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Joy Harjo’s Poet Warrior illuminates her journey with words | Books

Joy Harjo’s Poet Warrior illuminates her journey with words |  Books

Close to the beginning of Poet Warrior: A Memoir, Joy Harjo recalls his ability as a small child to leave his body at night.

When she got up, she would see herself wrapped in a blanket on her little crib and then move through the wall to see her father sleeping under a chenille bedspread. After visiting various dog friends in her neighborhood near Tulsa, Okla., She “went to lands far away and in ancient times in those lands.” Sometimes she visited the people of her people old in Muscogee (Creek) Nation, one of the native tribes forcibly relocated to Indian territory (now Oklahoma) on the Trail of Tears.

At breakfast, Harjo would tell his mother about her adventures at night.

“You have quite a imagination, honey,” said her mother.

“It really happened; it was not just a dream, ”she countered, drawing attention to the“ frustrating gap between the earthly childish mind and the mind that is not bound by time or space. ”

Similar fluid movements between past and present, geography and genre recur Poet Warrior, the second memory of Harjo. She held the Hodges Chair of Excellence in the English department of the University of Tennessee before becoming the US Poetry Winner in 2019. (She now serves a rare third term.) Like her first, Crazy Brave, Poet Warrior is a memory of staying. But on the contrary Crazy Brave is an adult story, this new book describes that Harjo came into himself as a poet, or as she puts it, the journey from “Girl Warrior” to “Poet Warrior.”

The journey involves ordinary events — escaping her abusive stepfather and discovering her love of art at the Institute of American Indian Arts in New Mexico, becoming a mother in her teens, giving up premedication to embrace poetry in college, and experiencing happiness and heartache in relationships and jobs. She recounts these events in ordinary prose. “I’m writing in an apartment in downtown Tulsa,” she says at one point, her lack of constructed personing is remarkable.

But the truer journey is Harjo’s internal, referred to in poetry woven throughout. Always in the third person, poetry is richly informed by the ancients and by intuition, which she calls “the knower.”

The Ancients opened the ears of Girl Warriors

Curing the frequency before she left

On her mission.

We’ll send you, they said,

To learn to listen.

She listens, both to living relatives and to the dead who accompany her while she works. “A family is essentially a field of history, each of which is intricately connected,” she writes. “Death does not disconnect; rather, the story expands as it continues interdimensionally. “Through this awareness, she weaves her own story of a modern native woman into the richer context of native history.

In some ways, Poet Warrior revisits material covered by Crazy Brave but with greater attention to her journey with words. Not surprisingly, Harjo liked the sound of certain words as a small child, repeating them before he understood the meaning: “aggravate”, “tomato”, “robin”. Sometimes she repeated her father’s rougher language, which did not make him happy, so again she learned external silence. Genuine communication took place within.

Girl Warrior was lonely

For poetry talk about the ancients.

They spoke in metaphor,

A way of speaking that drew her imagination

To the presence of mystery

Where there was always a light on in the glitter windows

Of the house of her soul

Poet Warrior makes it clear that Harjo’s life has not been easy. She apologizes for the times she did not follow “that knowledge”. As a single mother in her 20s trying to make a living from poetry, she had little money, even though her children “were slippery otters of joy.” And she’s honest about the difficulties she encountered as a native woman in academia, where a department head called her a “primitive poet.”

Yet she clings to her truth, and it is worth noting that Harjo’s death is as honest as she is. “Too many words,” she once heard a sixth great-grandfather remark. Another ancestor asked, “What is it with you and all these English words?” Apparently she agrees. In the back of the book, she notes that she resisted having to italicize words in Mvskoke and considered italicizing English words instead. (She also dislikes the term “Indians” who came out of academia and prefers “native” or “native.”)

Poet Warrior is a wise book and an inviting one. While some writers may fetishize other worldly experiences as mysterious, it is their generality in Harjo’s memoir that drew me in. They gave her strength to follow words. “Writing was my portal to grace,” she writes, “an opening where I could hear my ancestors speak, where I knew we were cared for regardless of my inadequacies or mistakes.”

For more local book coverage, please visit, an online publication of Humanities Tennessee.


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