Review - Joy Harjo

Joy Harjo - Image by Randall Edwards

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.

Photo of Joy Harjo © 2014 Randall Edwards.