By: Chloë Williams, Columnist
“An American Sunrise,” by Joy Harjo, the first Native American Poet Laureate of the United States, is a collection of poetry reaching back into the past to highlight the journeys, hardships, and experiences of her Mvskoke (or Muscogee Creek) ancestors. This collection is Harjo’s newest and ninth book of poetry, published in Aug. 2019. The poems found inside its pages are vivid and surrounding description, questioning of accepted perceptions of history, and fully alive in detailing small moments of human existence.
Interlaced with moments of history, the poetry supports and defies certain accepted truths. “The Road to Disappearance” recalls an interview with a Mvskoke woman who claimed that her people were “facing the evening of our existence.” This piece serves as the preface to nine songs chronicling the process of feeling in regards to this statement. Enslavement, hope, defending, defiance, alliance, recollection, betrayal, impatience, and acceptance within those songs. In each unfolding song, the reader will see the chronology of a people now rejected from existing on a land they so loved.
Harjo’s poetic flow is songful, playing off the page like a dance. She paints her words with exquisite attention to detail, allowing us to really see her people. Her descriptive style allows the reader to live with the Mvskoke in several separate moments in time and experience the way they see the world, which is indeed deep and interconnected. This collection calls for its viewer to be more conscious, both within and outside the confines of the text. To recognize our land, the people we surround ourselves with, to find appreciation in small moments. “An American Sunrise” calls for awareness, and begs to be read with attention and intent. The reader is meant to revisit the Mvskoke with Harjo and watch time unfold within their tribe.
In the poem, “Washing My Mother’s Body,” the reader is allowed inside a very intimate moment between the speaker and her mother. Its loving description makes the piece feel vulnerable and poignant. The reader becomes overwhelmed in the memory of this mother, and is invited to imagine how physical touch is so closely linked to the human memory: the face of a mother lives on in her descendants. Not only is this piece a descriptive work of profiling, but it is a grievance story. We are working our way to acceptance of death with the speaker. After taking in this portrait of the mother, I am left, as Harjo writes, “emerged from the story, dripping with the waters of memory.”
One will also note the variation in Harjo’s work. She does not stick to one format, but plays with language and story. The reader is presented with songs, prayers, prose, as well as verse. Harjo captures the spirit of her tribe by captivating within her writing, the importance of music and storytelling. Her poetry flows so seamlessly that one can easily slip out of the realm of reading and into the world of the Mvskoke. Harjo is very good at capturing specific moments in time, and allowing her audience to enter them and really bathe in that experience.
This is exemplified in her poem, “Dawning.” Here, the reader wakes up with the speaker and experiences their morning routine. While constantly conscious and reflective of the speaker’s past, their roots, and their ancestors, the reader is also made aware of the mindfulness that Harjo carries throughout the poem. Each action and thought is acknowledged and accepted. The poem ends in an intimate moment of the present. The speaker watches their loved one sleep peacefully and decided to alone carry the burden of hard thoughts and remembrance. TIn this brief moment, the reader can see the shadows, see the morning light shine through them, and feel the sacrifice the speaker is making by acting as the keeper of thought.
“An American Sunrise” is concerned heavily with remembrance, perseverance, and mindfulness. There is celebration and there is grief, but interwoven is the story of a group of people who remain connected to their past while constantly continuing forwards. The reader is welcomed in, to see what it means to be Mvskoke, especially in a modern era. Harjo is an inventive and organic poet who has confirmed that poetry can still be great and moving in the 21st century. This collection receives five stars out of five from me for Harjo’s exuberant success in presenting a collection of work that is equally unique, visceral, and entirely alive.