Joy Harjo, Photo by Kathleen McCoy
Joy Harjo, Photo by Kathleen McCoy
I held my breath as I read the “Yes” email from Joy Harjo’s agent, Blue Flower Arts. Harjo had agreed to cut short a jazz and blues festival performance to participate as featured poet for our local rendition of 100 Thousand Poets for Change (on Facebook and as “100 Thousand Poets for Change SUNY Adirondack Writers Project”). Last fall I had the privilege of talking with the aptly named Joy Harjo, the Mvskokee/Creek poet who had just won the Wallace Stevens Award and who stands today as one of the pre-eminent voices in contemporary American poetry.
To read Joy Harjo’s poetry, particularly Conflict Resolution, is to feel like we’re in the presence of a vatic voice, a prophet singing with the power of a volcano and the near-hush of a breeze. The seeming simplicity of her style is complicated by the power of tradition and the adaptation of native forms like legends, myths, native songs, blues, jazz. Modulating all these art forms is a powerful voice. When asked how she conceives of the voice in her poetry, Harjo told 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.”
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 forms of story, poem, song, 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 even art forms, mingling poems born of meditation with those those that reflect ceremony, song, lament, wisdom, and story. 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 her 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 laughed, “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 concluded her memoir Crazy Brave, 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 assured 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 that serve as meditations on forgiveness and spiritual reconciliation (“This Morning I Pray for My Enemies” and “Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings”).
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).
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 asked 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 responded 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.
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 mark in time the woes of flesh and the joys of spirit.