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 she 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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Poetry of Witness

How do you feel about “poetry of witness”? I’m referring to a still-debated term used by Carolyn Forche and other poets that respond in their poems to the injustices, oppression, and violence suffered by others.

At the recent AWP conference in Boston, I heard wonderful poets–from the Old Guard and the Newer  alike–including Sharon Olds, Olga Broumas, Kathleen Graber, and Kimiko Hahn–praise Adrienne Rich and Muriel Rukeyser. Carolyn Forche is a long favorite of mine as well.

It’s one of many paths poetry can take, and this one can be fraught. My poetry mentors of the ’80s were mostly men who were, while brilliant artists, indoctrinated in the view that any brand of “political poetry” was, categorically, bad. Today I’m sure their views are more nuanced. At least, I like to think so. I don’t think they would have argued that Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est” is a bad poem, nor Randall Jarrell’s “The Death of the Ball-Turret Gunner,” but when it came to feminism, domestic violence, abject poverty, and a host of other social issues, they turned away, huddled over poems that remained intensely personal or philosophical. I’ve noticed, over the years, that much of this work is written by women or people of color against whom they would never overtly discriminate today.

What makes “political poetry” good or bad? When does some measure of social activism cross the invisible (perhaps undulating) demarcation between compassion and schlock or opportunism or appropriation of others’ experience?

For Adrienne Rich

They led a writing workshop together in Austin...

Rich (right), with writer Audre Lorde (left) and Meridel Le Sueur (middle) in Austin Texas, 1980 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the memory of Adrienne Rich, one of our country’s finest poets who died last week, I offer the following poem, penned a couple of decades ago and revised very recently:

The New Androgyne

She will be like the deaf mute                                                 turned composer:

ink will pulse               through her veins the color

of half-lit midnight                  when grass sways slightly

By turns she will be            gardener and stargazer                  peasant

and prophet                      bag-lady                                   and carpetbagger

pointillist                                                                 and modern dancer

delivering mother                                and midwife delivering

the mother                                           and her child

You will see her                           gradually

rising with the sun                   her origins uncertain

her language                        raw and bold                       her hands stained

strong-boned                                 her eyes deep                    as Andromeda

She will take                                   by the first two fingers

anyone who will                             enter the labyrinth                               listen

to the crackling of leaves                     as she infuses them                with breath

and witness                         her gypsy dance                as she steadily

wrenches                                 an arc of bone                          from her side

–Kathleen McCoy

In the past two weeks I’ve had a house fire, attended a magical manuscript conference, and lost Adrienne Rich.  While I won’t forget any of these occurrences, one of them I can now acknowledge with this piece. For the way she championed the oppressed of all types–gays and lesbians, men and women of color, the imprisoned, the marginalized, the impoverished, and the politically oppressed (all people who have been silenced or ignored)–and did it with beauty, grace, and always, compassion, I am deeply grateful.

Rich helped to show the world the value of the women’s liberation motto that “The personal is political.” This is a good time to reread some of her unforgettable poems like An Atlas of the Difficult World, “Sources,” “Integrity,” “Diving Into the Wreck,” “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law,” and “Twenty-One Love Poems.” Or you may want to read one of her landmark essays such as “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision,” “Vesuvius at Home: The Power of Emily Dickinson,” “Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying,” “Split at the Root,” or her historic rejection of the National Medal of Arts in 1997, when she dared to write to Jane Alexander, then head of the National Endowment for the Arts, that she could not accept an award for a few privileged artists when “the people at large are so dishonored” in this country.

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