Village Voice: Celebrating The Work Of Joy Harjo

05.27.20

On the latest episode of the Village Voice, I spoke with Jim and Margery on Boston Public Radio about Joy Harjo, the current United States poet laureate, and shared some poems.

Joy is the first Native American person to hold the position of poet laureate. What you’ll see in her poems is of course a lot of the influences of the language, culture, myth, symbolism that inform her work, but also a lot of musicality — her poems often sound chant-like or prayer-like.

Read along to the poems featured on this episode:

I Give You Back
Joy Harjo

I release you, my beautiful and terrible
fear. I release you. You were my beloved
and hated twin, but now, I don’t know you
as myself. I release you with all the
pain I would know at the death of
my children.

You are not my blood anymore.

I give you back to the soldiers
who burned down my home, beheaded my children,
raped and sodomized my brothers and sisters.
I give you back to those who stole the
food from our plates when we were starving.

I release you, fear, because you hold
these scenes in front of me and I was born
with eyes that can never close.

I release you
I release you
I release you
I release you

I am not afraid to be angry.
I am not afraid to rejoice.
I am not afraid to be black.
I am not afraid to be white.
I am not afraid to be hungry.
I am not afraid to be full.
I am not afraid to be hated.
I am not afraid to be loved.

to be loved, to be loved, fear.

Oh, you have choked me, but I gave you the leash.
You have gutted me but I gave you the knife.
You have devoured me, but I laid myself across the fire.

I take myself back, fear.
You are not my shadow any longer.
I won’t hold you in my hands.
You cant live in my eyes my ears, my voice
my belly, or in my heart my heart
my heart my heart

But come here, fear
I am alive and you are so afraid
of dying.

Once the World Was Perfect
Joy Harjo

Once the world was perfect, and we were happy in that world.
Then we took it for granted.
Discontent began a small rumble in the earthly mind.
Then Doubt pushed through with its spiked head.
And once Doubt ruptured the web,
All manner of demon thoughts
Jumped through —
We destroyed the world we had been given
For inspiration, for life —
Each stone of jealousy, each stone
Of fear, greed, envy, and hatred, put out the light.
No one was without a stone in his or her hand.
There we were,
Right back where we had started.
We were bumping into each other
In the dark.
And now we had no place to live, since we didn’t know
How to live with each other.
Then one of the stumbling ones took pity on another
And shared a blanket.
A spark of kindness made a light.
The light made an opening in the darkness.
Everyone worked together to make a ladder.
A Wind Clan person climbed out first into the next world,
And then the other clans, the children
of those clans, their children, And their children, all the way through time —
To now, into this morning light to you.

Staring at Aspens: A History Lesson
Richard Blanco

There were many who died on the way to
Hwééldi. All the way we told each other,
“We will be strong, as long as we are together.”
I think that was what kept us alive.
from In 1864 by Luci Tapahonso

Stare until the trembling leaves are tongues
whispering the Navajo’s true name, Diné,
in their language. Listen to the wind breathing
through the branches still alive with the story
of their sacred land cornered by the colors
of their four cardinal mountains. Then look
at the shadowed understory, the dark past
of their homeland: 1864, the scorched earth
policy of the army — their fields raped by fire,
their handmade homes made ash, pottery
smashed, sheep and cattle slaughtered, blood
drawn right before their eyes, and water kept
from their lips. Watch the aspens’ boughs break
in a storm and know the anguish of 8,000 Diné
forced to surrender their land, marched away
on the Long Walk, 300 miles to Fort Sumner,
a place they’d call Hwééldi. Each step a sorrow:
the starved sifting horse droppings for seeds
to eat—shot, the elders with buckled knees —
shot, the pregnant women, too slow — shot,
and mothers at gunpoint made to leave babies
cradled in cottonwoods crying to a deaf moon.
Watch the aspen catkins bloom in springtime
and imagine the joy of the Diné four years later
on the Long Walk back, home again to breathe
their air, honor their snow-crowned mountains,
taste their riverwaters, stand amid the stands
of their aspens. Dig into their ground, learn
how aspens are all born from the same roots
they share, how they thrive as many, yet live
as one. Admire the aspen, but praise the Diné
who’ve survived history as one people, still
one nation. Stare at the aspens until you see
what the Diné never failed to see, stare
until you see all that we’ve failed to see.

Eagle Poem
Joy Harjo

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
Inside us.
We pray that it will be done
In beauty.
In beauty.

This episode first aired on Boston Public Radio | May 25, 2020