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Unread 01-01-2020, 09:27 AM
Andrew Mandelbaum's Avatar
Andrew Mandelbaum Andrew Mandelbaum is offline
Join Date: Jul 2011
Location: Portland Maine
Posts: 3,627
Default Joy Harjo

I was thinking this morning about new years and world(s) ending. I am really thankful that Carla Hayden, the first woman and first African American serving as the Librarian of Congress, named Joy Harjo as the poet laureate. The often quoted business by Brecht about there still being singing in the dark times comes to mind alot lately. I hear an episode of Red Nation podcast with Nick Estes where First Nations peoples where discussing the rising awareness of the great extinction we are in the midst of and how the end of the world that has been so intimate the those First Nation's peoples may finally dawn upon the heirs of colonialism. Harjo's work seems so adept at confronting endings and beginnings. I have found good things in the work of plenty of the recent laureates but never felt the vocation and presence as a real thing until this pairing of poet and time. Hers really is the first Native American poet-work to sit in this place. She is steeped in the collapse, salvage, struggle and rebirth that we may soon also become intimate with. This is a way of being that has much less to do with genetic dregs than the weight of moments lived among a happening while informed by world-way outside the dominant. Anyway, I wanted to start a thread with her poems. The obvious first is here:

When the World as We Knew It Ended


We were dreaming on an occupied island at the farthest edge
of a trembling nation when it went down.

Two towers rose up from the east island of commerce and touched
the sky. Men walked on the moon. Oil was sucked dry
by two brothers. Then it went down. Swallowed
by a fire dragon, by oil and fear.
Eaten whole.

It was coming.

We had been watching since the eve of the missionaries in their
long and solemn clothes, to see what would happen.

We saw it
from the kitchen window over the sink
as we made coffee, cooked rice and
potatoes, enough for an army.

We saw it all, as we changed diapers and fed
the babies. We saw it,
through the branches
of the knowledgeable tree
through the snags of stars, through
the sun and storms from our knees
as we bathed and washed
the floors.

The conference of the birds warned us, as they flew over
destroyers in the harbor, parked there since the first takeover.
It was by their song and talk we knew when to rise
when to look out the window
to the commotion going on—
the magnetic field thrown off by grief.

We heard it.
The racket in every corner of the world. As
the hunger for war rose up in those who would steal to be president
to be king or emperor, to own the trees, stones, and everything
else that moved about the earth, inside the earth
and above it.

We knew it was coming, tasted the winds who gathered intelligence
from each leaf and flower, from every mountain, sea
and desert, from every prayer and song all over this tiny universe
floating in the skies of infinite

And then it was over, this world we had grown to love
for its sweet grasses, for the many-colored horses
and fishes, for the shimmering possibilities
while dreaming.

But then there were the seeds to plant and the babies
who needed milk and comforting, and someone
picked up a guitar or ukulele from the rubble
and began to sing about the light flutter
the kick beneath the skin of the earth
we felt there, beneath us

a warm animal
a song being born between the legs of her;
a poem.
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Unread 01-06-2020, 11:13 AM
R. Nemo Hill's Avatar
R. Nemo Hill R. Nemo Hill is offline
Join Date: Jan 2006
Location: Halcott, New York
Posts: 9,351

Gorgeous poem, Andrew.

A dear old friend of mine always used to insist to me that there has always been the same ratio of sanity to insanity in the world, that in all days (both current and ancient) there was the same proportion of people who were constructive to those who were destructive, that it never seemed to change. Since the ratio is skewed toward the destructive, it could seem a dire warning. But the permanence of that relation argues in favor of hope, the same hope that is found in this poem. Seeds are tiniest of things, but they are powerful survivors. Though we may need on some deeper level to learn the lessons of impermanence, I also believe that form migrates. Transformation is painful, yes, but even a landscape without us may prove to be full of seed-song.

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Unread 01-09-2020, 01:16 AM
R. S. Gwynn's Avatar
R. S. Gwynn R. S. Gwynn is offline
Join Date: Feb 2001
Location: Beaumont, TX
Posts: 4,645

The romantic believes that nature will save us; the classicist believes that we must save nature.
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Unread 01-09-2020, 06:51 AM
Andrew Mandelbaum's Avatar
Andrew Mandelbaum Andrew Mandelbaum is offline
Join Date: Jul 2011
Location: Portland Maine
Posts: 3,627

Originally Posted by R. S. Gwynn View Post
The romantic believes that nature will save us; the classicist believes that we must save nature.
Can't speak for Joy, but an obvious question given past categories and actions might be "What do you mean by "us", White Man?

The illness is the idea of nature as object. What is lost and re-imagined in poets like Harjo is the vision of all beings as subjects. That is the only nature. The nature of personhood. Diversity/distinction is housed in the many worlds of the many subjects. So I guess I don't see the categories of that post as relevant to a poet who is coming counter to the underpinnings of that type of "nature".

