This week we're taking a closer look at Powell's Pick of the Month An American Sunrise by Joy Harjo.
Joy Harjo is our new U.S. Poet Laureate and I'm so excited! Her poems never fail to make me gasp, they are always so perfectly truthful and beautiful, painful and real. This collection weaves between the past and present of both her tribe and her personal experiences and is once again gasp-worthy. — Leah C.
All this past, distressing week, it’s been an unexpected jolt of joy to remember that our current U.S. Poet Laureate is Joy Harjo. Even now, when so much bigotry is being sanctioned or tolerated or passively renounced by America’s leaders, the official poet of the United States is a Native woman (Muscogee Creek Nation) whose work is inspired by First Nation history and traditions, and rooted in social justice and feminism. If Washington is a swamp, Harjo’s appointment is like chancing upon a field of marsh marigold; it’s an encouraging reminder that not everything in our capital needs to be drained.
Native American Heritage Month
November is National Native American Heritage Month and in honor of this nation’s first people and their rich history, we are featuring books by Indigenous authors.
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In her new poetry collection, An American Sunrise
, Harjo’s subject is the 19th-century forced exile of the Mvskoke people from their homeland east of the Mississippi to the Oklahoma Territory. The poems, which are dazzling in their mix of mourning and fierce seizing of joy, are interspersed with brief accounts of Harjo’s family history and attendant moments in American history. Harjo frequently expresses her uneasiness with this project, concerned that dragging the ghosts of the past into the present will only further instill a sense of exile and alienation, as in “Exile of Memory”: “Do not return, / We were warned by one who knows things / You will only upset the dead....And then what, you with your words / In the enemy’s language, / Do you know how to make a peaceful road / Through human memory?” Writing from what she, in the poem "A Refuge in the Smallest of Places," calls “the timeless room of lost poetry” Harjo makes the case that her work, though painful, is a necessary act not just of commemoration but activism for this generation’s exiles, making their way north into a place where “demons” come “with ropes and cages / To take my children from me and imprison us.”
Though the poems often invoke the pain of exile and genocide, they are also deeply concerned with the speaker’s positive relationships to nature, artistic expression, romantic love, and motherhood. In the sweet “My Man’s Feet,” the lover celebrates: “They are heroic roots / You cannot mistake them / For any other six-foot walker / I could find them in a sea of feet / A planet or universe of feet.” Likewise, the theme of generations is a frequent source of joy and hope, as in “Seven Generations”: “Beneath a sky thrown open / to the need of stars / To know themselves against the dark....we dance the weave of joy and tears / All night we’re lit with the sunrise of forever / Just ahead of us, through the trees / One generation after the other.”
It’s impossible to read Harjo’s furious and mournful poems of loss without your heart aching. But is likewise impossible to read her poems of resistance, persistence, and — from a non-Native reader’s perspective — radical empathy for nature without sharing Harjo’s belief that there is a hard but sure road through memory to a more equitable place.
Bless us, these lands, said the rememberer. These lands aren’t our / lands. These lands aren’t your lands. We are this land.
And the blessing began a graceful moving through the grasses of time, from the beginning, to the circling around place of time, always moving, always
Check out the rest of our Picks of the Month here