We’re all adding brushstrokes to a much larger mural than any one of us can hold
How might poets and painters explore and reinterpret the complexities of identity/-ies? These days, not only are borders in flux, but the often-fraught term “identity” is nearly always complicated by multiplicity and intersectionality. We define ourselves partly by inheritance and partly by choice, often while standing at those often foggy bog-borders of ethnicity, geography, gender, religion, or any of a number of other foci of identification. We need the arts to help us navigate our way toward and across the borders of our lives in hopes of approaching self-understanding and, eventually, mutual understanding. Audre Lorde said it best at Harvard in 1982: “I learned that if I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.” At the very least, the arts help us ask the questions and meet the people we need to encounter to discover where and to what extent we can really see at all.
These boglands of identity are deep and sometimes treacherous. I would never want to idolize, demonize, patronize, tokenize, or any other -ize anyone. At the same time, we can’t pretend our differences wholly define us any more than we can pretend they don’t exist. Ultimately, I want to see and to bear witness to how I see, just as I want to hear and read and watch how others see. In crafting art, in interpreting and reinterpreting selves and worlds, we’re all adding brushstrokes to a much larger mural than any one of us can hold.
Yesterday artist John Hampshire painted live on stage while I read poems-in-process on the theme of identity/-ies (here is the video link). He started with one portrait and plans in coming days or weeks to add more until he has created a canvas montage on identities. During our presentation I explored my roots in America and Ireland, sharing some of my travels and interests in indigenous Americans, the ancient Irish, and the bog bodies of Ireland that Eamonn “Ned” Kelly has studied and interpreted for the Kingship and Sacrifice exhibit at the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin. Seamus Heaney portraits kept appearing over my shoulder in Ireland, and Medbh McGuckian, Leontia Flynn, and Scott Cairns were my travel-muses.
Watching Nat Geo gets my engine going with its brilliant animations and explanations of the processes that go on beneath our feet in the bowels and heart of the planet. Millions of years ago uncountable blankets of dead plankton settled into the bed of a dried-up antediluvian sea, descended far into the earth, were superheated by the oven-engine beneath them and tossed about like ashes in a hurricane, then settled into the sandstone deep down between crust and core and, after much pressure and slow tectonic shifts, became the black sludge that powers cars, computers, cities, universities, nations. We jack-hammered hundreds of miles down and pumped up this blackness, this foulness, this richness, this pure potential, the energy required for the engine of modernity to chug to life. While it’s far past the time we should be weaned from our oil diet in every city and town, hard drilling is how we started to create and share power.
What struck me most is how similar evolution must happen in our psyches and our nations before we can become a world where peace is even possible. The hard labor of breaking up the stone that surrounds our inner core must happen before we can discover the richness that makes such ecological and psychological trauma an unnecessary, outmoded process of the past. We must destroy the old illusions that we are separate, that there is no deep core of potential in our antagonists, that we can persist in oblivion upon the crust of social systems whose magma is about to erupt from beneath our dancing feet.
So we must do with our being: bore into the hard stone inside us, break it up, pump up the rich energy it releases. Carefully. That superheated heart has been known to blow off the tops of mountains and level whole towns in rains of fire.
When it is relieved of pressure intentionally we find power; when the pressure is relieved by nature itself we find the land blanketed with lava that can melt our shoes, but that becomes, when it cools, the most fertile of fields. Love. Forgiveness. Will to give ourselves to art and to each other.
Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings should be required reading for each presidential candidate this year, as well as for the rest of us who crave air and earth, word and music, story and myth, who measure our lives in the woes of flesh and the joys of spirit.
To read Joy Harjo’s poetry, particularly Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings (W.W. Norton, 2015), is to feel like we’re in the presence of a vatic voice, a prophet singing with the power of a volcano and the hushed rustle of a breeze. The seeming simplicity of her style is complicated by the power of tradition and the adaptation of native forms like tribal legends, myths, songs, blues, jazz. Modulating all these art forms is a powerful voice. When asked how she conceives of the voice in her poetry, Harjo tells me, “I feel like the poetry voice is its own voice. It’s the same voice as my saxophone voice. It has its own heft and weight and size and shape and impetus, and it’s more than me. I don’t confuse it with me.”
Last fall I had the privilege of talking with the aptly named Joy Harjo, the Mvskokee/Creek poet who had just been announced as the Wallace Stevens Award winner and who stands as one of the pre-eminent voices in contemporary American poetry. The surface simplicity of her language belies a complex and multilayered approach to identity, ecology, politics, feminism, and pacifism as much as to the forms of art itself. She creates a fertile space for peace between and among the arts of story, poem, song, wisdom writing, ceremony, lament, story, dance, and visual art. Her most recent book, Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings, reads like her essential message to the world, quite personal, but always rising to the tribal and above the tribal to the universal and even the cosmic observation, offering a sense of history, interrelatedness, and the deeply human drive to create that transcends genres and forms. The book incorporates some pieces revised since her How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems, her memoir Crazy Brave, as well as new work.
