Filed under: Nonfiction, Poetry, Reviews, Uncategorized
Guest post by fiction writer, Shelby Settles Harper:
What Joy Harjo has done through Crazy Brave: A Memoir, a heartbreaking and unflinchingly honest mural of her life story, is what sportswriter Paul Gallico described when he wrote, “It is only when you open your veins and bleed onto the page a little that you establish contact with your reader.” A poet and musician, Harjo guides the reader on a journey, some parts non-linear, through myth, mirth, and survival, from pre-birth to Harjo’s salvation through poetry and art. She’s strips down, opens a vein, and bleeds onto the page.
Reading Harjo’s memoir was for me a sort of homecoming. I grew up in Muskogee, Oklahoma, not far from the towns of Tulsa, Tahlequah, and Okmulgee, which factored into Harjo’s early years. I, too, was born to a mixed-blood mother, though my family is Caddo. Harjo and I share the landscapes of the southern planes that formed and created us.
“Harjo,” is a Muscogee/Creek word for “reckless in battle,” or “crazy brave” and gives the memoir its title. Harjo structures the book using the American Indian concept of “four directions,” common among a number of tribes, and which symbolizes the totality of the universe. East represents the direction of “sunrise” and “beginnings”; North, the direction of “difficult teachers” and “cold wind”; West, “the direction of endings”; and South, where “release,” “fire” and “creativity,” are found.
“East” begins in the womb of her beautiful, mixed-blood Cherokee mother, in which Harjo enters the world “choking and kicking, fighting for air.” The early years were filled with hard work and near-poverty, as well as love and disappointment for her alcoholic and mostly-absent Muscogee/Creek father. Harjo writes of the day he left: “My father disappeared. And so did I in this world without father. Emptiness took the place of everything I had known to be true.”
“North” tells of Harjo’s escape from her white, abusive stepfather and his “house of bad spirits and pain,” to the Institute of American Indian Art in New Mexico. There, she finds an outlet for her talents in theater, music, and painting – talents she had been forced to suppress in her stepfather’s home.
Readers encounter many heartbreaking characters at the boarding school. One such character is a boy from a South Dakota reservation who runs by Harjo one afternoon. She writes:
He leapt onto the hoods of every car in the administration parking lot, crushing in the roofs, one by one. He kicked in a set of windows lining the academic building. Around him a whirling halo glowed a brownish red. Within the whirlwind were racial slurs, his abandoned baby self, the running-away ghost of a father. Two teachers grabbed him and threw him to the ground.
“West” begins with Harjo meeting and falling in love with a Cherokee Indian in the boarding school postgraduate program. Soon afterwards, she returns to her mother and stepfather’s house, still a teenager and secretly pregnant. Harjo’s new life in Oklahoma is no easier than her young life there, and she struggles as a new mother with a distant, alcoholic husband who can’t keep a job, and a mean-spirited mother-in-law. She writes that her days were “consumed with the drudgery of survival.” Her life was once again devoid of art.
I was struck by Harjo’s casual mention of visiting the Indian clinic in Oklahoma shortly before the birth of her first child and being asked if she wanted to be sterilized. She chose not to sign paperwork authorizing her sterilization, and writes that she didn’t think much about it at the time. Harjo later realized that many Indian women were sterilized – some without even the formality of signing consent papers – and others, not fluent in English, signing without understanding what they were authorizing.
The first time I read this passage in the memoir, I sat the book down and paused. Sterilization? Before I could move forward in the memoir, I researched this horrific period in our country’s history, barely one generation earlier than mine, in which the Indian health services improperly sterilized thousands of native women. During the 1960s and 1970s, the Indian Health Services sterilized an estimated 25 percent of American Indian women who were between the ages of fifteen and forty-four. The allegations include the failure to provide women with necessary information regarding sterilization; use of coercion to get signatures on the consent forms; improper consent forms; and a lack of an appropriate waiting period between the signing of a consent form and the surgical procedure.
I remained stunned that I hadn’t heard of this before Harjo’s memoir, that this wasn’t covered in Oklahoma history classes or in United States history classes.
