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.
As difficult as it is now to imagine, as I child I was beyond timid. While in my imagination I could make things that were beautiful to my child-eyes, swim all day without tiring, ride a pony into the sunset, speak my mind without shaking, in actuality I was frequently frustrated by art that didn’t match the intricate mandalas I could see in my head before I knew what a mandala was, a pony so stubborn she wouldn’t take a step without cajoling, a body so terrified of deep water that I’d rather tremble at the edge of the pool than jump in (and the ocean?–for toes only), a voice that shook and hands that sweated so badly I’d have to wipe them multiple times during any test. Now, I’m deeply grateful and certainly not complaining about what was, all told, an idyllic beginning on this planet. But the felt gap between the desire to get “out there” artistically, physically, intellectually and my perception of my ability to embody this free, artistic person I longed to be was, at times and for decades, crippling. It’s been, shall we say, a theme for me.
I blame only myself for this. It’s like knowing you’re so far from your longing that you see only a corner of it through a telescope whose eyepiece has been blacked out. You think the lens is very, very small until you realize that if you clean the eyepiece, you can see; the irony is that you were just so darn close to the eyepiece that you couldn’t see it, really, at all, much less fix it–and where you can see, one day you can go. But until the voice telling me to go for it was my own, until I could feel in my body that failure is more a possibility I can learn from than a death trap–only then could I get out of my little self in little ways and keep pushing outward from a center that knows that the extent of what is possible only grows.
Now, in a season of change when rock-solid friends are dying young and my list of must-dos seems to lengthen with every breath, I realize I’m again at the edge of the water, frustrated that my Crayola art looks little like the Sistine Chapel, that Taffy the dark, dappled Welsh pony with the gorgeous flaxen mane is snorting, stock-still. She used to keep that up for so long (it seemed like fifteen minutes but was probably more like three) that I would give up, dismount, and walk her back to the shed. My friends that said you have to get back on after any buck or disappointment didn’t understand that my ride just wouldn’t move.
(Wikipedia, “Welsh Pony and Cob”)
So here I am again, not that different, I suppose, from anyone else, wondering what’s next and how to reach it. The difference for me from my younger self is the richness I’ve found inside myself. (You can be brought up in the church and still take a rather long time to reach this point, I’ve learned.) The Source of all goodness is source for everyone (I’m not talking about creeds here)–I feel this in my core. It is that love I seek to embody, that that gets me out of bed. Breathing it in, filling with it feeds, resurrects. The mindfulness we now agree is transformative (in homes, in schools, in artists) is a moment-to-moment invitation. I find myself wondering, instead of whether I will evolve as an artist, how, which of several projects to prioritize artistically.
What does it mean to be in the present and still be a thinking person? (I won’t even touch Alfred North Whitehead’s paradox–or more recently, Deepak Chopra’s–that none of us is the same person in any sense that we were at some undefinable point in the past; most of our bodies’ thirty-seven trillion cells would be unfamiliar to the children we were, and yet we feel some I-ness that grows far more slowly.) Then the present, I suppose, is not limited by space and time and current perceived actuality; reality is comprised of a richer, sourced, psychological and spiritual landscape enriched by the thoughts of all those I can access in the Information Age, in my memory, in the stream-of-consciousness within my head, in the wild imaginings of the heart. The earth is present and so is the beyond when heart and mind synchronize, when we breathe/imagine/write from a single light-filled breath that widens and widens, selects, illumines, includes until limitations fall away and worlds like sci fi, telephathy, poetry, the unwritten history of a people, the unscored music of the spheres take on a body, a shape, a color, a stream in the senses that renders them as real as if they were being seen, published, written, sung, recited, read, experienced in the present moment. This is a space no longer limited by dogma, acculturation, doubt, or fear. We are liberated in the act of creating.
Yet there is always more work to do, a process with one’s own mind, with the heart, with the mind several more times, with one’s peers, with the experts before it ever reaches the public, or some sliver of the public (my writer-friends are fond of saying we must each find our “tribe”) in form of publication or performance. But the enrichment of the artist’s soul is an essential precedent to any contribution to one’s own life, teaching, family, dreams, self-actualization, philosophy, spirituality, technology, medicine, politics, artistic creation, self-healing, healing of others, and innovation in the world.
At this point, dear reader, please take a moment to read Denise Levertov’s poem “The Secret.”
Now a rare airplane buzzes over our house; locust leaves waft slightly, brooding, waiting for rain; the cat sits tucked and patient for my lap to be free of books and computers. Taffy’s stopped snorting; her right foreleg is actually lifting from the hard ground.
May your water be safe, your pony trudge forward, your art pour onto the canvas or the page in vivid color.
Cookies, candles, cards, and cash . . . with all our running amuck
at the holidays, it’s easy to forget those who have grieved in the past year, or who grieve most at the holidays. This year, before you pack up or sit back for your joyful holiday, please remember friends who quietly hunker down in blue corners behind the silver and gold. What can help them? A shoulder, a note, a cup o’ joe or tea . . . and poetry.
More Water Than Words is a chapbook in which “death is considered . . . in the mythical realm of change and possibility” (Marilyn McCabe). Preorders have been extended to Monday, December 26th for this plunge into imagination where an island disappears and reemerges, sheep change color, green trees burst into flame, and “even smudges on glass take on the visage of a lost loved one.” I’m grateful to Finishing Line Press for accepting these poems and publishing them, with one condition: I have to meet a minimum number of preorders, and I’m short. If you can help someone you know in 2017, you’ll also be helping poems enter the world at their appointed time.
Happy holidays to you. May your days be more vibrant, musical, and peaceful than blue, and may you find a poem or two that speak to you.
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.