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World Poetry Portfolio #36: Joy Harjo

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Photo © Karen Kuehn

Joy Harjo was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma and is a member of the Mvskoke Nation. Her seven books of poetry, which includes such well-known titles as How We Became Human, New and Selected Poems, The Woman Who Fell From the Sky, and She Had Some Horses have garnered many awards.  These include the New Mexico Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts, the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writers Circle of the Americas, and the William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America. For A Girl Becoming, a young adult/coming of age book, was released in 2009 and is Harjo’s most recent publication. She has released four award-winning CDs of original music and in 2009 won a Native American Music Award (NAMMY) for Best Female Artist of the Year for Winding Through the Milky Way. Her most recent CD release is a traditional flute album: Red Dreams, a Trail Beyond Tears.[/wpcol_1half] [wpcol_1half_end id=”” class=”” style=””]

She performs nationally and internationally with her band, the Arrow Dynamics. She also performs her one-woman show, Wings of Night Sky, Wings of Morning Light, which premiered at the Wells Fargo Theater in Los Angeles in 2009 with recent performances at the Public Theater in NYC and LaJolla Playhouse as part of the Native Voices at the Autry.  She was recently awarded 2011 Artist of the Year from the Mvskoke Women’s Leadership Initiative, and has received a Rasmuson US Artists Fellowship and is a founding board member of the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation. Harjo writes a column “Comings and Goings” for her tribal newspaper, the Muscogee Nation News. Forthcoming is Soul Talk, Song Language, a book of essays, columns, interviews and photographs from Wesleyan University Press forthcoming October 2011, and Crazy Brave, a memoir from W.W. Norton in 2012. Her one-woman show has been accepted for production at the Public Theater in New York and her next play, a musical hybrid: I Think I Love You, An All Night Round Dance is being commissioned by the Public Theater. She lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

All poems published with permission from the poet | Poetry © Joy Harjo 2011 | Author Photo © Karen Kuehn | “Sunrise” is unpublished. “The Last World of Fire and Trash” (song lyrics) is published in an online publication. “Eagle Poem” was published in In Mad Love and War, Wesleyan University Press 1990. “Emergence”, “It’s Raining in Honolulu” and “Equinox” are all in How We Became Human, New and Selected Poems, W.W. Norton 2006. “No” was published in Sam Hamill’s Poets Against the War anthology, and “Report from a Terrible Regime” was published in the Mas Tequila Review Issue #2, Winter 2010.



(song lyrics)

Sunrise, as you enter the houses of everyone here, find us.
We’ve been crashing for days, or has it been years.
Find us, beneath the shadow of this yearning mountain, crying here.
We have been sick with sour longings, and the jangling of fears.
Our spirits rise up in the dark, because they hear,
Doves in cottonwoods calling forth the sun.
We struggled with a monster and lost.
Our bodies were tossed in the pile of kill. We rotted there.
We were ashamed and we told ourselves for a thousand years,
We didn’t deserve anything but this —
And one day, in relentless eternity, our spirits discerned movement of prayers
Carried toward the sun.
And this morning we are able to stand with all the rest
And welcome you here.
We move with the lightness of being, and we will go
Where there’s a place for us.


The Last World of Fire and Trash

I don’t know anything anymore
or if that cricket is still singing
in a country where crickets are banned.

I’m Indian in a strange pastiche of hurt and rain
smells like curry  and sweat
from a sunset rock and roll restaurant.
A familiar demon groaning with fear has stalked me here,
ruins poetry, then his swollen pride commandeers.

Beneath the moon rocking above Los Angeles
or outside the stomp dance fire of memory,
I told him, you can choose to hate me
for going too far, or for being a nothing
next to a pretty nothing like you.

So long, goodbye, oh fearful one.
My desires had turned into a small mountain.
Of dirty clothes, sax gig bag, guitar
books, shoes and grief
that I packed and carried
from one raw wound to another.

I can’t get betrayal out of my heart,
out of my mind
in this hotel room where I’m packing for home.
I’ve seen that same face whirring
in the blur of a glass of wine
after the crashed dance,
the goodbye  song
in the last world of fire and trash.

The most dangerous demons spring from fire
and a broken heart, smell of bittersweet aftershave
and the musk of a thousand angels.
And then I let that thought go running away
because I refuse to stay in bondage
to an enemy, who thinks he wants what I have.

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.
Hvsaketvmese, Hvsaketvmese.
Release this suffering.
May the pretty beast and all the world know peace.

I refuse to sum it up anymore; it’s not possible.
I give it up
to the battering of songs against the light,
to the singing of the earnest cricket
in the last world of fire and trash.


