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Harjo & the 'Holy Beings'

A new book from poet, author and musician Joy Harjo (Mvskoke) takes readers on a journey through pain and darkness and into an enlightened sunrise.

Joy Harjo reads and performs works from her new book of poetry,

Joy Harjo reads and performs works from her new book of poetry, "Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings," at the 2015 Santa Fe Indian Market.

Photos By Taté Walker (Mniconjou Lakota)

I never really “got” poetry. Or maybe poetry never really got me.

For me, reading poetry always felt a bit like watching interpretive dance—sure, it looked beautiful, but if you asked me what it meant I’d look at you wide-eyed and shrug.

The underlying meaning always went right over my head, and the harder I’d try to grasp it, the more elusive the meaning became.

But if you ask me whether or not I’ve been impacted by poetry, the answer is a resounding yes, thanks to Joy Harjo’s (Mvskoke) poem, “I Give It Back: A Poem to Get Rid of Fear,” which I first laid eyes on in 2009.

At that time in my life, I was struggling to hang on while flunking college. I was dealing with PTSD, anxiety, depression and agoraphobia, and this poem spoke to the co-dependent, unhealthy, but necessary, relationship I found myself in:

 

I release you,
my beautiful and terrible fear.
I release you.
You are my beloved and hated twin
but now I don’t know you
as myself.

I release youwith all the pain
I would know
at the death
of my children.

You are not my bloodanymore.

Harjo’s poem became a defining moment in my own story, a moment that allowed me to begin to let go of my fear by acknowledging I was scared to live without it. This poem will always remind me of the ongoing, convoluted relationship I will have with fear for the rest of my life as I go through a cycle of releasing it and welcoming it back.

Like that poem, Harjo’s Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings, her new book of poetry released in September, felt deeply personal. It reads like a mix between story, diary and self-help book, filled as it is with personal anecdotes, political observations and Indigenous symbolism. Like much of Harjo’s previous work, her latest revels in personal experiences and the tension of being Native living a contemporary life while struggling with the always-present underpinning of our past.

The way Harjo stands precariously on the cliff of tension between the traumas of our past while embracing the present has always been one of my favorite things about her work. In “One Day There Will Be Horses,” a sort of update on a fan favorite, she writes:

 

One day I will be rich enough
One day I will be lucky enough
One day I will have horses enough to marry with

When I looked back, you were walking west
Work shoes and tools over your shoulder.
A little rain began to fall from sparse, lucky clouds.
Did you find a place to sleep?
You light the dark as you sing your traveling song:
One day I will be rich enough
One day I will be lucky enough
One day I will have horses enough to marry with
Hey ya ha, hey ya ho
Hey ya ha, hey ya ho

One day, I will have words enough
One day, I will have songs enough
One day, I will be tough enough
One day, I will have love enough
To go home.

 

One of Harjo’s (many) strengths is storytelling, which comes through mightily in Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings. Hers is a story filled with vivid scenery of smoky, bustling city nights illuminated by neon; cricket-permeated full-moon skies; bright spring days at the beach; dingy little bars; and the grey, misty coasts of Hawaii. You feel the force of Harjo’s emotion in each scene, in each setup, and as always they are heavily imbued with a jazz and blues aesthetic.

“Jazz is like writing a poem. There’s a complexity there that gives you more space to move,” says Harjo, who plays several instruments, including the flute and saxophone, during her live performances.

Watch a video of Harjo performing her poetry and music from her new book, Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings. Video by Taté Walker.

 

“In jazz there’s more space to move as an artist and a musician. It’s more challenging and it’s like a poem,” she continues. “I’m moving in a lot of different kinds of spaces. The same with blues; if you ever hear Mvskoke stomp dancing, you’ll hear the blues. When you hear the progression, it’s so obvious… Poetry is like music—they’re oral arts, and song is the root of poetry.”

The musicality inherent within Harjo’s work is one reason I recommend seeing her perform her poetry live. There’s something about combining seeing and doing (versus just reading) that makes intangible ideas more accessible for me. Several years ago I was able to see Harjo live, and the experience is something I would suggest to all her readers. It’s when she’s right in front of you that Harjo is best able to manifest her genius. Her voice, her music, and how she expresses her thoughts and feelings combine to turn her storytelling into an epic adventure.

Upon finishing Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings, it becomes clear that we are the holy beings. And the conflict resolution within ourselves is merely the journey of our lives from the darkness to the sunrise.

Like coal turning into diamonds, we are transformed by the pressures of life and we shine more brightly after pain or loss. Each life is a story in the interconnected mind of the Earth. We are the culmination and a mirror of our ancestors’ efforts. And it is my—our—responsibility to “help the next person find their way through the dark” to their sunrise. 

What Harjo has always done with her work, and especially with this latest piece, is offer a cultural anchor to the survival and resistance of the Native woman in the face of ongoing genocide. The book allows a more intimate glimpse into her survival, her grief, her rage, her Indigenous pride and her activism. For me, Harjo is able to speak to the weight of pain and survival and perseverance I experience as a Native person but often have difficulty putting into words.

Reading Harjo is hard, but important. If you’re Indigenous to what’s now known as North America, reading Harjo is necessary, though her works may require the reader to come back to again and again for fuller appreciation of their meaning.

For those like me who perhaps struggle to read poetry, I always keep this thought in the back of my mind: If I could understand “A Poem to Get Rid of Fear,” then I can try to understand other poems, and they undoubtedly have something to teach me about myself.

Read about Harjo's major poetry award >>here<<.

Sloane Cornelius is an enrolled member of the Oglala Lakota Nation of South Dakota. She is a freelance writer and social justice activist who lives in Nebraska. She can be reached at corneliussloane@gmail.com or @cantezuyawin on Twitter.