AN AMERICAN SUNRISE
By Joy Harjo
In June, after decades as a significant presence for poetry readers, Joy Harjo was named United States poet laureate. A member of the Muscogee Creek Nation, she’s the first indigenous poet to hold the post. This is overdue, and political: a reminder to those who view America as a white nation that we are nothing of the sort, and a reminder to those who believe it’s acceptable to terrorize and brutalize asylum seekers that the only real native Americans are pre-European indigenous peoples.
“An American Sunrise” is tribal history and retrieval. Harjo writes of ancestral lands and culture, and their loss, through personal, mythic and political lenses. In a prefatory prose statement Harjo explains the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which expelled tribes from their land, making explicit connection between past and present: “The indigenous peoples who are making their way up from the Southern Hemisphere are a continuation of the Trail of Tears.” She makes the connection again when, in “Exile of Memory,” a long poem of short parts, she describes the treatment of indigenous child migrants in the 19th century, with imagery suggestive of current headlines: “They were lined up to sleep alone in their army-issued cages.”
Harjo has several modes in this book, her latest of eight collections. There’s flat recitation of facts: “One March a few years back, I was in residence at a private women’s college in Atlanta,” begins a prose piece that summarizes a re-enactment of a 19th-century massacre, and concludes with a dead grandfather galloping along the highway on a horse. There’s incantation: “Bless the ears of this land, for they hear cries of heartache and shouts of celebration.” And there’s praise: “My man’s feet are the sure steps of a father / … when he laughs he opens all the doors of our hearts.”
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