I think of Wind and her wild ways the year we had nothing to lose and lost it anyway in the cursed country of the fox.
I am captivated, curiously following the tentative trail of description poet Joy Harjo leaves behind her as an invitation into her world. Harjo’s world is rich with metaphor and meaning, and also firmly grounded in natural symbolism. With this opening line from her prose poem Grace, where else can a reader’s mind go but into the text that follows?
The haunting voices of the starved and mutilated broke fences crashed our thermostat dreams, and we couldn’t stand it one more time. So once again we lost a winter in stubborn memory, walked through cheap apartment walls, skated through fields of ghosts into a town that never wanted us, in the epic search for grace.
Joy Harjo is a feminist poet, musician, author and screenwriter of Native American (Cherokee and Creek) and European descent. With her trademark style of subversion, Harjo situates herself as a powerful poet who demands our attention. She occupies the borders of the writing world as a prose-poet; toys with word connotation in works such as Grace; and unearths cultural constructs of female beauty with her rounded way of using words and creating landscapes on the page. In her poetry, Harjo tackles especially complex emotions with direct, natural symbols, identifies the pain of being a woman-outsider, and witnesses and names the loss and betrayal stemming from the genocide and systematic control of her people and culture. The poems I cite here are from the collection of poems “She Rises Like the Sun,” edited by Janine Canan.
Like Coyote, like Rabbit, we could not contain our terror and clowned our way through a season of false midnights. These animals—rabbit and coyote—are tricksters in the Native American oral traditions; they are creatures comfortable in the liminal space between conscious and unconscious. Tricksters are known to be wildly unpredictable and often initiate a shattering of the status quo. They are usually portrayed as a supernatural character who appears in various guises and engages in mischievous activities. In myth and folklore, they are a circuitous kind of cultural hero. Bugs Bunny is one modern example, as are Puss-in-Boots and Puck from A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream.
Harjo plays a trickster herself in her unwillingness to submit to the dominant culture’s poetic rules and rhymes. As the trickster occupying the borderlands, she plays with these distinct edges skillfully with her use of symbols and her fluid movement between prose and poetry.
Many of Harjo’s poems are in celebration of the oral culture of her upbringing. She was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1951 and graduated from the writing program at University of Iowa. Her poems often focus on animals and nature as well as women and tribal myth. We can see in the following lines from Grace that she is steeped in Native American culture as she unearths the connotations of buffalo and corn.
I could say grace was a woman with time on her hands, or a white buffalo escaped from memory. But in that dingy light it was a promise of balance. We once again understood the talk of animals, and spring was lean and hungry with the hope of children and corn.
I am fascinated by this inquiry into the meaning of the word and concept of grace. In my conservative Christian upbringing, the word grace, so soft and unassuming, was loaded with a subversive feeling of masculine power and divine withholding. Though my practices in Kashmir Shaivism started to re-define the word for me as something more spacious, old wounds heal slowly. I still identify the word with an ethereal quality that is supposed to be warm and fuzzy, but has never been so simple for me. Harjo uses that internal unease her readers experience to open the doorway into a more clear articulation of the emotion she wants to convey.
Her words do much more than define an ambivalent relationship with grace: They express a complexity between the invisible and visible worlds that is developed later in the poem. She expands into a heart-breaking depth of pain alongside the lightness of elegant and beautiful language that perfectly captures the experience of grace in her family. We had to swallow the town with laughter, so it would go down easy, like honey. Highlighting the way that her family used humor to move through traumatic experiences, Harjo is humbly citing examples of how humans survive through the worst of times.
She also speaks as a strong outsider, committed to telling the truth of her own powerful experience. I would like to say, with grace, we picked ourselves up and walked into the spring thaw. We didn’t; the next season was worse. There is no sugar coating in her plain language. There is disappointment and a hard reality, faced with courage and, appropriately, grace.