I’ve always believed in fiction as education, in fiction as a means of social change. Inspired to bring more awareness of this horrific practice, I wrote a short story about a Native woman who, as a teenager, is forcibly sterilized following the stillbirth of her child. Before this mutilation of her body, she was a gifted painter. Afterwards, she loses her desire and ability to create art, and slowly goes mad. I am forever grateful for Harjo for teaching me about this shameful government practice committed against Native women.
In “South,” Harjo and her husband return to Santa Fe, to rekindle their dreams of being artists. She begins to paint again and eventually finds freedom from her cheating husband, only to replace him with a physically abusive Pueblo poet, with whom she wakes next to with a hangover nearly every morning. Harjo eventually leaves her abuser, but beneath the functioning student and mother roles she plays, panic attacks and inner demons consume her.
Harjo writes, “I believe that if you do not answer the noise and urgency of your gifts, they will turn on you.” She begins writing poems, and uses them to survive the panic, alcohol, monsters, and dreams that threaten her existence. “It was the spirit of poetry,” she writes, “who reached out and found me as I stood there at the doorway between panic and love.
Be sure to read StS’s interview with Joy Harjo!
Shelby is a yoga teacher, former lawyer and unabashed country music fan. She lives with her husband and three children in the Washington, D.C. suburbs, where she has learned to embrace the minivan. She is a candidate for an MA in Writing from Johns Hopkins University and is working on her first novel, Persimmon. Shelby is a citizen of the Caddo Nation of Oklahoma, and American Indian themes feature prominently in her writing. Shelby’s latest endeavors include training for a half marathon and triathlon, learning French and home brewing hoppy pale ales.
Her work can be found in Bethesda Magazine (July/August 2013), Outside In Literary and Travel Magazine (March 2013), Defying Gravity: Fiction by Washington Area Women (fall 2013), Gargoyle Magazine #61 (forthcoming spring 2014) and on her blog.
As I read Heid E. Erdrich’s Cell Traffic: New and Selected Poems (University of Arizona, 2012), I follow the method I use when reading critically, especially with an eye for writing a review. Throwing book lover no-nos to the wind, I dog-ear the pages that exemplify the poet’s perspective or style, and write liberal marginalia. I star the poems that seem most universal or most personal. My interactions with the poems become a permanent part of them. I use a pen.
A few nights ago, as I sat down to read the last of this book, I realized that I dogeared more than two thirds of Cell Traffic. I scrawled across these pages “lineage!” and “family of humanity!” - “YES!!!” more than one page exclaimed. It was clear that in mapping the tightly knit poems, they had worked to become part of me. Erdrich’s writing does this.
To read Erdrich’s work is to get caught up in the rapids of a powerful river. She transverses broad landscapes easily. Images from the Chinese zodiac, Ojibiwe stories, and Biblical icons rush past, all put to Erdrich’s purpose – that while weight is genetic “…the thrifty gene makes sure/our bodies warm through spring” – she claims it as good fortune – “Spiral of fate, chain of code,/luck genes must match up/with thrift genes somewhere.” So much ground covered in a difficult to discuss topic, body image and heredity, and that’s only the first poem, “Thrifty Gene, Lucky Gene.”
Recently, I watched a TED talk about storytelling, given by Andrew Stanton, the creative mind that brought us Wall-E and Finding Nemo. He claimed that the single most important thing that a storyteller must do – and must do quickly – is to make the reader care (or the listener/viewer in his case). He does not broaden this beyond storytellers, but I believe it’s true of any powerful writing. Erdrich makes her reader care by identifying the role that all of us have in the family of humanity. Again and again she returns to this subject of our common denominator of genes, “a strand of maternal code, thinner than hair,/stronger and lasting long as humanity.” (from “Mitochondrial Eve”)
How generous her beginning, via Walt Whitman. How inclusive. – “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” In “Seven Mothers,” she writes:
“Imagine an engine
in each cell, the furnace
of flesh built in each of us.”
Our mothers, then. I am brought into the family in this poem, which spans the entire book, which reaches out its arms into the world and invites all readers everywhere. How better to make me care, than to help me see that we are all part of this family? Her past is my past is your past.
Her work provides a deep sense of connection because she has connected herself to her readers on the cellular level: her stories become our stories.