Conflict Resolution alternates artfully between short, provocative, lyrical prose and poems, a technique she also used in earlier books like The Woman Who Fell from the Sky and A Map to the Next World. In these books her aim was to create a “sense of oral performance.” She laughs, “I don’t know if anybody got it.” Map ends with the poem “The Beautiful Perfume and Stink of the World,” a piece whose title illustrates the poet’s ability to embrace the ugly with the beautiful, and whose structure continues the conversation between prose and poetry. This embrace of dialectics is an overtly political act in her earlier work. In “It’s Difficult Enough To Be Human,” one of Harjo’s columns for The Muscogee Nation News in June 2007, reprinted in Soul Talk, Song Language: Conversations with Joy Harjo, she writes:
Maybe if we take care of our own story of our people, and make a story of justice, honesty, with a vision of caring for all within the tribe, we might inspire the same in others. If I remember the story correctly, we had no need for jails, for institutions, for military transport jets. We had everything we needed. We took care of each other. (100)
This ethos of compassion that she sees in her unvarnished view of Native cultures becomes a political stance: “Everything is political, whether you choose to see it that way or not. I’ve weathered fierce tribal politics, canoe club politics, music, poetry, and everything has politics . . . . And even that you are saying or doing something makes a stand” (Soul Talk 52). Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings is no less political, beginning with a quote from Phillip Deere which states that “Only the Indian people are the original people of America . . . . Every tribe has a trail of tears. We wonder when it is going to end” (1). Yet the structure, the force field, the life-giving water of Conflict Resolution is invoked in the second half of the volume’s title, which proclaims that we—all human beings—are sacred. We can relearn our interconnectedness to the earth and to each other. The school that teaches this is the school of art—of song, of poetry, of ceremonial dance, of story—and that school was built on Native ground.
As she reveals in her memoir Crazy Brave (W.W. Norton, 2012), Harjo chose early between life with a charismatic but alcoholic Native man and poetry. You can guess which won. Conflict Resolution showcases Harjo’s ability to make spiritual connections between her Native culture and what she calls the American “overculture” in a way that John Scarry compares to W.B. Yeats (“Representing Real Worlds: The Evolving Poetry of Joy Harjo” in World Literature Today 66.2, spring 1992). This connection intrigues me deeply, as a writer who has been dabbling in her own Anglo-Irish roots. Harjo assures me that the Irish and the Native share much in common, such as their fondness of poetry, song, the land, politics, alcohol, but also dreams and the spirit, and their historical experience of being shunned, exiled, disenfranchised, discounted.
Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings proffers its wisdom literature in four parts: “How It Came To Be,” “The Wanderer,” “Visions and Monsters,” and “The World.” The book shows the range of responses a healthy person can have to cultural dysfunction and alienation, from the wry humor in the creation myth “Rabbit Is Up to Tricks” (“Rabbit realized he’d made a clay man with no ears”) to the historical correction in “We Were There When Jazz Was Invented” to ceremonial dance-songs such as “Had-It-Up-To-Here Round Dance” to elegy (“The First Day Without a Mother”) to autobiographical songs like “Indian Night School Blues” to poems which serve as meditations on forgiveness and spiritual reconciliation (“This Morning I Pray for My Enemies” and “Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings”).
By the time we get to the final section of the book, we are ready for deep work of reconciliation that Harjo initiates as facilely in poetic prose as in poetry and song. In “You Can Change the Story, My Spirit Said to Me as I Sat Near the Sea,” the speaker recalls “the story of the killing of a walrus who is like a woman,” and feels compelled to “sing the story” because “It is still in my tongue, my body, as if it has lived there all along, though I am in a city with many streams of peoples from far and wide across the earth” (104). The problem is plainly stated at the end: “We make a jumble of stories. We do not dream together” (104). If we would bother to know each other, to share our stories, to listen to the earth and to each other, we could dream together. The common dream is what Adrienne Rich called the dream of a common language. Harjo much admired Rich, who returned the feeling, calling for “a greater conversation, its tones, gestures, riffs and rifts” born of a “stubborn belief in continuity and beauty, in poetry’s incalculable power to help us go on” (Rich, “Defying the Space that Separates Us” in Arts of the Possible W.W. Norton, 2002).
It is this power that Harjo claims unabashedly with the simple voice that is Mvskoke/Creek and transtribal, a voice that speaks from the deep well of American history. In “Speaking Tree” Harjo asks bluntly, “What shall I do with all this heartache?” In this poem placed astutely alongside poems of praise and joy, she concludes, “drink deep what is undrinkable.” The collection ends with hard-earned optimism, a dream of “Sunrise” in which “We move with the lightness of being, and we will go / Where there’s a place for us.”
Near the end of our conversation, I ask Harjo about “time-bending,” a gift she has said her seventh-great-grandfather Monahwee had which allowed him to perceive time differently and manipulate it. She responds that time-bending affects poetry because poetry, like song, depends heavily upon “rhythm.” She likens the prose pieces in Conflict Resolution to saxophone “riffs,” short interludes that themselves play a part in the larger rhythmic structure of the book. Rhythm is an element of the cycles of history, the cycles of human emotion, the cycles of earth, the cycles of human relationship—and certainly, the nature of time in poetry and song. Even in free verse, meter measures time. It is the means of breath, and breath is the means of freedom, and freedom is the basis of art.