Harjo also demonstrates her mastery for making the ineffable effable in numerous poems, but especially in the delicate contrast and beauty of Grace. She gently juxtaposes tangible daily materials with a richness of feeling that allow the reader to have an authentic experience. Here she is taking on one of the most slippery and elusive words in the Christian tradition and illuminating its quality as she felt it in a rest stop: And one morning as the sun struggled to break ice, and our dreams found us with coffee and pancakes in a truck stop along highway eighty; we found grace.
The readers expects for grace to come from a pristine, gilded building, but they find it instead in the Native American view that spirituality is infused in everyday life. The Harjos find grace, a divine moment, in one of the seemingly least holy of all environments, a truck stop. If spirit lives here, then there is nowhere it cannot be found. The choice of scenery shows a position of inner fortitude and a resiliency that is not based on external approval.
The last lines of Grace are incredibly powerful in revealing the open wound of a people who have been grossly mistreated. You went home to Leech Lake to work with the tribe and I went south. And, Wind, I am still crazy. I know there is something larger than the memory of a dispossessed people. We have seen it. Without contrived line breaks or mechanisms to toy with suspense, Harjo says what she wants to say. Like Joan Didion, whom I also admire for her piercing insight into cultural constructs, Harjo lays her cards out in the first sentence—no comma is used. She picks up the pace and connects two thoughts with the conjunction, and then she talks to the elements and brings in the image of wind, that ethereal, unpredictable force that connotes change and scattering. The last two sentences are short and strong with the declaration, the multiple syllables in dispossessed, and the simple four words of We have seen it. She does not need to describe it: the reader feelsit.
Harjo takes her place on the border between cultures again and again. In Book of Myths, she points to the discrepancy between how American and Native cultures see their women, foregrounding the beauty of Native women, even though they are not worshipped with the status of Marilyn Monroe. I would like to note that this is a poem written in true verse rather than as a prose poem, which accentuates the structured concepts of beauty she is pointing toward.
There is Helen in every language; in American her name is Marilyn/ but in my subversive country,/ she is dark earth and round and full of names/ dressed in bodies of women/ who enter and leave the knife wounds of this terrifyingly/ beautiful land;/ we call ourselves ripe and pine tree woman.
The use of earth and roundness provide images that empower women away from the violent and oppressive symbolism of patriarchal systems. Harjo is also pointing out the limiting and terribly painful view that one particular woman has it right, implying that all others are wrong, broken, or fall short. Held up next to a model, a woman is sure to fail in likeness, but if she is held up against the earth and seen as beautiful in her unique qualities, she may find liberation.
Marilyn Monroe herself is a strong symbol of a woman who appears to have it all, but there is a deep interior sadness or emptiness that ultimately leads to her suicide at a young age. Harjo does not need to go into this history; she trusts her reader will conjure these connections at the mention of the name. This trust adds to the bond Harjo creates between herself and her readers. There is a dialogue going on that spans space and time.
A similar clash between American and indigenous culture is again seen in White Bear where Harjo juxtaposes the symbols of the bus stop against the night sky; a knife next to corn meal; and an airplane circling above Mount St. Helens. She ends with the hopeful pairing of the ultimate opposites: all darkness/ is open to light. These symbols portray the struggle for spiritual identity in the modern world, a common theme in her work. Her poems often point toward a return to wildness as a medicine in which to remember our wholeness.
Even when the content is challenging, Joy Harjo’s poems conjure ease and spaciousness. I feel seen reading her poems; they bring me a greater sense of intimacy with myself and my surroundings. I remember myself in a way that calls on me to recognize my full human potential as a child of the earth. As a young feminist of mixed origin, mostly Western European and North American, I resonate strongly with the indigenous voice of Joy Harjo as she weaves her words between two cultures that are both separate and connected like a marble cake.
As Harjo says in her poem Remember: Remember the earth whose skin you are./ Red earth yellow earth white earth brown earth/ black earth we are earth. She is calling us all back home to our fullness.