'Poet Warrior' Centers On The Role Of Poetry, Art And Music In Joy Harjo's Life
Joy Harjo's Poet Warrior is a wonderful hybrid text that mixes memoir, poetry, songs, and dreams into something unique that opens a window into the most important events of Harjo's life and invites readers to reconnect with themselves — as well as with the land and the knowledge of their people.
Poet Warrior is a spiritual companion to Crazy Brave, Harjo's first memoir, but it operates alone and reading the first memoir isn't a requirement in order to enjoy Poet Warrior. More than an autobiography following a strict chronological progression and detailing all major events, this book focuses on the role of poetry, art, and music in Harjo's life and her development as an artist. This is a book about pain and growth; a narrative that shines a light on compassion and stresses the importance of rituals. Harjo talks about the significance of our ancestors' stories and lessons, discusses the music that shaped her childhood in a broken home, and shares her understanding — and conversations — with other artists, her family and elders, messenger owls, snakes, birds, and plants.
"To imagine the spirit of poetry is much like imagining the shape and size of the knowing," Harjo writes. "It is a kind of resurrection light; it is the tall ancestor spirit who has been with me since the beginning, or a bear or a hummingbird. It is a hundred horses running the land in a soft mist, or it is a woman undressing for her beloved in firelight. It is none of these things. It is more than everything."
Those words embody the spirit of Poet Warrior. Harjo's writing highlights the things that matter most to her, so time passes quickly, dreams and magic play a huge role in the narrative, and the details of how she graduated college, became a professor, her many publications, becoming the first Native American Poet Laureate of the Unites States — and for three terms — and even receiving a National Endowment for the Arts grant barely get mentioned. Instead, Harjo tackles spiritual growth, healing, and how love is unbreakable. The simplicity with which Harjo writes about deep things makes this a beautiful book. It also makes it the kind of memoir that is a work of art and a guide to life for those willing to listen. She writes:
"We are all here to serve each other. At some point we have to understand that we do not need to carry a story that is unbearable. We can observe the story, which is mental; feel the story, which is physical; let the story go, which is emotional; then forgive the story, which is spiritual, after which we use the materials of it to build a house of knowledge."
Poet Warrior is a celebration of art. Harjo delves deep into her relationship with some formative authors like William Blake, Emily Dickinson, Charles Dickens, Federico García Lorca, and Louisa May Alcott as well as some who came later and became friends and teachers, like Acoma poet Simon Ortiz, Leslie Marmon Silko from Laguna Pueblo, Ugandan poet Okot p'Bitek, Richard Hugo, N. Scott Momaday, Audre Lorde, and her mentor, Meridel Le Sueur.
Harjo weaves together the personal and the political in Poet Warrior. Some stories are extremely intimate, like the death of her mentor, her disintegrating relationship with her mother after she moved in with an abusive man, her struggles with poverty, and becoming a mother and then a grandmother. However, other stories feel communal. For example, some of the writing about identity and representation are chronicles of things Harjo experienced, but they are also the stories of her Mvskoke people and, to an extent, the stories of all Native Americans, who Harjo says often only saw themselves in mainstream media narratives as "hunted by the U.S. Cavalry, romanticized as speakers of short syllabic words of simple truths, or inspirers of fashion in the beads and bandanas of hippies."
Poet Warrior includes a lot of poetry, as one would expect from a memoir about becoming a poet. Harjo shares the spotlight and includes poems here by Federico García Lorca, Meridel Le Sueur and others, but the crowning jewels are poems about her journey. Throughout the memoir, Harjo writes about two narrative bodies. The first is Girl-Warrior, the girl who discovered poetry and fell in love with language. Then, when she became a woman, she turned into Poet Warrior, a writer who used words to protest, to heal, and to unite. The verses about Girl-Warrior and Poet Warrior tell Harjo's story through poetry, the only language that can truly capture the significance of certain events in a few lines.
Joy Harjo is more than a poet, painter, and musician; she is a spiritual being aware of the meaning of everything we see as well as the things around us that are usually invisible. And Poet Warrior is an invitation to open our eyes and see it all with her.
Gabino Iglesias is an author, book reviewer and professor living in Austin, Texas. Find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.
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