Harjo, Joy: Mainstreaming Native American Idioms

As US Poet Laureate, Harjo has highlighted a Native American idiom in her poetry. She’s also authored a poetic memoir. Here are a couple of poems of hers that I liked.


I was a thought, a dream, a fish, a wing 

And then a human being 

When I emerged from my mother’s river 

On my father’s boat of potent fever 

I carried a sack of dreams from a starlit dwelling 

To be opened when I begin bleeding 

There’s a red dress, deerskin moccasins 

The taste of berries made of promises 

While the memories shift in their skins 

At every moon, to do their ripening

I love the last two lines of this poem. They bring memories alive, as they often seem. They also allude to how memories change as we become more nostalgic with time. Here’s another Joy Harjo poem.

How to Write a Poem in a Time of War

You can’t begin just anywhere. It’s a wreck.

                                                                                       Shrapnel and the eye

Of a house, a row of houses. There’s a rat scrambling

From light with fleshy trash in its mouth. A baby strapped to its mother’s back

Cut loose.                                                                     Soldiers crawl the city,

The river, the town, the village,

                                      The bedroom, our kitchen. They eat everything.

Or burn it.

They kill what they cannot take. They rape. What they cannot kill they take.

Rumors fall like rain.

                                     Like bombs.

                 Like mother and father tears swallowed for restless peace.

                                     Like sunset slanting toward a moonless midnight.

Like a train blown free of its destination.         Like a seed fallen where

There is no chance of trees                 or anyplace       for birds to live.

No, start here.                           Deer peer from the edge of the woods.

                                                                        We used to see woodpeckers

The size of the sun, redbirds, and were greeted

                                          By chickadees with their good morning songs.

We’d started to cook outside slippery with dew and laughter, ah those smoky sweet sunrises.

We tried to pretend war wasn’t going to happen.

Though they began building their houses all around us and demanding 

They started teaching our children their god’s story,

                                                               A story in which we’d always be slaves.

No. Not here.

You can’t begin here.

This is memory shredded because it is impossible to hold by words, even poetry.

These memories were left here with the trees:

The torn pocket of your daughter’s hand-sewn dress,

The sash, the lace.

The baby’s delicately beaded moccasin still connected to the foot,

A young man’s note of promise to his beloved —

                                                                              No! This is not the best place to begin.

Everyone was asleep, despite the distant bombs. Terror had become the familiar stranger.

Our beloved twin girls curled up in their nightgowns, next to their father and me.

If we begin here, none of us will make it to the end

                                                                                                               Of the poem.

Someone has to make it out alive, sang a grandfather to his grandson,

His granddaughter, as he blew his most powerful song into the hearts of the children.

There it would be hidden from the soldiers,

Who would take them miles, rivers, mountains from the navel cord place

Of the origin story.

He knew one day, far day, the grandchildren would return, 
generations later

Over slick highways                             constructed over old trails

Through walls of laws meant to hamper or destroy, over the 
libraries of

The ancestors in the winds, born in stones.

His song brings us to his home place in these smoky hills.

Begin here.

The form suits the content in this poem. The scattered lines show how war destroys us. This line ‘This is memory shredded because it is impossible to hold by words, even poetry’ shows the trauma of war, the loss, the helplessness of language in the face of atrocities, even complex language like poetry.

This post is a part of #BlogchatterA2Z 2023.

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