I picked up this collection of poetry in honor of Native American Heritage Month. There are so many ways to read diversely, and I try to vary them, but it’s difficult. So using these “official” recognition months as a guide throughout the year is very helpful for me. Plus, this was the theme for November for the Just One More Pa(i)ge Reading Challenge (well, it kind of was – it was a mix of nonfiction and Native American Heritage Month, and I’m gonna count this as my choice, even if it’s a slant).
Anyways, I was looking from something by Harjo to read, because I have heard her work is amazing but haven’t yet read any. When I checked my closest library, this was the only available collection, so this is the one I picked up. To be honest, I have no idea where in Harjo’s body of work this publication falls, and I actually liked it that way. I don’t want to be influenced by knowing that this is “early” work or the “peak” of her writing, or whatever. I didn’t read any reviews of this collection or anything like that before picking it up, and I’m glad I went in with that blank slate/open mind starting point. I do not know much about poetry, I don’t read it often, and therefore I feel like my opinions and reactions could easily be influenced by more “experienced” readers. At least, more so than I would be influenced by reviews for any given novel. So, here are my un-filtered and completely un-manipulated thoughts.
“Each human is a complex, contradictory story. Some stories within us have been unfolding for years, others are trembling with fresh life as they peek above the horizon. Each is a zigzag of emotional design and ancestral architecture. All the stories in the earth’s mind are connected.”
To start, my overall impression is that Harjo has a keen understanding of words and how to wield them sharply and effectively. It was clear that each line was carefully phrased and crafted to deliver exactly the message she intended, with precision and force. I also thought the way she speaks about nature, praises and is in awe of it, was gorgeous. That aspect, the reverence of it, was one of my favorite things about this collection. The other two themes that were most clear to me throughout were that of jazz/blues and the importance of music in Harjo’s life and emotional being, as well as a deeply felt intergenerational trauma from the years of mistreatment her people faced at the hands of the US government and its citizens. This collection is haunting and affecting in its remembrance of that violent history and its repercussions today, in an unapologetically clear (and often deservedly harsh) way. However, the beauty of her language is never sacrificed in favor of that harshness. As I said, her meticulous word choices and delivery are focal. As to the music theme, if there’s something I know less about than poetry, it’s jazz/blues. So, I feel like I can’t comment overly much on the thematic role this played in the novel or how it fit with the other themes or how one should read the pieces titled “songs” as opposed to the rest. But what I can say is that they fit the flow of the collection, and for me, that’s good enough.
I do have to say that my individual comprehension of the meaning behind some of Harjo’s poems varied. In some cases, I felt like I really did “get” what she was communicating, and how. In some cases, I think I at least got the gist, the general feeling, which I counted as a win. And in some cases, I think I totally missed everything. I’m sure I’m not alone in this, but that’s also part of the reason that I don’t read a lot of poetry. I know that there were a number of poems that just went completely over my head. And that’s an intimidating feeling, one that I don’t really relish, nor do I often feel that way about fiction (which is why I gravitate that way). Perhaps it doesn’t matter, perhaps getting the gist is enough, perhaps practice (e.g. reading more poetry) would address that issue…regardless, it’s not an easy feeling, that intellectual inferiority, to handle as a reader. It detached me (at times) from the overall collection, which was too bad, because the pieces I did feel/follow really hit meaningfully and I hated when that connection was partially lost. And I know that feeling of inferiority is my own issue, not a reflection on Harjo or anything she should do differently – I’m just noting it for anyone else who feels a bit intimidated by legitimate literary poetry. One other note here: alternating with the poems were little snippets of reflection, stories and thoughts that added perspective and truth. I personally really liked these fragments. I highlighted a number of them and liked some of them even better than the more “traditional” poems.
All in all, this was a moving collection, exactly what I was looking for/needed to honor Native American Heritage, both during this month and always. I appreciate Harjo sharing these feelings and experiences and insights with readers – you can feel her own emotions deeply throughout, and that cannot be easy to communicate with unseen masses. I finished reading with deep appreciation of Harjo’s skill as a writer and messenger.
Some of the lines that I found most affecting:
“A spark of kindness made a light. / The light made an opening in the darkness. / Everyone worked together to make a ladder.”
“The spirit of the tundra stands with us, and we collect / sunlight together, / We are refreshed by small winds.”
“Every word that’s ever said tries to find a way to live.”
“Don’t forget: hold somebody’s hand through the dark.”
“One side of me speaks the sacred language of fire / The other part understands in broken heart. / My mind can’t make up its crazy mind, / When it’s burdened by storm clouds of desire.”
“Do not feed the monsters. Some are wandering thought forms, looking for a place to set up house. Some are sent to you deliberately. They come from arrows of gossip, jealousy or envy – and inadvertently from thoughtlessness. They feed on your attention, and feast on your fear.”
“In one house lives the sun, moon, and stars. Within that house is another house of sun, moon, and stars. – And the another, and another. – There is no end to the imagination.”
“This poem is a blessing for those I have left behind / And for that which I can never leave behind–”
“The famished spirit eats fire, poetry, and pain; it only wants / love.”
My favorite full poems (with pull quotes):
“The First Day Without a Mother”
“Maybe I have turned to salt. It turns blue, like the spirits / who have already / Started to call me home, up over the last earthy hill broken / through with starts of blue flowers that heal the wounded / heart.”
“We will always become those we have ever judged or condemned.”
“Conflict Resolution of Holy Beings”
(This, the titular piece, was transcendent.)
“You cannot legislate music to lockstep nor can you legislate / the spirit of the music to stop at political boundaries – / –Or poetry, or art, or anything that is of value or matters in / this world, and the next worlds.”
“The Last World of Fire and Trash” (song)
“I turned my cheek as my head parted through a curtain of / truth / and erupted from the spirit world to this gambling place– / So I send prayers skyward on smoke.”
“Rushing the Pali”
“There is holy woven / even in the rush / where can be found / mythic roots for example how / this island was formed / from desire and fire / from the bottom of the sea / to the heavens,”
“Imagine what would it be like to dance close together / In this land of water and knowledge… / To drink deep what is undrinkable.”