Language is illuminated in new memoir
Once in a great while, something unexpected and exceptional crosses my desk. In this case it was a gift from a friend and a new book by our recent U.S. Poet Laureate, Joy Harjo — a tome written during the global pandemic when she obviously had the opportunity to find some quiet time and reflect. She has emerged in her new book “Catching the Light” (Yale University Press, 2022) as a kind of visionary.
Early on in this metaphoric memoir she asks the question “where are the prophets for our time?” The answer to that question could easily be answered by her simply looking in a mirror. In “Catching the Light,” she speaks to us through her own experiences as a slow learner having to learn the hard way as many of us do. I have followed the work of Harjo since her first major publication and from her first music CD. She started strong. She is finishing stronger. Early on she “had some horses.” Now, she has some wisdom and visions for a better, more just and compassionate world. Or as she says: “The pandemic has shown us just how far away we have been from ourselves. Now we need to figure out where we are going together and how to get there, together.”
“Catching the Light” is a miracle of sorts. A hymn of her path, her journey, her arrival from early years of poverty, abuse and grief, to Poet Laureate of the U.S. and now as an elder and wisdom-keeper for her people and for the rest of humanity. “Our relationship to the land defines how we understand our place in the world. Our cultural stories live within our DNA and unwind throughout our lifetimes, as singular entities and as Native nations and countries,” she writes early on in the book. “These lands aren’t my lands. These lands aren’t your lands. We are the land,” she goes on to say. In many ways this book, which is divided into 50 short essays, is a collection of socio-political and spiritual catechisms. In that sense one would be justified in saying that this new book is something of a literary bible.
In fact, I’m going to go so far as to say that I believe that “Catching the Light” should be required reading for all MFA programs. In fact, Joy Harjo states in essay #20: “You can teach the mechanics, the craft, the genres of poetry by referencing the ancestor texts of poetry or by studying the field according to theory, but you cannot make a poet. Poetry is not a career — it is a state of being.” But then she goes on to explain that “The process of creating [a poem]is a gathering together of perception and sound as you accumulate experience and knowledge on this road of becoming.” And how do we become? “We who take breath here emerge, we learn to walk, run, and engage with that which challenges us, with always a light inside that will show us the path.” Harjo says. “We are in a continuum of embrace.”
Coming back to words and the importance of how we use them, Harjo says: “I will use words together that lift us over and through to beauty, so that nothing or no one can ever be lost or uncared for again, now, or forever.” And I believe that Joy Harjo is right in her belief and focus in her devotion and dedication to using words in this way and for this purpose. Through this process, she dreams of a time when “what is repetitive and ordinary becomes flowers blooming in a blizzard.” More specifically she states in essay 48; It is in this time of wars, loss, pandemic, a divided nation, that we search for what singers, poets, and storytellers bring forth. We are hungry for prophets, even as we are given to despair as we turn to forgetfulness. Being a poet is a calling, a demand by your spirit to speak to the truth of an age, an appeal to assist justice in finding a home, for healing to take place so the succeeding generations are greeted with an abundance of food, beauty, and fresh air and water.” Powerful words these. If I were sitting or standing in nature’s church I’d say “Amen” to that!
Finally, but not lastly, in “Catching the Light,” Joy Harjo speaks directly and succinctly of her heritage and the history imposed upon Native peoples in this country and culture. Not embittered, but speaking realistically and with care and compassion she provides her readers with a new perspective and a new paradigm. “Indigenous artists must be part of the leadership in the revision of the American story. We can change the story of a violent hierarchy and a caste system that places value according to skin color, culture, sexual identity and economic standing. We can turn to honoring female power. Rivers, mountains, lands, other animals, and elemental inhabitants will be respected co-inhabitants. It is while practicing our arts and in ceremony that we come closest to who we really are, as individuals, as part of a family, a generation, a country, a planet, a timeless point of experience.” Then she goes on to say, “I bow down to the story keepers, to the keepers of poetry.” And I bow down to the poet, musician and dancer Joy Harjo, for her life, her vision and for sharing it with all of us for our betterment. May she, her words and We, continue.
(Thomas Crowe is a regular contributer to The Smoky Mountain News and author of the multi-award-winning non-fiction nature memoir Zoro’s Field: My Life in the Appalachian Woods.)