“In Search of Jane’s Grave” and the “Kennewick Man” series deepen our understanding of the insidious nature of the sins of the distant past. How difficult they are to right, if not impossible. She doesn’t place blame, she merely retrieves the pieces of history from the floor – finds Jane, whose headstone doesn’t reference her importance to her tribe as war chief’s daughter, her writings, or her place historically as a Native American whose mother’s family stories were taken by Longfellow as inspiration for Hiawatha. Erdrich sweeps up the scattered facts, and arranges them in their proper order so that we can join her in thanking the ancestors – because, she asserts – these are our ancestors, too. To read of past wrongs, done to our grandmother is to take ownership of a story that’s done generations dis-service, to want the story to be corrected. The stories she seeks to mend, to tell fully, are our family stories. We know history has appropriated and contorted these stories, when they have not been outright stolen and purposefully obscured. With Erdrich’s poetry there is a move to relocate and restore the facts.
One of the great treasures of this book is the conversations the poems seem to be having with each other, and the subjects that Erdrich returns to repeatedly. Some are similarly titled, some have an echo feel. This happens in the poems she has translated into Ojibiwe and back into English, done collaboratively with Dr. Margaret Noori. On the other side of this translation, as in reading her paired poems, lines translated assert something subtly different, some deeper meaning than if it was only ground covered on one level. (Although none of her poems are mono-level to begin with.) In “This is the Way We Walk”
We walk this way.
Mii sa ezhi-bimoseyaang.
(This is the way we walk.)
The first line speaks of direction. The second line as translated speaks of mode. I am not a linguist, but in this set of poems, this was an ongoing feeling – that the English language communicates direction and constraint, and as translated, the Ojibiwe communicates mode and quality. In this cascade of language, the lines seemed to open up further, to stretch out for the reader to interpret the myriad of images and nuances.
Part of the two-way highway of this book involves Heid E. Erdrich tenderly talking to her own daughter and her ancestors. Though these poems are deeply personal, she speaks with the voice that we all need to hear coming to us across the pages – inviting us to find our place on the continuum far beyond our individual lives, our lifetimes. That which has been severed and forgotten for generations can be mended, even after the fact, even when the repair may show, even when the lines of communication are knotted and difficult to untangle.
These ideas are part of the literary DNA of this book, which shares links to Frost, and William Carlos Williams, among many other poet ancestors. By the end of the book I have returned to her dedication page – Indinawemaaganidog – all my relations. I somehow feel a part of that.
The Selected Works section begins with “Guidelines for the Treatment of Sacred Objects,” which instructs the reader, whether Ojibewe or not, how to read and reread these poems. They are something all are welcome to honor, all are welcome to invite inside, to allow them to become part of all readers. The poems should not be put behind glass, remain only admired from a distance, and othered. Even in a poem ostensibly about the cells moving back and forth between mother and child, “Microchimerism” situates the self in a larger sense. The “blood river once between you/went two ways/what makes us/own sole and sovereign selves/is only partially us.// The search for God can be called off.” “Forgive me, I am not my self.” Fortunately, with Erdrich, you are with family.
*Be sure not to miss Indigenous Elvis Walks the Medicine Line, HERE .
Sarah Winn is the 2013-2014 Completion Fellow at George Mason University, where she is an MFA candidate in Poetry. She was a 2012 runner up for the Virginia Downs Poetry Prize. Her poems have appeared in Chimes, Crux and most recently in Egg.
She has reviewed and blogged for School Library Journal during her time as a school librarian, and currently teaches writing in Fairfax and Arlington County Schools through a Sally Merton Fellowship.
Read more of her work here or follow her on twitter @blueaisling.
Filed under: Interview, Poetry, Post by: Sheryl R, Reviews
In 2002, I decided to finally wrap up my undergraduate education and returned to the university where my feminist identity had first taken root. I had been active in grassroots politics and women’s health for years and so decided to carry out feminist narrative research centered on women’s choices in childbirth for my thesis project. One of the final requirements of the program was a presentation class—a one credit, short-term course in which we all came together to plan our presentations that were open to the public. I’ve never forgotten the night that I was scheduled to do a dry run of my presentation, which included pictures of women with their midwives, facts and statistics from the narrative research, and audio of a young mother choking up when describing her daughter’s birth, attended by her own mother, a midwife. When I finished the presentation and sat down in my seat, the next student jumped up, her spiky red hair waving in the air from her rapid expulsion from her chair. She set her papers on the table in front of her, cleared her throat and opened her presentation by saying, “Well, I can assure you that I am not an angry feminist.”
