Friday, December 13, 2013

Joy Harjo writes devastatingly beautiful stuff.

It is life affirming. Aspirational. Mythic.

Who would not want to be a poet if that meant one could write like Joy Harjo? Her book The Woman Who Fell From The Sky begins with a prayer, a tribute to Audre Lorde. I'm going to run the whole thing here, because there's no place I can see to cut it:

Reconciliation  A Prayer

We gather at the shore of all knowledge as peoples who were put here by a god who wanted relatives.

This god was lonely for touch, and imagined herself as a woman, with children to suckle, to sing with–to continue the web of the terrifyingly beautiful cosmos of her womb.

This god became a father who wished for others to walk beside him in the belly of creation.

This god laughed and cried with us as a sister at the sweet tragedy of our predicament–foolish humans–

Or built a fire, as our brother to keep us warm.

This god who grew to love us became our lover, sharing tables of food enough for everyone in this whole world.

Oh sun, moon, stars, our other relatives peering at us from the inside of god's house walk with us as we climb into the next century naked but for the stories we have of each other. Keep us from giving up in this land of nightmares which is also the land of miracles.

We sing our song which we've been promised has no beginning or end.

All acts of kindness are lights in the war for justice.

We gather up these strands broken from the web of life. They shiver with our love, as we call them the names of our relatives and carry them to our home made of the four directions and sing:

Of the south, where we feasted and were given new clothes.

Of the west, were we gave up the best of us to the stars as food for the battle.

Of the north, where we cried because we were forsaken by our dreams.

Of the east because returned to us is the spirit of all that we love.

for the Audre Lorde Memorial 1993

As her prayer unfolds, Harjo validates everything about us, even though we might gorge ourselves or give up "the best of us to the stars as food for the battle." I'm not sure that Harjo is really praying that "the spirit of all that we love" be returned to us. It seems to me that she's certain that is exactly what will happen. And she's sharing what she knows with us.

Harjo knows this sort of thing because she's always asking questions and getting answers back from somewhere. "Who invented death and crows and is there anything we can do to calm the noisy clatter of destruction?" she asks.

And, from precisely the somewhere to which I so recently referred, comes the answer:

When I hear crows talking, death is a central topic. Death often occurs in clusters, they say. They watch the effect like a wave that moves out from the center of the question. The magnetic force is attractive and can make you want to fly to the other side of the sky.

In One Hundred Years of Solitude, the gypsy Melquiades writes the history of the Buendia family, from its founder to the last Aureliano; writes in Sanskrit, I think, and then in code, writes relentlessly to chronicle the early history of the Buendias, so that he might catch up to the present and write the Buendias’ history as it unfolds, writes relentlessly so that he might go beyond the present to write the future of the Buendias as he envisions it.

Anyway, the Harjo I’m reading today seems to write our past, present and future in much the same magically competent way. But I can tell you that before this morning, I never appreciated Joy Harjo so much. Today I’m feeling her stuff deeply, not just in my brain, but in my skin and muscle, in my bones.

That sudden difference in my perception has seemed to come to me more often as I’ve begun to assume myself a poet. I was writing poetry for a good while before I experimented with the notion that I was a poet, and calling myself a poet for much longer before I realized how important other poets are to me, how much I like them, how much wisdom and grit and grace they possess, how much I want to be like them.

Maybe I had to call myself a poet before I could see that however great other poets are, they are also mostly people and can be understood on that basis. And so my appreciation has grown and I’ve bought some more poetry books and hopefully a few poets got slightly, very slightly, bigger royalty checks. One must hope.

But hope ain’t enough. Maybe the other lesson here is that the way to support poets is to first teach others to write poetry and find ways to nurture that effort in others until they begin to feel the swelling in their breasts that they, also, are poets and look around to see how many poets there are and get to hobnobbing with them, until all around it gets to feeling like a nation of poets.

Forget, a nation of individualists, forget all the old metaphors, a herd of whatevers, let’s us pass out the paper and pencils and pour or hearts out. Let’s build a nation of poets. Of good old ‘Merican poets. 

We all have a song inside. Poetry is a way to get to that song. The expression of those many songs taking shape as millions of pencilled poems on millions of paper scraps is the path to becoming a nation of poets. Joy Harjo's poetry is constantly uncovering songs and dance and drums and the profound music of silence, both inside and out.

The soundlessness in which they communed is what I imagined when I talked with the sun yesterday. It is the current in the river of your spinal cord that carries memory from sacred places, the sound of a thousand butterflies taking flight in windlessness.

                                 from Harjo's "Wolf Warrior"

Within that song was the beauty of horses. My son's name means lover of horses.

                                 from Harjo's "Sonata for the Invisible"

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