Joy Harjo’s Trail of Tears

Joy Harjo reimagines a national narrative in An American Sunrise.

Joy Harjo, author of An American Sunrise, is the first Native American poet laureate of the United States.
Joy Harjo, author of An American Sunrise, is the first Native American poet laureate of the United States.

I take an abiding pleasure in knowing that Joy Harjo is the poet laureate of the United States. After all, Harjo—a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and the first Native American to be so honored—speaks for an America I recognize: one cognizant of its fraught and difficult history but aspiring toward the possibility of a common, or at least shared, set of identities. “I grow tired of the heartache,” she acknowledges in “The Fight,” “Of every small and large war / Passed from generation / To generation. / But it is not in me to give up.” She is, in other words, the absolute right poet laureate for this disunited nation, a writer who, in the midst of our despair and dislocation, reminds us of “the better angels of our nature,” to borrow a phrase from Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address.

“The Fight” is one of 57 poems in An American Sunrise, although to call Harjo’s new book a collection is to miss the point. Rather, the movements are those of a suite, a narrative, in which diffuse elements add up to a larger whole. Harjo achieves this by developing these poems around the Trail of Tears, the forced relocation of her ancestors from Alabama to the territory that would later become Oklahoma. “There were many trails of tears of tribal nations all over North America,” she writes in a brief preface, “of indigenous peoples who were forcibly removed from their homelands by government forces.” The parallels to the present are impossible to ignore.

Harjo, however, is too smart, and too much of an artist—the two go hand in hand—to render her poetics so didactically; she has more encompassing concerns. Indeed, An American Sunrise spans nearly two centuries, from the poet’s great-grandfather Monahwee, who was relocated in 1836, to Harjo herself. “You can’t begin just anywhere. It’s a wreck,” she opens “How to Write a Poem in a Time of War.” What she’s addressing is context, continuity, a sense of lineage, which is all the more essential when it’s been disrupted, when we have not only to excavate our stories but also to re-create them, to imagine that history back into being.

To facilitate such movements, Harjo incorporates writing by her daughter Rainy Dawn Ortiz and also by Emily Dickinson; she appropriates and adapts historical accounts. She writes ekphrastic poems about the paintings of T.C. Cannon, a Cherokee artist who died in 1978 at age 31. At the same time, she is at her most affecting when she writes out of her heart.

Nowhere does this emerge more vividly than in the long poem “Washing My Mother’s Body,” which begins: “I never got to wash my mother’s body when she died. / I return to take care of her in memory.” There they are, the threads of narrative, of loss and longing and commitment, brought together in a pair of lines. Eventually the poem bleeds, almost unnoticeably, into the untitled piece that follows. It is thrilling, the blurring of these texts.

“I emerged from the story, dripping with the waters of memory,” Harjo tells us. And in that moment, we understand exactly what she means.


• By Joy Harjo
• W.W. Norton, 144 pages, $25.95

David L. Ulin is the author or editor of ten books, including Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles, shortlisted for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay, and the Library of America’s Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology, which won a California Book Award.
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