Poet Laureate Joy Harjo—Native American Poet Creates Universal Truths
Joy Harjo is the first Native American United States Poet Laureate, but the power of her words and the beauty of her poetry extend far beyond the first peoples of the America continent.
Thursday evening the Bryan Cultural Series brought “An Evening with Joy Harjo” to the Outer Banks. It was a virtual event, but whether in person, as originally planned, or via Zoom, Harjo’s mastery of language and the human condition is unmistakable.
Harjo is a member of the Muskogee Indian tribe and much of the imagery she uses, as well as the philosophic underpinnings of her work, are rooted in Native American culture. Yet the truths she reveals transcend those borders.
She began the evening reading “Eagle Poem.” Written in 1990, the poem took shape when she walked out of a sweat lodge and saw four eagles circling overhead. For many of the 500 plus tribes of North America the eagle is special.
“Most of us recognize the eagle as a kind of emissary or intermediary between here and the heavens to pray,” she said.
The poem, she explained, “(Is) a prayer of sorts. I think of…most poems as prayers,” she added.
To pray you open your whole self
To sky, to earth, to sun, to moon
To one whole voice that is you.
The poem ends describing the cycle of life.
We are truly blessed because we
Were born, and die soon within a
True circle of motion,
Like eagle rounding out the morning…
The themes she creates with “Eagle Poem” are repeated throughout her work, but those themes are part of a universal language, and the symbols and imagery are unique to Native American cultures but are part of universal truths.
As she introduced Rabbit Is Up to His Tricks, she noted that Rabbits are the tricksters of Muskogee stories, but the trickster is found in all cultures.
“What you find is that usually if you if you look at societies all over the world. Everyone has clown figures. And if you'll notice they usually sit near the senior power. And that's because those sitting in power can get so excited about it or taken up with the power that they forget that the power does not belong to them is given to them,” she said.
One of the elements that make the poem so wonderful is the trickster ends up being tricked.
It seems, so the story goes, that Rabbit had played so many tricks that “…no one would play with him;/He was lonely in this world.”
So he decided to make a man. He breathed life into the man and began teaching him things—how to steal a chicken, how to steal corn, how to steal someone’s wife.
The rabbit felt powerful and the man felt powerful. And the man kept stealing more and more. “His wanting only made him want more./Soon it was countries, and then it was trade.”
As the man gathered more and more, he took the land where Rabbit lived. “Forests were being mowed down all over the world.”
But when Rabbit tried to stop his creation, he realized he had made a mistake.
Rabbit’s trick had backfired.
Rabbit tried to call the clay man back,
But when the clay man wouldn’t listen
Rabbit realized he’d made a clay man with no ears.
Rabbit Is up to His Tricks has a lot of the elements that make Harjo’s poetry so wonderful. The language is accessible; the characters that she brings to life are recognizable; and perhaps most significantly, she tells a story.
Her story telling is very much a part of who Harjo is.
She had a very difficult childhood that included an alcoholic father and stepfather. At 16 she was able to get into the Santa Fe Indian School.
Indian boarding schools were originally a means to force Native Americans to assimilate into American culture. By the time Harjo arrived in the late 1960s things were changing, although there were elements of the old and new side by side.
“On one hand we had this old big system, and the other hand we had these teachers who were pretty radical, teaching us. And boy we thrived under that because, if you can imagine being a young artist and then being native, and then you come together with the whole school of natives. It was so creative and we were aware that we're doing something important,” she said.
From that experience came the poem “Indian School Night Song Blues,” an evocative poem that gives character vignettes of the girls in the school. What emerges from that is the story of the time Harjo spent there, and the conflict that existed between the traditional militaristic view of the boarding school and the newer more creative view of what it should be.
There is Marlene…”Jackson Pollock in a dress…” Marlene would sneak out to the Indian Hospital with the desserts she had saved up from the cafeteria for the past week.
“They eventually threw her out. ‘The hospital carried no insurance to cover the harm./She might do,” we learn.
And Venus, who was a “real singer.” Everyone knew she was “…going to make it to Broadway either New York or Albuquerque…”
And then there are the girls who don’t make it, who, according to the Bureau of Indian Affairs “... doesn't play well with others/won’t speak or look us in the eyes/talks to ghosts./But we are what they're really saying is, we have the guns and money and we have your children.”
The poem is intense and troubling, yet it is a window into world that we would not know otherwise. And what is most striking about that world, is that, for all its tragedy, we see ourselves as teenagers in those girls.
One of the things that made the evening so enjoyable is how approachable Harjo seems. At one point she ways a poem she is about to read is intense and then adds, “But they're all a little intense.”
That intensity returns time and time again. One of the most poignant poems she read was “Washing My Mother’s Body,” a poem that came from the anguish she felt when circumstances prevented her from washing her mother’s body after she ha died, a ritual she felt she needed to do. When introducing the poem, Harjo pointed to her poem as a way to illuminate how important poetry can be.
“I guess I'm reading it to to remind you that you can use poetry as a useful tool. Some people get afraid of it and run away,” she said.
The poem explores so much about her mother, her beauty, her determination and the love that she had for her daughter. There is the “daybook in which she has left me notes to find when she is gone…”
There is humor, her Creek husband telling Harjo in the poem that “A woman should be treated honored like a queen.”
“Ha I laugh and ask him. Then why aren’t you cooking my dinner,” she writes.
The poem is beautiful, elegiac and carries with it the human experience.
It is an intense poem, but offers a window into a wider world of the human condition. A shared language through the eyes and imagery of the Native American experience.