By Joy Harjo. W.W. Norton & Company, 2019. 144 pages. $25.95/hardcover; $15.95/paperback.
This must-read book begins with this inscription:
For the children, so they may find their way through the dark—
They are all our children.
These words set the tone for these poems and stories of Joy Harjo’s Mvskoke people, who, like most Native American peoples, were forced from their homelands by the government and armies of the United States of America. The poems address Harjo’s desire that “we all find the way home.”
These are, necessarily, political poems, but Harjo de-weaponizes the language so that her stories can be heard, and thus she helps to create a sense of shared community rather than provoke combative arguments. This is not done by prettifying the language but rather by speaking truth precisely.
Most of these poems are so carefully crafted that, while they often resist summarization, they never fail to reward an attentive reading. And while the poet “grow[s] tired of the heartache / . . . / Passed from generation / To generation,” she reminds herself—and us—that while we must “give honor to the house of the warriors,” we must remember that it “cannot exist without the house of the peacemakers.”
A major theme of this work is captured in the powerful first stanza of Harjo’s poem “Washing My Mother’s Body”:
I never got to wash my mother’s body when she died.
I return to take care of her in memory.
That’s how I make peace when things are left undone.
I go back and open the door.
I step in to make my ritual. To do what should have been done,
what needs to be fixed so that my spirit can move on,
So that the children and grandchildren are not caught in a knot
Of regret they do not understand.
Harjo’s song sequence, “Mama and Papa Have the Going Home Shiprock Blues,” based on T. C. Cannon painting tiles of the same name, portrays the cry and fear of displaced people whose children are corralled, stolen, and scattered: “dragged / To Indian school and never returned.” People who were forced to realize that for them, “The Future was a path through soldiers / With Gatling guns and GMO spoiled crops / Motioning us to safety.”
I was writing a letter to my granddaughter and trying to tell her about how moved I have been reading An American Sunrise, but how do you tell a 12-year-old about the way U.S. soldiers treated the Native American people? “They eat everything. / Or burn it. / They kill what they cannot take. / They rape. What they cannot kill they take.”
Shame overwhelmed me. I wanted to pretend otherwise. And yet, do I want my granddaughter to live with the kind of naïve innocence that enables such atrocities?
“We lost everything,” Harjo writes, “here, at the edge of America.”
Harjo’s powerful metaphors point us toward that which we do not have words for (or perhaps that for which we have refused to find words) yet nevertheless understand, because they exist on “the ancient road the soul knows.”
Like Naomi Shihab Nye and Lucille Clifton, Harjo writes out of the experience of the marginalized and oppressed. Her poems speak difficult truths but still find ways to ground themselves in “[a]nother level of love . . . proclaiming goodwill to all men who have lost their way in the dark.”
Each time I read these poems, my understanding grows; my sadness increases. Harjo’s words give shape to the senselessness of human degradation in the way that only the best of storytellers are able to do. Her poems remind us of who we have been and require us to look at who we have become. Wayne Karlin does this in much the same way in his most recent novel, A Wolf by the Ears, which explores the slave rebellions during the War of 1812 and the shameful ways White Americans treated enslaved people of African descent during that time.
The Holocaust survivor and author Elie Wiesel was keen to note, “Whoever listens to a witness, becomes a witness.” Harjo’s An American Sunrise has confronted me with the blinders my White-centric education placed on me so that I could pretend I knew something about Indigenous peoples, when in truth I knew little. These poems serve as a powerful wake-up call, requiring us to ask new questions and insisting that we show up in new ways. An American Sunrise is a book that penetrates our comfort zones and makes us all witnesses to a shameful history. It urges us to wake up and show up, to find our own way home through the dark.
Michael S. Glaser served as poet laureate of Maryland from 2004 to 2009. He is a professor emeritus at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. His website is michaelsglaser.com.