When I read Sheila McMullin’s StS review of Manhater, I knew that it was a collection I had to read this summer. The woman in my presentation class is not the first woman I’ve run across who has appeared uncomfortable with femininity, with the female body and its full sexual expression. A woman’s sexuality is complex and mysterious and includes words like moist and dark and blood. It can include pregnancy and childbirth and lactation. It can include the dreaming world, the spirit world, or early parental love. It often includes violence, which Sarah Marcus, author of Back Country, says can be seen even in cases of consensual love (i.e. love sick).
All of these themes can be found in the seven outstanding collections of poetry that StS has reviewed this past year. Challenging societal and universal constructs, and touching on themes of love, space, reinvention of myth and lore, family and childhood, and even the spirit world, these collections provide important feminist discourse in unexpected places. Tuck one of these books into a beach bag and while vacationing embark on a journey of words—the kind of journey that only poetry can provide.
Little did that woman in my class know that while I sat in my seat, milk that would soon be meant for my newborn daughter leaked into pads strategically placed in my bra. Little did she know that my project was done, not from anger, but from love and respect. Respect for my fellow sisters in their personal journeys of motherhood, and love for all women, regardless of their choices. Including her: the classmate with the spiky red hair and discomfort with words like moist, feminist, childbirth, or anger.
Below is the past year’s line-up of poetry reviews:
“I move/ to keep things whole,” writes Mark Strand, “wherever I am/ I am what is missing.” The paradox of having a complete experience is knowing time moves. To move, to also remove. To speak in the past tense, to recognize we can never be in that moment of time again.
Absorbing every millisecond becomes so much more intense when I think like this, and so much harder.
Does routine allow ourselves relaxation? What does it feel like to not think about a life in the past tense, but a continual be-ing? I think routine makes time seem less important, or relatively non-existent. En route we are reminded to think of the passage of time, again. Notice how our bodies have changed. En route we see the evolution of landscape; we compare to the day before, create new associations, begin to change ourselves, change our routine, get comfortable if we’re lucky and relax for a moment. If we stay in one place too long, we start to measure time through the dust collected. A new routine then. Notice how the things have aged, how we’ve gotten older, more experienced. We move to keep ourselves a part of the world. We remove to keep ourselves apart from the world.
Sarah Vap’s 2012 collection Arco Iris moves our speaker with Lover and ghosts through a foreign-to-her, sometimes wild and perfect, sometimes manufactured electricity-dominated and commerce landscape. We are in South America on the Amazon and in markets. Our speaker travels by bus for a whole day and wants coffee. She is hungry and starving to be touched by Lover, and frequently by Lover. Perhaps Lover can show her how she is feeling. She knows Lover cannot actually do this. She is mass and lonely; she is desperate and learning; she is moving to keep things whole.
“It was hard to tell what was important” ends the opening poem “Ghost.” This “Ghost” is the first of many poems samely titled. In this first “Ghost” we are given a vague map— told “We moved pretty slowly down,/then across, then up, then across, then down.” With a book cover of a rotting skeleton head decorated with wilting blue hydrangea, pink roses, and rose petals are we in the underworld, do we praise the dead? Because our speaker finds herself in an usually new place we have no sense of what is “important” or “not-important.” So the book opens as a blank slate for the traveler to make a connection and establish herself as an importance in the new landscape. Vap exemplifies the emotional work of traveling well with repeating title motifs showing the infinite variations one moment holds. Through the collection we see our speaker become acquainted with South America: “We saw, at our beginning, what is furious/ become part of how we would love. Quite a bit of fuss/ at this market.” Furious at first at what traveling is—frustrating, exhausting, and confusing— our speaker comes into loving the constant movement.
Through traveling we learn to love the confusion as a part of the learning. This book, at its heart, is dealing with conflicting and simultaneous emotions and physical responses when interacting with otherwise lovely people. Like every great book, readers should be asked to reevaluate how we treat those around us, no matter the situation. Arco Iris asks us to reevaluate and encourages us to become more empathetic, especially when it comes to participating in other cultures.
