August 14, 2019
Joy Harjo: Carrying Over a Thousand Names
In this new collection, Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings, she extends her reach to provide a poetic engagement with the problems in the world. She a master poet, and she is teaching the readers her spiritual wisdom. In previous work, she began this work. I'm thinking of an earlier poem, "Insomnia and the Seven Steps to Grace." I would not call her impulse didactic. It is a deeper knowledge that she shares.
This is a wide ranging journey from Oklahoma to Paris to New York City to Alaska to Hawaii. Part One: How It Came to Be addresses the reader directly. It is a singing of creation stories, contemporary stories, and music. The poetry does not ignore or exist outside of contemporary politics, but it meets it head on. "The politics of politics makes a tricky beast. It destroys either side with equal hand. It has a hunger that never seems to end." It is politically engaged, but in a spiritual way. It is spiritual without being preachy. "Nez found God then forgot where she had left him." It is speaks to cultural genocide and murder, to name it, and at the same time, goes forward and brings all of us into the same fold. "Let us not shame our eyes for seeing. Instead, thank them for their bravery."
The rabbit is an important figure in many tribal stories. He is fearful, impulsive, and does not consider the consequences. This is perhaps offset by his speed and ability to leap so far that his tracks are not easily found. In "Rabbit Is Up to Tricks," Harjo writes:
And once that clay man started he could not stop.
Once he took that chicken he wanted all the chickens.
And once we took that corn he wanted all the corn.
And once he took that wife, he wanted all the wives.
Locating human behavior in a story of rabbit is a profoundly wise thing to do. Considering another character, we can see the problem as well as empathize. It's also the same for us; we have insight. Empathy is an important quality, as it prevents the cycle of blame and othering. It is a key to conflict resolution. Harjo speaks from her own tradition of Muskogee knowledge, and she weaves in other Native stories and Biblical stories. She speaks to all people, whether of not they have her heritage.
Part Two: The Wanderer and Part Three: Visions and Monsters speaks to all the ways that humans have become lost in violence, greed, and forgetfulness. In "The First Day Without a Mother," the color blue is significant. It is more than the eye can see. It is more than blue; it is a spiritual color, the color of sky, and the color of a raging fire. It is the blues music. "I keep looking back."
This book offers a formula for conflict resolution in the title poem, and it calls us back to listen to others and our own spirits. Throughout the book, she uses the metaphor of jazz as a symbol of how to survive the insurmountable obstacles. The horn, the song, and the dance are sacred ways to remember. They renew us as well as teach us how to improvise, to continue, and to make something beautiful. Harjo writes,"You cannot legislate music to lockstep...." and "We will wind up back at the blues standing on the edge of the flatted fifth about to jump into a fierce understanding together." This is a wise metaphor for survival.
Part Four: The World begins with the poem, "You Can Change the Story...," reminds us how our expectations can shift the outcomes. By taking control of one's own thoughts, fears, and actions and by allying ourselves others in love and tenderness, we can experience the power that we do have. There is a story of a walrus hunter who murders a woman; the poet slips into the murdered woman and speaks. The poet returns from death and speaks the story to the community. A well told story rings with the truth; all people can understand it. In this story, the murderer is brought to justice. The articulation and shaping of our narratives are the reasons we must have art, music, stories, and poetry.
In the terminal of stopped time I went unsteady to the beat,
Driven by a hungry spirit who is drunk with words and songs.
What can I do?
I have to take care of it.
The famished spirit eats fire, poetry, and pain; it only wants love.
The famished spirit who only wants love is an endearing being. The aim is noble. Her failures are forgivable. This book at first appears fragmented, however the inscriptions, section headings and "proems" are as necessary as the poems. This is a heartening piece of work, a ceremony, a dance, a deep gift from Joy Harjo. It has done in beauty.