by Nona Blyth Cloud
The element most essential to human life is air. If we can’t breathe, we die. Life outside the womb begins with a first inhale of air, and ends with a last exhale.
We must have air to speak or sing. Before the written word, there was no poetry without breath.
The Mvskoke nation was a loose confederation of Native Americans dubbed the “Creek” people by early British settlers because their villages were most often near creeks. In Mvskoke mythology, Esaugetuh Emissee is the Lord of the Wind, Master of Breath. The sound of his name represents the exhaling of breath from the mouth. According to legend, Esaugetuh Emissee climbed above a great flood to the summit of Nunne Chaha, the mountain at the center of the world. As the floodwaters receded, he made the first humans out of the mud left behind.
Joy Harjo (1951 — ) is a member of the Mvskoke Nation. She often uses myths and imagery from Mvskoke tradition in her poetry and songs. Harjo is also a vocalist and a saxophone player, performing for years with her band, Poetic Justice. She now tours with Arrow Dynamics.
She says: “The name Harjo means ‘so brave you’re crazy.'” Her memoir, Crazy Brave, won a 2013 American Book Award.
Shortly before her appearance at the 2013 PEN World Voices Festival, she was interviewed by author Jane Ciabattari, who asked Harjo what she draws from her heritage. She responded: “Colonization is one of the first confrontations for any of us. Who are we before and after the encounter? And how do we imagine ourselves with an integrity and freshness outside the sludge and despair of destruction? I am seven generations from Monahwee, who, with the rest of the Red Stick contingent, fought Andrew Jackson at The Battle of Horseshoe Bend in what is now known as Alabama. Our tribe was removed unlawfully from our homelands. Seven generations can live under one roof. That sense of time brings history close, within breathing distance. I call it ancestor time. Everything is a living being, even time, even words.”
To pray you open your whole self
To sky, to earth, to sun, to moon
To one whole voice that is you.
And know 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 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
We pray that it will be done
When the World as We Knew It Ended
We were dreaming on an occupied island at the farthest edge
of a trembling nation when it went down.
Two towers rose up from the east island of commerce and touched
the sky. Men walked on the moon. Oil was sucked dry
by two brothers. Then it went down. Swallowed
by a fire dragon, by oil and fear.
It was coming.
We had been watching since the eve of the missionaries in their
long and solemn clothes, to see what would happen.
We saw it
from the kitchen window over the sink
as we made coffee, cooked rice and
potatoes, enough for an army.
We saw it all, as we changed diapers and fed
the babies. We saw it,
through the branches
of the knowledgeable tree
through the snags of stars, through
the sun and storms from our knees
as we bathed and washed
The conference of the birds warned us, as they flew over
destroyers in the harbor, parked there since the first takeover.
It was by their song and talk we knew when to rise
when to look out the window
to the commotion going on—
the magnetic field thrown off by grief.
We heard it.
The racket in every corner of the world. As
the hunger for war rose up in those who would steal to be president
to be king or emperor, to own the trees, stones, and everything
else that moved about the earth, inside the earth
and above it.
We knew it was coming, tasted the winds who gathered intelligence
from each leaf and flower, from every mountain, sea
and desert, from every prayer and song all over this tiny universe
floating in the skies of infinite
And then it was over, this world we had grown to love
for its sweet grasses, for the many-colored horses
and fishes, for the shimmering possibilities
But then there were the seeds to plant and the babies
who needed milk and comforting, and someone
picked up a guitar or ukulele from the rubble
and began to sing about the light flutter
the kick beneath the skin of the earth
we felt there, beneath us
a warm animal
a song being born between the legs of her;
This Morning I Pray for My Enemies
And whom do I call my enemy?
An enemy must be worthy of engagement.
I turn in the direction of the sun and keep walking.
It’s the heart that asks the question, not my furious mind.
The heart is the smaller cousin of the sun.
It sees and knows everything.
It hears the gnashing even as it hears the blessing.
The door to the mind should only open from the heart.
An enemy who gets in, risks the danger of becoming a friend.
Joy Harjo is a gifted teacher, both in the classroom and as an artist. It is her gift to bring the past into the present, to make a bridge between peoples that have often found each other incomprehensible.
She brings it all “within breathing distance.”
Sources and Further Reading
- Mvskoke mythology, from A Brief Guide to Native American Myths and Legends © 1914 by Lewis Spence, 2013 updated edition edited and with commentary by Jon E. Lewis (Robinson, an imprint of Constable & Robinson, Ltd.)
