Joy Harjo wants to reclaim America. That’s what I imagine as I read through the wide variety of poems in her most recent book. An American Sunrise plays with form and time, pulling together strands to weave a picture of the land, particularly the land traced by the journey of Harjo’s ancestors, the Muscogee (Mvskoke), on the Trail of Tears.
Harjo, who was the Poet Laureate of the United States in 2019, seems always mid-story in this collection. The past is never far from view, whether she is meditating on the battles that pushed the Mvskoke out of what became Alabama, or offering advice for an authentic life, as she does in the opening poem, ‘Break My Heart’:
“You will never sleep again
Though you will never stop dreaming
The end can only follow the beginning.
And it will zigzag through time, governments, and lovers.
Be who who you are, even if it kills you.
It will. Over and over again.
Even as you live.
Break my heart, why don’t you?”
She is also celebrating the power of poetry and story to create a different kind of world, so the past can form the future. In ‘Advice for Countries, Advance, Developing and Falling’ she lays out a vision: “We are making our grandchildren’s world with our words. We/perceive a world in which everyone sits at the table together,/ with enough for everyone.”
But that table is not easily approached. There is grief and loss to be remembered, even if it ultimately can’t extinguish the dream. In ‘The Story Wheel’ she imagines preparations for a tribal dance, a mother preparing “a new jingle dress” for her daughter and for her son, “a set of finely beaded gear.”
“All for that welcome home dance,
The most favorite of all—
when everyone finds their way back together
to dance, eat and celebrate.
And tell story after story
of how they fought and played
in the story wheel
and how no one
was ever really lost at all.”
The epic at the heart of this collection is ‘Becoming Seventy,’ an extended poem that celebrates the power of poetry to move us into a sphere deeper than the world often allows. It’s here that her specific story aims for something universal, ‘the communal heart’:
“Some of my memories pin to a minute
of love on a big screen in an
. . .
imagined future, or broken open when the sax solo of “Careless
Whisper” blows through the communal heart. Yes, there’s a cosmic
consciousness. Jung named it but it was there long before named
by Vedic and Mvskoke scientists. And there breathes stars here—
a cosmic hearteousness—the heart is the higher mind and noth-
ing can be forgotten there, no ever or ever. How do I sing this so I
don’t forget? Ask the poets.”
Joy Harjo speaks with the wisdom of the Oklahoma landscape in which she lives. But she’s after so much more.