Yeah, Nemo. The cross-peoples categories of creative and destructive and the relation to balance are how I look at it too. I have been reading NAvajo philosophy for a paper and their category of Hózhó (roughly way of beauty) is a more complex unpacking of creative. I will send you a cool book when I am done with it.

Your post rung up this piece by Harjo:

Morning prayers

I have missed the guardian spirit
of Sangre de Cristos,
those mountains
against which I destroyed myself
every morning I was sick
with loving and fighting
in those small years.
In that season I looked up
to a blue conception of faith
a notion of the sacred in
the elegant border of cedar trees
becoming mountain and sky.

This is how we were born into the world:
Sky fell in love with earth, wore turquoise,
cantered in on a black horse.
Earth dressed herself fragrantly,
with regard for aesthetics of holy romance.
Their love decorated the mountains with sunrise,
weaved valleys delicate with the edging of sunset.

This morning I look toward the east
and I am lonely for those mountains
Though I’ve said good-bye to the girl
with her urgent prayers for redemption.

I used to believe in a vision
that would save the people
carry us all to the top of the mountain
during the flood
of human destruction.

I know nothing anymore
as I place my feet into the next world
except this:
the nothingness
is vast and stunning,
brims with details
of steaming, dark coffee
ashes of campfires
the bells on yaks or sheep
sirens careening through a deluge
of humans
or the dead carried through fire,
through the mist of baking sweet
bread and breathing.

This is how we will leave this world:
on horses of sunrise and sunset
from the shadow of the mountains
who witnessed every battle
every small struggle.
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Unread 01-09-2020, 08:56 AM
Jim Moonan Jim Moonan is offline
Join Date: Aug 2016
Location: Boston, MA
Posts: 2,878

Andrew: "The often quoted business by Brecht about there still being singing in the dark times comes to mind a lot lately."

Yes, it does in my mind, too.
I, too, love the Harjo poem you've posted to start the thread. I haven't yet dug into the second one but will. I just wanted to pick up on the comment you made (quoted above) and also the exchange you had with Nemo. Almost everything in the world today seems laden with a heaping dose of darkness to the degree that it provokes an instinctive fight/flight response in various ways. To me.

Ultimately yes, the world as we know it will pass away. One could argue that is all it ever does. And one could argue equally vociferously that all it ever does is the opposite. Nemo I think interjects that it is the process of transformation that is the crux of being and that there is a delicate balance of the creative and destructive forces that can tip things one way or the other. I wonder sometimes if we, the people, are just hard-wired to ask questions that need not be answered. I don't know if that is just me deferring...

But to the point of my responding: I was listening to a conversation just yesterday between Kevin Young (poetry editor of the New Yorker magazine) and Peter Balakian. It centered on the poem by Theodore Roethke entitled, In A Dark Time. (Here is the podcast for the conversation if you're interested in hearing it in full.)

The conversation got around to the larger implications of the poem (the poem explores the various psychic machinations of mental distress, fatigue, collapse, etc.) and how beautifully and darkly it speaks/applies to today's climate of darkness, fear, hope, despair, etc. Here is the poem:

In A Dark Time
by Theodore Roethke


In a dark time, the eye begins to see.
I meet my shadow in the deepening shade;
I hear my echo in the echoing wood—
A lord of nature weeping to a tree.
I live between the heron and the wren,
Beasts of the hill and serpents of the den.


What’s madness but nobility of soul
At odds with circumstance? The day’s on fire!
I know the purity of pure despair,
My shadow pinned against a sweating wall.
That place among the rocks—is it a cave,
Or winding path? The edge is what I have.


A steady storm of correspondences!
A night flowing with birds, a ragged moon,
And in broad day the midnight come again!
A man goes far to find out what he is—
Death of the self in a long, tearless night,
All natural shapes blazing unnatural light.


Dark, dark my light, and darker my desire.
My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly,
Keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I?
A fallen man, I climb out of my fear.
The mind enters itself, and God the mind,
And one is One, free in the tearing wind.

I know your hoping to catalog the poems of Joy Harjo here, but wanted to shoehorn this poem of Roethke's in because it felt a bit like kismet to me that I would come across it after just having read your post. I see some semblance between Roethke's poem and Harjo's.

I am not familiar with her poetry but am glad to have your introduction to it. I'm panicked by all the poems/poets I don't know about but of which I am becoming aware. I'll never get there. I live life way too slowly.
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Unread 01-09-2020, 10:40 AM
R. S. Gwynn's Avatar
R. S. Gwynn R. S. Gwynn is offline
Join Date: Feb 2001
Location: Beaumont, TX
Posts: 4,645

Harjo is a very fine poet, rhetorically skillful and passionate. But she continually harps on the saving powers of a lost world, an Eden if you will, where humans and nature were one. It's a belief that many hold.
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