- Jane Ciabattari interview Joy Harjo: A Preview —
- “Eagle Song” from In Mad Love and War .© 1990 by Joy Harjo (Wesleyan University Press) — http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/175881 — Youtube
- “When the World as We Knew It Ended” from How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems:1975-2001 © 2002 by Joy Harjo ( W.W. Norton & Company) — http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/179779 (see NOTE below)
- “This Morning I Pray for My Enemies” from Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings: Poems; © 2015 (W. W. Norton & Company) — https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/morning-i-pray-my-enemies
NOTE: Phillips Petroleum was founded by Frank Phillips and his brother Lee in Bartlesville, Oklahoma in 1917. The Phillips disaster in Pasadena, Texas, on October 23, 1989 was a series of explosions that killed 23 employees, injured 314 others, and caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damages. The initial blast registered 3.5 on the Richter earthquake scale, and the conflagration took over 10 hours to bring under control.
Institute of American Indian Arts, Santa Fe, NM, instructor, 1978-79, 1983-84; Arizona State University, Tempe, lecturer in creative writing and poetry, 1980-81; University of Colorado, Boulder, assistant professor, 1985-88; University of Arizona, Tucson, associate professor, 1988-90; University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, professor, 1991-97. Visiting professor of creative writing at the University of Montana, 1985, at University of Hawaii at Manoa, 2003. Professor of American Indian Studies and English at the University of Illinois, 2013-present. Writer and consultant for Native American Public Broadcasting Consortium, National Indian Youth Council, and National Endowment for the Arts, all 1980-83. Member of steering committee of En’owkin Centre International School of Writing. Writer-in-residence at schools, including Navajo Community College, 1978; University of Alaska Prison Project, 1981; and Institute of Alaska Native Arts, 1984.
- The Last Song(chapbook), Puerto Del Sol Press (Las Cruces, NM), 1975.
- What Moon Drove Me to This? © 1980 by Joy Harjo ( I. Reed Books)
- She Had Some Horses © 1983 by Joy Harjo (Thunder’s Mouth Press; reissued Norton, 2008)
- Secrets from the Center of the World © 1989 by Joy Harjo, photographs by Steven Strom (University of Arizona Press)
- In Mad Love and War © 1990 by Joy Harjo (Wesleyan University Press)
- Fishing(chapbook) © 1991 by Joy Harjo (Oxhead Press)
- The Woman Who Fell from the Sky, © 1994 by Joy Harjo (Norton)
- A Map to the Next World: Poetry and Tales, © 2000 by Joy Harjo (Norton)
- How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems, 1975-2001 © 2002 by Joy Harjo (Norton)
- Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings © 2015 by Joy Harjo (Norton)
- (Editor with Gloria Bird) Reinventing the Enemy’s Language: North American Native Women’s Writing, (Norton – 1997)
- The Good Luck Cat (children’s fiction), © 2000 by Joy Harjo, illustrated by Paul Lee, (Harcourt)
- For a Girl Becoming (children’s fiction), © 2009 by Joy Harjo, illustrated by Mercedes McDonald (University of Arizona Press)
- Soul Talk, Song Language: Conversations with Joy Harjo (Wesleyan University Press – 2011)
- Crazy Brave (memoir), © 2012 by Joy Harjo (Norton)
MUSIC & SPOKEN WORD
- Letter from the End of the Twentieth Century, Joy Harjo and Poetic Justice, Mekko Productions, 2002.
- Native Joy for Real, Mekko Productions, 2004.
- She Had Some Horses, Mekko Productions, 2006.
- Winding Through the Milky Way, Joy Harjo, Fast Horse, 2008
- Red Dreams, A Trail Beyond Tears,Mekko Productions, 2010.
Also author of the film script Origin of Apache Crown Dance, Silver Cloud Video, 1985; coauthor of the film scriptThe Beginning, Native American Broadcasting Consortium; author of television plays, including We Are One, Uhonho, 1984, Maiden of Deception Pass, 1985, I Am Different from My Brother, 1986, and The Runaway, 1986. Contributor to numerous anthologies and to several literary journals, including Conditions, Beloit Poetry Journal, River Styx, Tyuoyi, and Y’Bird.
Career and Bibliography information from the Poetry Foundation — http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/joy-harjo
Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud