An American Sunrise: Poems
In the early 1800s, the Mvskoke people were forcibly removed from their original lands east of the Mississippi to Indian Territory, which is now part of Oklahoma. Two hundred years later, Joy Harjo returns to her family’s lands and opens a dialogue with history. In An American Sunrise, Harjo finds blessings in the abundance of her homeland and confronts the site where her people, and other indigenous families, essentially disappeared. From her memory of her mother’s death, to her beginnings in the native rights movement, to the fresh road with her beloved, Harjo’s personal life intertwines with tribal histories to create a space for renewed beginnings. Her poems sing of beauty and survival, illuminating a spirituality that connects her to her ancestors and thrums with the quiet anger of living in the ruins of injustice. A descendent of storytellers and “one of our finest — and most complicated — poets” (Los Angeles Review of Books), Joy Harjo continues her legacy with this latest powerful collection.
Author: Joy Harjo | Publisher: W. W. Norton
My mother had the iron pot given to her by her Cherokee mother, whose mother gave it to her, given to her by the U.S. government on the Trail of Tears.
She grew flowers in it.
Did you really expect me to give the first Native American to be named Poet Laureate of the United States anything less than five stars? Thank you so much to W. W. Norton for sending me a free finished copy — I enjoyed it so immensely.
Joy Harjo is, of course, masterful. The way she used not only the words themselves but also the shapes of words, the break of words, but sounds of words — it’s like watching someone paint with language. I was especially impressed with her ability to cut a line at the exact spot where the thought up till then makes sense, but it’s not until you keep reading that the thought completes and you really understand what she meant, and it literally (literally) steals your breath away. Like this:
The children were stolen from these beloved lands by the government.
Their hair was cut, their toys and handmade clothes ripped
From them. They were bathed in pesticides
And now clean, given prayers in a foreign language to recite
As they were lined up to sleep alone in their army-issued cages.
Some of the poems in this collection were much more abstract than others, and it took me a lot longer than I had expected to get through its ~100 pages. Sometimes I read poems three, four times. Sometimes I read a section over and over, peeling it away little by little.
If you are new (or new-ish) to poetry, expect to spend time with it, like I had to. Still, it will be well worth your effort. How truly fortunate we are to live in an age where collections like this reach the masses, tell stories, open our eyes.
No matter — you are born of those
Who kept ceremonial embers burning in their hands
All through the miles of relentless massacre
All the way to sunrise
You will make it through —