The Smithsonian’s March 2013 magazine published an article on the “Lost Tribes of the Amazon.” This piece profiles tribes hidden in the deep forest purposefully wanting nothing to do our Western or modern cultures. In recent efforts, South American governments are beginning to respect the tribes’ privacy, arguing in order to create private rain forest boundaries they have to pursue and locate the tribes. Inherent in the desire to protect and eventually leave alone is the necessity to observe. A similar tension is found in Arco Iris. Our speaker wants access. More specifically, wants access to those she sees every day living their lives in South America. In the markets she walks with those selling goods she “imagine(s) how we might touch. I find more way I want even more ways to touch—whoever you are who think that I don’t want you—here. Take this money. Give me something beautiful you have made.” She cannot fully have and feels regretful of an incomplete experience. Many of us, I believe, feel this way when we travel significantly and to places where we don’t fully speak a shared language. Becoming so visibly the other while traveling can be exhilarating when you are not feeling the fear of being lost, how to get what you need, embodying the ripped-off chum. Typical reactions, and reasonable ones as well, are to accuse globalization and tourism markets for denying world citizens a full experience, and only providing a curated and non-negotiable fringes tour. At the same time blaming yourself for not having studied harder during language courses could have been that blanket access key into an entire, most beautiful, more perfect world. This perfect world would claim you and hold you and finally give you your home. Travel over the rainbow into this magical world where everyone loves you just because you came here. This isn’t overly-dramatic pith, it is a real urge to understand and participate fully.
We all know this is desire. This desire isn’t restricted to travelers. We know, though, no matter how much language we studied, a brief exploration anywhere couldn’t lend itself so completely to you. We resign to “okay” because building a home takes a long time—we know that. But we can wish it didn’t take so long.
Linguistically, the poems contain beautiful lyric lines and build tremendous memory waves: “This morning, rainbowlight-cerebellums in the arc of water that is spitting out from the engine.” Our speaker is constantly questioning the affect of memory: “would you call this remembering./ Would you ask: did the garden become a market. And did the mountain/become a station.” And while our speaker resists memory in trying to build it in a new landscape, she is constantly reflecting back to a spinning ballerina in a music box she owned as a child.
“Begin with the memory of collapsing the ballerina back into the music box after she twirls in her white plastic dress slower then slower to somewhere over the rainbow. Her feet glued to the spring, she moved, I thought, as much as she possibly could. Loneliness across a whole life. Even here, in Guayaquil.”
“Fuck me, or something like it I said every night. That lock, the click at the plastic bent over. He wanted to—at the spring she was glued to. The plinks, and the crank that turns her.”
and finally she tells us of when the dancer broke, but stayed in the box, and she lost the key. “It is a stupid memory, it was a stupid song./ It is the worst-possible thing to have loved.”
Desiring touch, company, and experience complicated, our speaker mourns. Perhaps the ballerina and the song is stupid, but I can’t believe the memory is. This memory is what connects the present with the past. The beautiful constantly rotating girl but never moving. See, the ballerina cannot be whole, and then broke and melted into a ghost memory. Our speaker felt like this once—spinning but not moving with a limited 365 degree scope of the world. But our speaker is not broken and it quite alive. As she becomes more familiar with Guayaquil her thinking ribbons part past and part present mixing the ballerina with Lover. Who is our speaker now? I see her changing. She’s not someone else. She’s more her now.
For those with the heart to travel I recommend Arco Iris. Even more I hope those who have travelled read this poetry for contextualization of the emotional return to our home lands. Know we all felt binary and conflicting emotions when we first got back, we still feel this way and it isn’t wrong. Reading Arco Iris for the first time let me grieve over my own time in China and how sad I am today to not still be there with my friends. This book helped me remember, maybe, one day I can go back. Coming home isn’t the end of the travel, but the start of our figuring out why we came back and “what are we supposed to that about that.”
♥ Sheila M
Sarah Vap is the author of five collections of poetry. Her first book, Dummy Fire, was selected by Forrest Gander to receive the Saturnalia Poetry Prize. Her second, American Spikenard, was selected by Ira Sadoff to receive the Iowa Poetry Prize. Her third book, Faulkner’s Rosary, was released by Saturnalia Books in 2010. Her fourth book, Arco Iris, was released in November, 2012, and was named a Library Journal Best Book of 2012. Her book End of the Sentimental Journey is just released from Noemi Press. She is a 2013 recipient of an NEA Fellowship for Poetry.
