AN AMERICAN SUNRISE
By Joy Harjo
In June, after decades as a significant presence for poetry readers, Joy Harjo was named United States poet laureate. A member of the Muscogee Creek Nation, she’s the first indigenous poet to hold the post. This is overdue, and political: a reminder to those who view America as a white nation that we are nothing of the sort, and a reminder to those who believe it’s acceptable to terrorize and brutalize asylum seekers that the only real native Americans are pre-European indigenous peoples.
“An American Sunrise” is tribal history and retrieval. Harjo writes of ancestral lands and culture, and their loss, through personal, mythic and political lenses. In a prefatory prose statement Harjo explains the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which expelled tribes from their land, making explicit connection between past and present: “The indigenous peoples who are making their way up from the Southern Hemisphere are a continuation of the Trail of Tears.” She makes the connection again when, in “Exile of Memory,” a long poem of short parts, she describes the treatment of indigenous child migrants in the 19th century, with imagery suggestive of current headlines: “They were lined up to sleep alone in their army-issued cages.”
Harjo has several modes in this book, her latest of eight collections. There’s flat recitation of facts: “One March a few years back, I was in residence at a private women’s college in Atlanta,” begins a prose piece that summarizes a re-enactment of a 19th-century massacre, and concludes with a dead grandfather galloping along the highway on a horse. There’s incantation: “Bless the ears of this land, for they hear cries of heartache and shouts of celebration.” And there’s praise: “My man’s feet are the sure steps of a father / … when he laughs he opens all the doors of our hearts.”
“An American Sunrise” is full of celebration, crisis, brokenness and healing, with poems that rely on lyric techniques like repetition, avoidance of temporal specifics and the urge to speak collectively: “All night we dance the weave of joy and tears / all night we’re lit with the sunrise of forever.”
The scarcity of the quotidian here reflects Harjo’s embrace of poetry as ritual, perhaps as sacred, a form apart from life’s healthy trivialities. Yet this can make what’s deeply felt feel oddly impersonal. My favorite poems in this collection contain specific detail and description.
In “Washing My Mother’s Body,” Harjo’s speaker narrates: “I never got to wash my mother’s body when she died. / I return to take care of her in memory. / … I find the white enamel pan. … I pick up the bar of soap. … As I wash my mother’s face, I tell her / how beautiful she is.” Gesture swells into homage and complicates into anecdote, so that washing her mother’s arm leads to a reverie about her mother’s love of jewelry and to the “burn scar on her arm, / From when she cooked at the place with the cruel boss.” Ritual becomes visionary as the mother’s body becomes a crossroads of tenderness, suffering, joy and oppression both intimate and public.
And it helps show what’s at stake when, in “How to Write a Poem in a Time of War,” Harjo describes soldiers who “crawl the city, / the river, the town, the village, / the bedroom, our kitchen” — moving the violence close — and “eat everything. / Or burn it.” The poem also mentions “Our beloved twin girls curled up in their nightgowns, / next to their father and me.” How to write a poem in a time of war? Sing, Harjo says, of “our home place from which we were stolen / in these smoky green hills. / Yes, begin here.”
DAISY FRIED is the author of three books of poems, most recently “Women’s Poetry: Poems and Advice,” and poetry editor for the online literary resistance journal Scoundrel Time.
AN AMERICAN SUNRISE
By Joy Harjo
116 pp. W.W. Norton & Company. $25.95.
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