The Poets Joy Harjo (1951- )


About the Poet

Feminist screenwriter and poet Joy Harjo relishes the role of "historicist," a form of storytelling that recaptures lost elements of history. Typically listed alongside native writers Paula Gunn Allen, Mary Crow Dog, Wendy Rose, and Linda Hogan, she strives for imagery that exists outside the bounds of white stereotypes. As a force of the Native American renaissance, she speaks the pain and rage of the Indian who lacks full integration into society. Harjo's antidote to despair is a vigorous reclamation of living. Her poems resonate with Indian journeys and migrations; her characters combat the cultural displacement that fragments lives and promotes killing silences.

Of Muscogee Creek, Cherokee, French, and Irish ancestry, she was born Joy Harjo Foster on May 9, 1951, in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She is a lifelong music lover who plays jazz saxophone and enjoys community stomp dances. After switching majors from art to poetry, she earned a B.A. in creative writing at the University of New Mexico and completed an M.F.A. at the University of Iowa, followed by cinema study at the College of Santa Fe in 1982. In addition to teaching at the universities of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Montana, she has served as Native American consultant for Native American Public Broadcasting and the National Indian Youth Council and director of the National Association of Third World Writers.

Influenced by the works of Flannery O'Connor, Simon Ortiz, Pablo Neruda, and Leslie Marmon Silko, Harjo began publishing in feminist journals, including Conditions, and in the anthologies The Third Woman (1980) and That's What She Said (1984). Her early work in The Last Song (1975), What Moon Drove Me to This? (1980), and She Had Some Horses (1983) ponders the place of women in a blended Anglo-native world. She rose above the "native poet" label with In Mad Love and War (1990), an examination of the vengeance unleashed by failed romance. Her feminism enhanced two cinema scripts, Origin of Apache Crown Dance (1985) and The Beginning. In 1994, she produced "The Flood," a mythic prose poem that links her coming of age to the "watermonster, the snake who lived at the bottom of the lake."

At the end of the twentieth century, while retaining her focus on gender and ethnic disparity, Harjo turned to universal themes. The Woman Who Fell from the Sky (1996), a volume of prose poetry, pairs creation and destruction. She juxtaposed benevolent native female voices in an anthology, Reinventing Ourselves in the Enemy's Language: Contemporary Native Women's Writing of North America (1997). In addition, she edits High Plains Literary Review, Contact II, and Tyuonyi. Her honoraria include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and Arizona Commission on the Arts, a first place from the Santa Fe Festival for the Arts, American Indian Distinguished Achievement award, and a Josephine Miles award.

Chief Works

One of Harjo's early triumphs, "The Woman Hanging from the Thirteenth Floor Window" (1983) describes conflict in the tense drama of an unnamed woman who hangs between survival and doom. Subtle touches characterize her personal torment as "her mother's daughter and her father's son." Crucial to the woman is motherhood and the impetus to lie still and cuddle a sleeping infant rather than "to get up, to get up, to get up" at the command of a harassing male, generalized as "gigantic men."

Harjo's coverage of impending suicide stresses "lonelinesses." In line 46, in view of pitiless women and others who clutch their babes like bouquets while offering aid, the speaker establishes that suffering and choice are an individual matter. From chewing at harsh truths, the hanging woman's teeth are chipped. The precarious either/or of her posture remains unresolved in the last four lines, suggesting that death in life mirrors the fatal leap.

A contemporary grudge piece, "New Orleans," explores the poet's trove of history-as-memory during a trek down the Mississippi to New Orleans. The speaker-traveler — obviously Harjo herself — carries preconceptions of an undercurrent of blood, of "voices buried in the Mississippi / mud." The native perspective emerges with wry humor: The poet-speaker envisions a trinket seller destroyed by magic red rocks that repay the unwary for wrongs that date to the European settlement of the New World. A deft shape-shift depicts the speaker, searching for a familiar Indian face, as a swimmer submerged in gore, "a delta in the skin."

As a well-honed tale withholds its climax, the non-linear poem, somewhat late in line 37, finds its target: Hernando De Soto, the death-dealing Spanish conquistador inflamed by the myth of El Dorado. In a city connected with black slavery, where merchants sell tawdry "mammy dolls / holding white babies," the topic ignores white-on-black crimes to needle De Soto, guilty of Latino-on-Indian violence. Shifting from the "lace and silk" luxuriance of New Orleans to the home-centered Creek, the poem claims that the Creek "drowned [De Soto] in / the Mississippi River." (History's version of the event tells of a Catholic burial in the river after he died of fever.) Like Louisiana graves that "rise up out of soft earth in the rain," the ghost of De Soto imbibes his fate and gyrates in a Bourbon Street death dance with "a woman as gold / as the river bottom."

Narrative outside history dominates Harjo's long works. Dedicated to poet Audre Lorde, "Anchorage" (1983) turns to prehistory through one of Harjo's characteristically long introductions. This time, glacial "ice ghosts . . . swim backwards in time" to the alluvial era when volcanoes forced their way to the surface. She transposes straightforward text into native dance rhythms and pictures the parallel dance lines of air over subterranean ocean:

where spirits we can't see

are dancing

joking getting full

on roasted caribou, and the praying

goes on.

As indicated by the punning title, natives anchor their lives in primal urges — the rhythmic dance, humor, feasting, and worship that celebrate oneness with nature.

The themes of continuity, momentum, and resilience fuel the remaining twenty-eight lines. The traveler, accompanied by Nora, strolls down city streets. Disdainful of a society that turns an aged Athabascan grandmother into a spiritually battered bag lady "smelling like 200 years / of blood and piss," the pair alter their confident step with a soft reverence for life. Two streets over, they pass the jail and marvel at Henry, survivor of a burst of gunfire outside a Los Angeles liquor store. Native humor bubbles through bitterness to toast "the fantastic and terrible story of all of our survival," a solidarity that transcends urban chaos.

In 1990, Harjo captured violence and vengeance in "Eagle Poem," a traditional Beauty Way chant. Visually evocative and spiritually stimulating, in ceremonial rhythm, the prayer acknowledges forms of communication other than sound. Parallel phrasing propels the lines along with the physical and spiritual invocation: "To sky, to earth, to sun, to moon / To one whole voice that is you." Merging with the circling eagle, the speaker achieves a sacral purity and dedicates self to "kindness in all things." The act of breathing establishes kinship with universal rhythms. Animism transcends mortality, which the speaker touches lightly as though the end of life were only one stage of perpetual blessing. In traditional closure, the speaker asks that all be accomplished "In beauty. / In beauty."

Discussion and Research Topics

1. Compare Harjo's racial recall through poetic myth in "Vision," "Deer Dancer," and "New Orleans" with novelist Toni Morrison's "rememory" in Beloved and Louise Erdrich's recovered myth in Tracks.

2. Account for the use of horses as a metaphor for warring internal demons in Harjo's She Had Some Horses.

3. Contrast Harjo's faith in re-created history, as demonstrated in the poems "The Real Revolution Is Love," "Autobiography," "For Anna Mae Pictou Aquash, Whose Spirit Is Present Here and in the Dappled Star," or "For Alva Benson, and For Those Who Have Learned to Speak," with the historic confession in Robert Lowell's "For the Union Dead" and "The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket."

4. Apply to Harjo's ethic the command of Ozark poet C. D. Wright: "Abide, abide and carry on. Give physical, material life to the words of your spirit. Record what you see. Rise, walk and make a day."