compares to W.B. Yeats (“Representing Real Worlds: The Evolving Poetry of Joy Harjo” in World Literature Today 66.2, spring 1992). This connection intrigues me deeply, as a writer who has been dabbling in her own Anglo-Irish roots. Harjo assures me that the Irish and the Native share much in common, such as their fondness of poetry, song, the land, politics, alcohol, but also dreams and the spirit, and their historical experience of being shunned, exiled, disenfranchised, discounted.

Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings proffers its wisdom literature in four parts: “How It Came To Be,” “The Wanderer,” “Visions and Monsters,” and “The World.” The book shows the range of responses a healthy person can have to cultural dysfunction and alienation, from the wry humor in the creation myth “Rabbit Is Up to Tricks” (“Rabbit realized he’d made a clay man with no ears”) to the historical correction in “We Were There When Jazz Was Invented” to ceremonial dance-songs such as “Had-It-Up-To-Here Round Dance” to elegy (“The First Day Without a Mother”) to autobiographical songs like “Indian Night School Blues” to poems which serve as meditations on forgiveness and spiritual reconciliation (“This Morning I Pray for My Enemies” and “Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings”).

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Joy Harjo at 100 Thousand Poets for Change, SUNY Adirondack Writers Project -Photo by Kathleen McCoy

By the time we get to the final section of the book, we are ready for deep work of reconciliation that Harjo initiates as facilely in poetic prose as in poetry and song. In “You Can Change the Story, My Spirit Said to Me as I Sat Near the Sea,” the speaker recalls “the story of the killing of a walrus who is like a woman,” and feels compelled to “sing the story” because “It is still in my tongue, my body, as if it has lived there all along, though I am in a city with many streams of peoples from far and wide across the earth” (104). The problem is plainly stated at the end: “We make a jumble of stories. We do not dream together” (104). If we would bother to know each other, to share our stories, to listen to the earth and to each other, we could dream together. The common dream is what Adrienne Rich called the dream of a common language. Harjo much admired Rich, who returned the feeling, calling for “a greater conversation, its tones, gestures, riffs and rifts” born of a “stubborn belief in continuity and beauty, in poetry’s incalculable power to help us go on” (Rich, “Defying the Space that Separates Us” in Arts of the Possible W.W. Norton, 2002).

It is this power that Harjo claims unabashedly with the simple voice that is Mvskoke/Creek and transtribal, a voice that speaks from the deep well of American history. In “Speaking Tree” Harjo asks bluntly, “What shall I do with all this heartache?” In this poem placed astutely alongside poems of praise and joy, she concludes, “drink deep what is undrinkable.” The collection ends with hard-earned optimism, a dream of “Sunrise” in which “We move with the lightness of being, and we will go / Where there’s a place for us.”

Near the end of our conversation, I ask Harjo about “time-bending,” a gift she has said her seventh-great-grandfather Monahwee had which allowed him to perceive time differently and manipulate it. She responds that time-bending affects poetry because poetry, like song, depends heavily upon “rhythm.” She likens the prose pieces in Conflict Resolution to saxophone “riffs,” short interludes that themselves play a part in the larger rhythmic structure of the book. Rhythm is an element of the cycles of history, the cycles of human emotion, the cycles of earth, the cycles of human relationship—and certainly, the nature of time in poetry and song. Even in free verse, meter measures time. It is the means of breath, and breath is the means of freedom, and freedom is the basis of art.

 

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The Resurrection of Yde Girl

Yde Girl reconstruction, photo courtesy of mummytombs.com

Yde Girl reconstruction, photo courtesy of mummytombs.com

She was a teenage girl who may have limped, who loved, who worked, who worried two thousand years ago in Bourtangemoor, the Netherlands–who was sacrificed and planted in a bog only to be discovered when she popped up like a Halloween prank on the peatcutters who unwittingly uncovered her remains. My poem “The Resurrection of Yde Girl” has been recorded by WILDsound. It’s one of a series of mummy poems I am working on, some of which are forthcoming in Green and Burning (WordTech, 2016).

For a Beloved Professor, Colleague, Friend to All

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Killarney National Park, Páirc Náisiúnta Chill Airne

Hy-Brasil / by Kathleen McCoy

in memory of Carole Dunson Moreau

It’s time for waking only when I sleep.
A big-hearted brainy broad born
to be a teacher went to bed last night

and never rose again yet the sun
dared shine without her.
Nothing’s right. Sugar’s gone

to sand, to salt, to silt and still
the world is green. What is
the demarcation between Otherworld

and this? Muons, quarks, black matter
musings in the dark? Where do boundaries
rub to sparks? The mist is real. Or not.

In any case it keeps my fingers busy
with its runes. My mind, another
matter, sketches polyhedrons in the rain.

I surrender to the waves in dreams
of oceans I have yet to cross. Hands
must stroke the open wound to know

what’s real. I read tonight why Venus burns
so brightly, how sulphuric acid reflects
the rays of sun, how Hy-Brasil knits an Aran mist

of molecules that have passed through
St. Brendan and Molly Brown alike,
how it disappears after five hundred years,

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Carole Dunson Moreau

reappears, transmogrifies in fog
and crystal skies, unuttered word
at tongue’s moist tip.

I see her in my dreams, her smile still broad,
arms wide as the ocean she stirs with a pen,
its murky waters powerless to scare.

Breaking Open

Rarely comes a chance to break open the hard nut that encases the creative writer who’s necessarily enmeshed in a workaday schedule. This past month I’ve been broken open to new ways of processing experience and producing new work. While I will always prize the rumination/marination requisite for meaningful revision, I’ve learned to press pen to paper more quickly than I’ve ever done before thanks to the Tupelo Press 30/30 Project. An innovative venture, it features new work by pre-selected poets for thirty days. My work will come down tomorrow, so please check it out today. You can donate (tax-deductibly) to an award-winning independent literary press and select “Kathleen McCoy” in the “30/30 Poet” dropbox, or, if you see this after July 31st, name “Kathleen McCoy” anytime in the “Honor” box to credit my fundraising goal.

I’ve learned I can write everyday, even when the inevitable “stuff” of life comes up: surgery, two deaths, a reunion, six plane flights, gardening, grant-writing–oh, yeah, and an academic job. That none of this got in the way of the poems is a tribute to the support of my family, writer friends, Tupelo Press staff Kirsten Miles, Marie Gauthier, and Jeffrey Levine, and the other 30/30 poets for July:  Alexandra Beers, C.W. Emerson, Sara Femenella, Tobey Kaplan, Juan Morales, Carrie Nassif, and Kenneth Wagner.

Almost There for the 30/30 Project!

Dear friends and poetry lovers, the Tupelo Press 30/30 Project for July is wrapping up this coming week. I’m doing well but have not yet reached my goal. Please check out the poems–there are wonderful pieces by (in alphabetical order) Alexandria Beers, C.W. Emerson, Sara Femenella,Tobey Kaplan, yours truly, Juan Morales, Carrie Nassif, and Kenneth Wagner. Anything you can spare, please go to http://tupelopress.wordpress.com/3030-project/, click “Donate”; fill in your personal information, and in the “30/30 Poet” box, select “Kathleen McCoy” to credit my fundraising goal. . . . While you’re at it, be sure to scroll down on the main part of the web site to view the whole month’s poems by all of us. Thank you!