Academic journal article MELUS

"Twin Gods Bending Over": Joy Harjo and Poetic Memory

Academic journal article MELUS

"Twin Gods Bending Over": Joy Harjo and Poetic Memory

Article excerpt

Contemporary Native American poet Joy Harjo expresses and reflects patterns of ongoing, multilayered and multivocal memories within the narratives of her poems. These memories flow and interweave on a continuum within a metaphysical world that begins deep within her personal psyche and simultaneously moves back into past memories of her Creek (Muskogee) heritage, as well as forward into current pan-tribal experiences and the assimilationist, Anglo-dominated world of much contemporary Native American life. Harjo's poetic memories may be personal stories, family and tribal histories, myths, recent pan-tribal experiences, or spiritual icons of an ancient culture and history. And, while Harjo writes using both an "alien" language, English, and within expected structural and narrative formats of contemporary poetry, her poems also frequently resonate with the distinctive chanting rhythms and pause breaks associated with traditional Native American oralities. As with other contemporary Native American women poets such as Paula Gunn Allen (Lagtuna Pueblo/Sioux), Linda Hogan (Chickasaw), and Wendy Rose (Hopi/Chowchilla Miwok), Harjo's past memories and present experiences seamlessly fuse together within individual poems; and when read together as a group, her poems construct in the reader's mind a single consistent, cohesive, and unified poetic utterance.

The importance of memory to Harjo's poetry best reveals itself through a survey and examination of one of her most important ongoing tropes, the contemporary American city. Within her varied urban landscapes, Harjo's poetry most clearly illustrates the multi-voiced nature of any marginalized poetry, and of Native American women's poetry in particular. On the one hand, after a first reading Harjo may seem to be writing out of the city-as-subject tradition of American poets like Walt Whitman, Carl Sandburg, Hart Crane, and William Carlos Williams. On the other hand, her city landscapes do not reflect promise and optimistic excitement, as do many urban settings of earlier white male American poets. Rather, Harjo's cities resonate with Native American memories of an endless and ongoing history of Eurocentric and genocidal social and political policies: war, forced removal, imposed education, racism, and assimilationism.

While Allen, Hogan, and Rose often use the contemporary city as negative physical setting in a variety of ways, Harjo especially foregrounds the psychological and spiritual impacts, and the resulting personal chaos, of urban life on the Native American survivor. As Patricia Clark Smith and Paula Gunn Allen note, Harjo's "particular poetic turf is cities" (193), perhaps because she grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and has spent much of her adult life in cities. In any case, the speakers within her urban narratives roam freely throughout the United States on a life's journey reflecting simultaneously Harjo's own current travels on the urban/academic lecture-powwow-poetry reading circuit, as well as the age-old, traditional wanderings of her Creek ancestors.

What sustains Harjo's contemporary speakers in such an alien environment are memories--memories of ancestral lands, family and tribal life, traditional spirituality, and a pan-tribal heritage. In Harjo's poems the multi-voiced city experiences of Native Americans living within indifferent and often hostile urban landscapes offer a strikingly different reading from contemporary Anglo experience of the American city, and thus they make an important statement about current American societies. Moreover, we can also trace a distinct growth in the richness, complexity, and tone of Harjo's city trope from her earliest to her most recent poetic texts.

Even in her first chapbook collection, The Last Song (1975), Harjo begins to develop a clear but subtle city-as-negative motif, as her speaker wistfully looks out from the streets of Albuquerque, off toward the distant natural world. In "Watching Crow, Looking South Towards the Manzano Mountains," the speaker yearns for the freedom of a crow "dancing" with a New Mexico winter wind; and in "3AM," she seeks both a physical and a spiritual escape from Albuquerque's airport, back to the Hopis' Third Mesa. …

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