The following is a guest post by regular guest blogger, Alyse Knorr.
Paul David Adkins, a former So to Speak contributor, is the author of The Upside Down House (Yellow Jacket Press 2012), a beautifully crafted and uniquely feminist chapbook about a childhood in Florida.
As the book’s title suggests, Adkins turns the domestic space of the childhood home “upside down,” highlighting the uncanny and the mysterious in Florida suburban landscapes that include everything from a mini golf course to spooky Florida canals.
The speaker’s family, too, is turned “upside down” in these poems by “all the thunder in that house.” Not only across poems, but within poems, we find ourselves immersed equally in the love and the turbulence of the household. The parents are as sympathetic as they are flawed, ever complex in their tenderness and their anger.
The book is as carefully ordered as the poems are written. Each new poem turns to reveal a new complication in the family, and Adkins disrupts any linear re-telling of this childhood by jumping forward and back in time, resurrecting the dead and revealing the future all at once. For example, in one early poem, the young speaker hears a “black secret” by spinning The White Album backwards—the chilling sound of the poet’s name (“Paul is dead”) followed by, later, “Miss him/Miss him/Miss him.” In the very next poem, it is not Paul who is dead but the speaker’s father. The poem’s perspective then rapidly, dizzyingly, shifts from the siblings touching the coffin to the speaker imagining himself being placed into a coffin, then six feet up to the flowers placed above his own grave.
This powerful use of the imagination permeates the collection and puts us, significantly, into the mind of a child. A sense of wonder permeates these poems—treasures, secrets, and things hidden inside of other things delight the speaker, and, in turn, the reader, at every turn. A toy safe with five dollars inside, buried somewhere in the yard, marks a hidden prize tantalizingly within reach. A WWII-era army coat purchased at a flea market contains its own ominous treasure inside a pocket. A birthday cake becomes a hidden miniature world for the plastic Indian family positioned in its frosting.
This use of the child’s perspective offers Adkins a subtle and poignant lens through which to critique society in my favorite poem from the chapbook, “Fifth Grade Field Trip, Gold Coast Skating Rink, Fort Lauderdale, 1974.” In this poem, Adkins describes being chastised by a DJ for roller skating with a male friend during a Couples Skate. Adkins’ speaker recalls the honesty in their childlike innocence, ending the poem with an indictment that is all at once sharp, funny, and still painfully raw:
We didn’t find it wrong
to hold each other up
though the laughter now pricked us
like straight pins our mother failed to find
when we tried on the dress shirts at Sears.
It is moments like this, along with Adkins’ thoughtful, subtle representation of family dynamics and parental gender roles throughout the book, that mark this text as distinctly feminist. Perhaps what is most striking about Adkins’ writing, here and in countless examples throughout this chapbook, is his use of transformative metaphors to subtly convey complex emotions.
In “America Loves Bowling!,” for instance, the father, returning drunk from the bowling alley, transforms through Adkins’ description into a pin (“red-faced and teetering/like a glanced pin”) and the house into an alley (“that house, with its hardwood/swept to a shine”). The implications of violence here echo in their chilling silence.
Similarly, in “The Christmas Tree and My Father,” it is the father, not the tree, who “wilt[s]” in the Florida heat, and the father’s beer that “sweat[s]” after a frustrating attempt to saw the tree’s base that works him into a rage.
Adkins treats us to a double transformation in “My Mother Combing Key Largo After the Labor Day Hurricane, 1935,” when the speaker’s mother hopes to find doubloons and finds instead an unopened bottle of beer:
The cap tumbled to gleam at her feet
like a coin.
She sipped, and sipped again,
assumed the brine was beer.
Perhaps the most fitting example of Adkins’ mesmerizing use of metaphor comes in “Coconut Grove Nightclub Fire, 28 November, 1942.” In this poem, after a magician’s cufflink starts a fire at a nightclub, Adkins describes a man rescuing survivors from the flames thusly: “in the alley a man/pulled them out/like scarf after scarf after scarf.”
In The Upside Down House, Adkins, too, takes on the role of magician, and he, too, has ignited a fire—one fueled by the power of transformative metaphor, and one that will surely burn in his readers’ imagination long after closing this book.