Visiting Poets

Joy Harjo

Joy Harjo

Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Joy Harjo studied at the University of New Mexico and received an MFA from the University of Iowa. Her rich multicultural lineage–Harjo’s mother was part Cherokee, French, and Irish; her father was Creek–figures in her poetry, which explores the relationship between past and present, humans in their communities, and the many aspects of the self.

A saxophonist with the jazz band Poetic Justice, whose latest CD is entitled “Letter from the End of the 21st Century,” her books include She Had Some Horses (1983), In Mad Love and War (1990), The Woman Who Fell from the Sky (1996), and, released early this year, A Map to the Next World: Poems and Tales. Harjo received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writer’s Circle of the Americas and lives in Honolulu, Hawaii.

Select Poems

She had horses who were bodies of sand.
She had horses who were maps drawn of blood.
She had horses who were skins of ocean water.
She had horses who were the blue air of sky.
She had horses who were fur and teeth.
She had horses who were clay and would break.
She had horses who were splintered red cliff.

She had some horses.

She had horses with long, pointed breasts.
She had horses with full, brown thighs.
She had horses who laughed too much.
She had horses who threw rocks at glass houses.
She had horses who licked razor blades.

She had some horses.
She had horses who danced in their mothers’ arms.
She had horses who thought they were the sun and their bodies shone and burned like stars.

She had horses who waltzed nightly on the moon.
She had horses who were much too shy, and kept quiet in stalls of their own making.

She had some horses.

She had horses who liked Creek Stomp Dance songs.
She had horses who cried in their beer.
She had horses who spit at male queens who made them afraid of themselves.
She had horses who said they weren’t afraid.
She had horses who lied.
She had horses who told the truth, who were stripped bare of their tongues.

She had some horses.

She had horses who called themselves, “horse.”
She had horses who called themselves, “spirit.” and kept their voices secret and to themselves.
She had horses who had no names.
She had horses who had books of names.

She had some horses.

She had horses who whispered in the dark, who were afraid to speak.
She had horses who screamed out of fear of the silence, who carried knives to protect themselves from ghosts.
She had horses who waited for destruction.
She had horses who waited for resurrection.

She had some horses.

She had horses who got down on their knees for any savior.
She had horses who thought their high price had saved them.
She had horses who tried to save her, who climbed in her bed at night and prayed as they raped her.

She had some horses.

She had some horses she loved.
She had some horses she hated.

These were the same horses.

From SHE HAD SOME HORSES (Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1983)

We are ascending through the dawn
the sky blushed with the fever
of attraction.
I don’t want to leave my daughter,
or the babies.
I can see their house, a refuge in the dark near the university.
Protect them, oh gods of the scarlet light
who love us fiercely despite our acts of stupidity
our utter failings.
May this morning light be food for their bones,
for their spirits dressed
in manes of beautiful black hair
in skins the color of the earth as it meets the sky.
Higher we fly over the valley of monster bones
left scattered in the dirt to remind us that breathing
is rooted somewhere other than the lungs.
My spirit approaches with reverence
because it harbors the story, of how these beloveds appeared to fail
then climbed into the sky to stars of indigo.
And we keep going past the laughter and tears
of the babies who will grow up to become a light field
just beyond us.
And then the sun breaks over the yawning mountain.
And the plane shivers as we dip toward
an old volcanic field.
It is still smoldering
motivated by the love of one deity for another.
It’s an old story and we’re in it so deep we have become them.
The sun leans on one elbow after making love,
savoring the wetlands just off the freeway.
We are closer to the gods than we ever thought possible.

From A MAP TO THE NEXT WORLD (W.W. Norton, 2000)

Camme and I listened to Nat King Cole and she sweetly lay her head
on the shoulder of some well-slicked man and off
she went some slow easy step some thirty years ago; it wasn’t
yesterday but ghosts of time in tilted hats are ushered
by our heartbeats into the living room as we eat fried chicken,
drink Cokes and talk about swing, don’t talk
about heartbreak but it’s in the stirred air. How we loved,
and how we love. There is no end to it.
One song can be a crack-the-whip snapping everything
we were in the lifetime of a song back
into the tempest of dreams. And when the Cokes are gone,
chicken bones drying in the sun,
radio shifted into another plane of time, I don’t know
what to believe. My heart’s a steady tattoo of roses.
Camme and I go to sleep in our different houses, she without
her dancing man, and me with my imaginary lover
outlined in smoke, coming up the road. There’s a song
that hasn’t been written yet; the first notes
are a trio of muses in a songwriter’s ear. That song will invent
my lover of evening light, of musky genius,
I know it. As sure as I know Nat King Cole wore white suede
shoes, and smelled like spice hair cream,
as sure as the monsoon rains come praising the dry Sonoran.
Yesterday I turned north on Greasewood
the long way home and was shocked to see a double rainbow
two-stepping across the valley. Suddenly
there were twin gods bending over to plant something like
themselves in the wet earth, a song
larger than all our cheap hopes, our small-town radios,
whipping everything back
into the geometry of dreams: became Nat King Cole
became the sultry blue moon became all
perfumed romantic strangers became Camme and me
became love

From IN MAD LOVE AND WAR (Wesleyan University Press, 1990)

Poetry Center Reading

Fall 2000