You have probably heard a Joy Harjo poem, you just may not know it. Joined arms in a public protest in the last two decades? Harjo’s lines have probably greeted you there. Gone to a wedding, or a funeral, recently? There’s a high likelihood you mourned or celebrated with her warm, embodied verse. Or maybe some lines by Harjo were spoken in your ear by a dear friend. Perhaps you glanced up on a stopped subway line, and saw some spray-painted on a wall.
Harjo’s warm oracular voice so lends itself to being out there in the world — spoken, placarded, among people — it would seem the most unusual place for it would be in something so lonely as a book.
For the first time since she began her post as US poet laureate, Harjo has a new collection, and we have a chance to see how that huge voice of hers feels in the quiet remove of the readerly solitude of two, as the poet Lawrence Joseph once described it.
“An American Sunrise” forms a powerful reminder as to why Harjo’s voice is so at home everywhere. It is an exile’s voice, the home of a woman whose home was taken from her and her ancestors, Mvskoke people, years ago. “If I turn to salt,” she writes in “Exile of Memory,” "It will be of petrified tears/ From the footsteps of my relatives/ As they walked west.
Drawing on stories of her grandparents, trips to the land which is now Oklahoma, “An American Sunrise” connects this violent expulsion to the current infernal moment, with children kept in cages at the southern US border. Long-time residents of American cities in need of care kicked out of this land.
The poem “Exile of Memory” moves like a long prayer, turning its gaze up and out, creating a sense of time which is enlarging and spiritual. In spite of the book’s title, darkness clings to the ground of this book. “But from the dark we felt their soft presences at the edge of our/ mind,” Harjo writes of her ancestors. “And we heard their singing.”
One of the great pleasures of reading Harjo's work on the page is to feel one's mind carol again. To feel it sing along with the poet. Using repetitions, call outs to the reader, and lines so bent and true they sometimes sound like a country western song, Harjo is one of our most sonically pleasing poets.
“Someone sang for me and no one else could hear it,” Harjo writes in “A Refuge in the Smallest of Places.” Harjo sings not as a troubadour — that lyric tradition of courtly love poems that so easily curdle to the seduction artist’s vanity. She sings in gratitude. What a different form of song this makes. Self-less. Self-estranged, even. “It was my way of breaking free,” she writes. “I was anything but history/ I was the wind.”
“An American Sunrise” recognizes a few eternal movements. That until there isn’t one, every day is followed by tomorrow. Every night leads to a sunrise. The human animal, to Harjo, so clearly capable of cruelty, may also be defined by generosity. “Let’s remember to thank the grower of food,” she writes, “The picker, the driver,/ The Sun and the rain.”
What a concept: to thank the sun. To give hosannas to a force of nature that keeps giving and giving, no matter what we do. One day, science tells us, it will stop. In the meantime, the sun regards us whether we have abused the earth or fought for its sovereignty. Whether we are kind, or whether we are killers.
When a poet scales her gaze so grandly, something strange and miraculous happens to poetry. It opens up and becomes more than a mere literary device, it becomes a delivery system of wonder. It turns into a unit of delight that, like power, must be shared.
Only Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the 100-year-old bookseller, publisher and poet, has written verse this wondrous at the source of all life. Like him, Harjo’s goal as a poet has been to wake us up, to talk to us as if there is nothing so natural as singing. It is impossible to read this beautiful book and not wonder if our world would be a little better if more of us remembered how.
AN AMERICAN SUNRISE: POEMS
By Joy Harjo
W.W. Norton, 116 pp. $25.95
John Freeman is the editor of Freeman’s and author of “Dictionary of the Undoing.”