Eagle Song

To pray, you open your whole self
To sky, to earth, to sun, to moon
To one whole voice that is you.
And know that there is more
That you can’t see, can’t hear
Can’t know, except in moments
Steadily growing
and in languages that aren’t always sound
But other circles of motion
Like eagle that Sunday morning
Over Salt River
Circled in blue sky, in wind
Swept our hearts clean with sacred wings
We see you see ourselves
And know that we must take
The utmost care and kindness
In all things
Breathe in knowing we are made of all of this
And breathe, knowing we are truly blessed
because we were born and die soon
within a true circle of motion.
Like eagle, rounding out the morning inside us
We pray that it will be done
In beauty, in beauty



It's midsummer night. The light is skinny;
a thin skirt of desire skims the earth.
Dogs bark at the musk of other dogs
and the urge to go wild.
I am lingering at the edge
of a broken heart, striking relentlessly
against the flint of hard will.
It's coming apart.
And everyone knows it.
So do squash erupting in flowers
the color of the sun.
So does the momentum of grace
gathering allies
in the partying mob.
The heart knows everything.
I remember when there was no urge
to cut the land or each other into pieces,
when we knew how to think
in beautiful.
There is no world like the one surfacing.
I can smell it as I pace in my square room,
the neighbor's television
entering my house by waves of sound
Makes me think about buying
a new car, another kind of cigarette
when I don't need another car
and I don't smoke cigarettes.
A human mind is small when thinking
of small things.
It is large when embracing the maker
of walking, thinking and flying.
If I can locate the sense beyond desire,
I will not cat or drink
until I stagger into the earth
with grief.
I will locate the point of dawning
and awaken
with the longest day in the world.



Yes that was me you saw shaking with bravery, with a government issued rifle on my back.  I’m sorry I could not greet you, as you deserved, my relative.

They were not my tears. I have a reservoir inside.  They will be cried by my sons, my daughters if I can’t learn how to turn tears to stone.

Yes, that was me standing in the back door of the house in the alley, with fresh corn and bread for the neighbors.

I did not foresee the flood of blood. How they would forget our friendship, would return to kill the babies and me.

Yes, that was me whirling on the dance floor.  We made such a racket with all that joy.   I loved the whole world in that silly music.

I did not realize the terrible dance in the staccato of bullets.

Yes. I smelled the burning grease of corpses.  And like a fool I expected our words might rise up and jam the artillery in the hands of dictators.

We had to keep going.  We sang our grief to clean the air of turbulent spirits.

Yes, I did see the terrible black clouds as I cooked dinner. And the messages of the dying spelled there in the ashy sunset. Every one addressed:  “mother”.

There was nothing about it in the news.  Everything was the same.  Unemployment was up.  Another queen crowned with flowers.  Then there were the sports scores.

Yes, the distance was great between your country and mine.  Yet our children played in the path between our

No.  We had no quarrel with each other.


Report from the Edge of a Terrible Regime

(written during Bush II term of office)

The sky aches with primordial dark
As it prepares to give birth to light —

— A chuk chuk of gecko song —

And a young trade wind follows another
Through the screened house over
The green mountain ridge that wears a cape of clouds.

Down the hill in Chinatown
A sailor sodden with drink and fight
Zips up from a piss.
He curses everything he stumbles against
In the flower ruins.

One god breaks against another.
And so it is.


It’s Raining In Honolulu

There is a small mist at the brow of the mountain,

Each leaf of flower, of taro, tree and bush shivers with ecstasy.

And the rain songs of all the flowering ones who have called for the rain

Can be found there, flourishing beneath the currents of singing.

Rain opens us, like flowers, or earth that has been thirsty for more than a season.

We stop all of our talking, quit thinking, to drink the mystery.

We listen to the breathing beneath our breathing.

This is how the rain became rain, how we became human.

The wetness saturates everything, including the perpetrators

Of the second overthrow.

We will plant songs where there were curses.



I must keep from breaking into the story by force,
If I do I will find a war club in my hand
And the smoke of grief staggering toward the sun,
Your nation dead beside you.

I keep walking away though it has been an eternity
And from each drop of blood
Springs up sons and daughters, trees
A mountain of sorrows, of songs.

I tell you this from the dusk of a small city in the north
Not far from the birthplace of cars and industry.
Geese are returning  to mate and crocuses have
Broken through the frozen earth.

Soon they will come for me and I will make my stand
Before the jury of destiny. Yes, I will answer in the clatter
Of the new world, I have broken my addiction to war
And desire. Yes, I will reply, I have buried the dead

And made songs of the blood, the marrow.


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