Amidst a day of celebrations – Easter Sunday and 4/20 – and losses – Alistair MacLeod and Rubin “Hurricane” Carter – Mvskoke poet Joy Harjo landed in Edmonton and blessed the day with poetic myth, story, reconciliation, song, and her saxophone. She opened with a “modern myth” about the creation of humans, featuring a trickster rabbit that made humans out of clay, taught them avarice, but forgot to give them ears. She then laid down a stirring piece set in a bar that was replete with hepcat imagery and, in an ominous turn, Karen Silkwood’s girlfriend.
At 63, Harjo is sexy and sensuous in a way that only older women can be (viz. Bonnie Raitt and Diana Krall). Her demeanour was unflappably calm and confident, even as her words were harsh and forceful. Her low-register voice and faint drawl pushed her words into the body – they were felt more than heard. She made the auditorium feel like a kitchen with the audience gathered around the table, ready to hear her stories.
In her most overtly political piece, Harjo took the steps from a conflict resolution manual and turned them into a biting, fierce condemnation of the stealing of native lands and lives. In turns humorous and scathing, the moving piece ended with magnanimity, wherein both sides laid down their burdens beside each other. In light of the recent Truth and Reconciliation Event in Edmonton, that poem was particularly moving.
She ended her set with a song and got the small-ish audience to sing along and it was, if you’ll forgive the phrase, a joy.
The poetic jam followed and some local poets joined the stage to perform with Harjo and Edmonton’s Poet Laureate emerita, Anna Marie Sewell. After a few numbers, Harjo took center stage again. With beautiful piano accompaniment from Joshua Jackson and glorious notes from her saxophone, she sent us home for the night and tucked us in with a sax solo that evoked John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, and she even sang his famous, under-the-notes words of love and praise. It was a lovely ending, but truth be told, I could have listened to her play for another hour.
Edmonton’s past Poet Laureate Anna Marie Sewell opened the event with a tender set of stories and songs. She began with a myth, a children’s tale, and held the audience in her hand as she blessed the Easter evening. The highlight of her set was her story of the stringless, beat-up guitar that graced the stage. It was fashioned from wood – one part kitchen table, one part canoe. “It helps to know what you’re breaking,” she said of the instrument that, strings or no strings, commanded attention and served as a metaphor for rebirth. For her last two pieces she was joined on piano by Joshua Jackson, and closed her set with a soft and jazzy piece that was perfectly played.
This is my heart.
It is a good heart.
Bones and a membrane of mist and fire
are the woven cover.
When we make love in the flower world
my heart is close enough to sing
to yours in a language that has no use
for clumsy human words.
— excerpted from Joy Harjo’s 2000 collection, “A Map to the Next World”
The first time I heard a Joy Harjo poem, I was in a ramshackle room on top of a mesa in New Mexico, and the sun was sliding down the cliffs all around us. We were about a dozen, we women, and all about us scarves and books and weavings and earrings lit the room. A woman read aloud Harjo’s “I Give It Back: a Poem to Get Rid of Fear”. The words washed over us like water and fire – true, complicated, simple – those words entered us through our ears and went right into our hearts, which recognized them, the way the heart recognizes a drumbeat. Surge is the feeling, a movement through the body, a current that wants to leap up in recognition. Words braided into my memory of the start of an enduring love affair with that enchanted land, and with the poetry of Joy Harjo.
You could say that Harjo is a native American poet, which would be true (she is a member of the Mvskoke Nation, born in Oklahoma). You could say she is a feminist writer, which would be true (ask any woman who has read Harjo and they are likely to tell you how her words beat a direct path to a feminine power source). You could say her writing is political (see her well-known 1990 “In Mad Love and War”, for starters). Harjo could be described by the awards and acclaim her writing has achieved (poets no less esteemed than Adrienne Rich and Marge Piercy have sung her praises), or by Harjo’s other music-making, the kind with a saxophone and a band (the Arrow Dynamics). But her work is wider and deeper than the sum of these descriptors.
She has called herself a travelling kind, one who alights in many places; her writing, too, moves between worlds, between time, lands and histories, between the specific and personal and the wide collective. Her writing feels drawn from some essential human place – you want to return to it over and over and drink of it and be made strong. She uses language that is unsentimental and unblinking and heart-nourishing and generous, to form a road to somewhere we’ve been yearning to go.
It begins with a lunge at permanence. It climbs heights of reverence, often at great cost, then proceeds to jump off. It is characterized by a flutter in the gut, a coldness in the spine, a pinprick just before waking. It’s not exactly pretty, and it’s not immediately likeable. It takes time to form, often years. You can read it again and again and each time find something new – a previously invisible nuance, or a turn of phrase that at first seemed pedestrian, but now, within the gestalt of the entire work, only deepens the mystery. It can confound and never reveal itself. It can ring like Friday bells and not satisfy. It will sit unread despite several run-throughs, solo out-loud renditions, and only-to-your-partner readings. It’ll be on your patio in August, under your boots in November, and in your hair in May. It’ll come to you in traffic, and force you into memory lapse. It’s an admission that you don’t have control over that much stuff. It’s one of your hidden tells. A notice that you should do something with those marks, and that you must drink more wine.
The Edmonton Poetry Festival begins tomorrow. That’s Easter Sunday, April 20, 2014. I don’t have to tell you to check the schedule, because I’m sure you’ve already done it. I don’t have to link up our amazing list of authors because you’re a fine person at heart (at least, when it matters to be one), and you’ve done well with many things this year.
I entreat you to make time for words. They are our best invention. Even if poetry isn’t “your thing”, step outside your wheelhouse and choose an event. I will not accept your laments or shoulda-done’s. The chances you take with the things you love are your only currency.
Tonight, Thursday April 17, 2014, Longtime friend of the Edmonton Poetry Festival Shawna Lemay launches her latest collection of poems and poem-essays, the exquisitely titled Asking. (Audrey’s Books, 10702 Jasper Avenue, Edmonton. 7:00pm) For the benefit of those who don’t follow Shawna, we’d recommend checking her website, perusing her beautiful blog of poetry and photography, and her excellent magazine-style project, Canadian Poetries, which features reviews, interviews, and essays.