Love, Hunger, and Grace: Loss and Belonging in the Poetry of Lorna Dee Cervantes and Joy Harjo.(Critical Essay)

Article excerpt

For women, for the dispossessed, for the colonized, for the survivors of genocide, the remembrance of history tends to be painful. One response to the loss of people and homeland has been to recreate, recover, and rewrite the history of that loss. While empowering, this re-vision of history is not entirely without problems. Chicano/a cultural nationalism's imagining of Aztlan and its attendant figure of the indigenous mother are key examples within Chicana/o cultural production, for instance, of structures that strive to reconstruct elements lost because of colonization. Both of these symbolic structures, Aztlan and the figure of the indigenous and earth-identified mother, combine histories of dispossession--Native American and Chicana--that are spatially interdependent; the territory Aztlan covers in the Southwest includes hundreds of distinct Native American culture and language groups. However, because of a nationalist impulse to claim and affirm distinct cultural and historical legitimacy, both Chicana/o and Native American (tribal and pan-tribal) nationalisms often obscure each other in their discursive formations, in effect ignoring each other's presence. These historiographic blind spots enable the mutual symbolic displacement of both peoples and perpetuate anxieties of authenticity and belonging in both communities. One alternative way of engaging that historical loss is to embrace it. Rather than creating or recovering a structure to stand in as an alternative historical presence, one might accept the very loss that leads to the historical absence.

The way we imagine our relationships to genocidal and cultural loss gives meaning to our readings of history and of culture. I pair Lorna Dee Cervantes, a Chicana poet, and Joy Harjo, a Native American poet, not only because both poets address similar thematic concerns, but also because both have been described as cultural nationalists. (1) Cervantes is known for her first book, Emplumada, which is widely taught and received an American Book Award in 1981. Critically acclaimed by Chicano and mainstream critics, Cervantes has been hailed as a major force in American poetry. While the publication of the forthcoming volume Drive has been postponed, she has made many of her new works available online. (2) Joy Harjo has also been hailed as a major force in American poetry. A book of interviews and an album recorded with her band "Poetic Justice" complements her eight books of poetry. Both poets have been widely acknowledged as influential in the broader scope of American culture and literature as well as within th eir own ethnic communities.

I argue that Cervantes and Harjo step away from nationalist impulses that try to restructure a presence in history creating an authentic sense of belonging. Instead, their work creates a poetics that embraces loss and the grief that comes from identifying with the survivors of genocide and the dispossessed. What is past is not merely past, but immanent in everyday experience. Loss itself becomes a presence that enables both poets to imagine a community that does not demand an authentic origin. The present cultural moment that both Cervantes and Harjo find themselves in makes it impossible to access a pristine, unbroken, authentic indigenous and national past. The markers of ethnic identification (whether Muscogee, Chumash, or Chicana) are always and already compromised by post-contact/post-conquest mixing of cultural traditions.

Cervantes's work uses the concepts of love and hunger to create a powerful engagement with loss. Love and hunger as epistemic strategies challenge our understanding of subjectivity by shifting our attention from the libido as a primary drive, to hunger as a means of establishing the subject. (3) Harjo develops a poetics of grace that creates a rich sense of historical and spatial interconnection across tribal and cultural lines. Grace enables the formation of both pan-tribal and third-world feminist alliances, but it is also an aesthetic point of reference--historical pain can produce art that sustains and feeds a people. …