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Journal, Day Three

By Joy Harjo

There’s something about nines. I look forward to nines, the ninth of months, the eighteens that add up to nine, as do fifty-four and forty-five. Today is the 18th. So far it’s the same: hotter than usual, construction noise, and projects spread out in front of me next to my saxophone. And every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday during regatta season, it’s paddling practice. Yet, the day fits smoother.
Do I know why? No.

For much of America I am a ghost. I learned this first several years ago when I was invited to perform at Auburn University in Alabama. The university is located not far from the historic grounds of the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, at a bend in the Talapoosa River. My several-greats-grandfather, Menawa (we spell it Monahwee) fought Andrew Jackson in a last attempt to hold onto our homelands in the East. Monahwee’s band of Red Stick warriors were slaughtered. They were outnumbered by troops and firepower. Monahwee survived though he had seven bullet wounds. He was forced to go to Indian Territory, which eventually became Oklahoma. He lived to be almost a hundred. (One of my cousins promises to show me where he is buried the next time I’m back there.) We still have many stories of him. Even after the reluctant move to Indian Territory he once again became a fugitive. He dove between a woman and the husband who was beating her, on the streets of Okmulgee. He had to go into hiding. Justice has both global and intimate implications and is a familial theme.

After I walked the grounds of the battle I began to get sick. And just before the reading I had acquired a terrible case of bronchitis. (I’d never had bronchitis before and never had it after.) The lungs energetically process grief. Still, I had to perform. When I stood up to read I introduced myself as Monahwee’s granddaughter. The audience gasped. I was a ghost. According to American and Alabama state history, we had all been destroyed on that day in March 27, 1814.

(Twenty-seven is a nine.)

Most of America still believes this and suffers affront when we step outside of our place of silence in history and walk into a classroom, show up in textbooks, or start casinos like Mr. Trump.

My grandmother, Naomi Harjo, the daughter of Henry Marsey Harjo and Katie Monahwee, played saxophone in Indian Territory. My great-aunt Lois who made art, even had a BFA in art, and supported my path as a poet told me that because her family dressed well and had cultivated European manners (their allotted land was on the largest oil fields in the country) most people took them for Jewish or Chinese. How could they be Indians?

Cotton Mather may not have originated the deceitful conceit: Indians are demons, not human beings, but he imprinted that into the atmosphere at the birth of the American imagination. Words are powerful and even have their own lives, make families, after they leave our mouths. Words spoken at the birth of anyone or anything are some of the most potent.

In 1967 one of my high school classes at Indian school took place in a classroom set up to teach us how to cook and clean for the townspeople. By then this was no longer part of the curriculum, yet the classroom was still set up this way. Many of us read and wrote poetry outside the classroom. We found and shared it on our own. I loved Thomas Hardy—

I am always aware of working against denial in this country. Most of the time I just play music, write, and move forward with the intention of making art that is both stunning and useful.

Useful. Now that’s an outrageous concept when considering postmodern criticism.

****

I make it a practice to ask myself now and then, whether I dead or alive. If I am one or the other does it make a difference? I still have to move with integrity whatever the country.

****

In these times of fierce patriotism I note that the mood follows in poetry. There’s always a schism between the poetry fundamentalists and those of a different path. On the first day of a new job at a respected university one of my fellow poets marched into my newly assigned office to greet me. His greeting was this: “Some people are Jacob poets and some are Esau poets. I’m a Jacob poet. I’m civilized. You are an Esau poet, of the wilderness.” That was the last time he ever addressed me directly.

I wonder about the correlation between voice and poetry and a kind of warfare in which there is no personal contact, rather smart bombs that do the work. Someone pushes a button. Their hands appear to be bloodless.

****

Actually, I get up, check planetary aspects, go out and talk with the sun, play music (unless I’m writing), pick up my mess and settle in to see what will happen—and when I’m not doing that I deal with family dramas, go to the gym or outrigger canoe paddling, read, watch movies, listen to music (online and in real time)—or if I’m on the road, there’s more to contend with, and I’m constantly searching for meaning in each small piece of the vision—and connecting it all back to the heart

****

This was from a letter to a friend who called to tell me he lost his mother in June of 2004:

Tonight a crow dressed in sadness guffaws from the garage roof.
The sun slips into the Pacific.
Beneath the boulevard those who love you are bowed with grief.
We cannot accompany you into the intimate territory of death
We make note of what matters so you will know how to return
Once you’ve accompanied her home.
Jacaranda scatters the path. Lovers sweaty with each other, order in.
Crickets jam and sporadic sirens cry.
She’s gone, my friend.
All the hopes and dreams of her trailing in a veil
Through wild grass and the stars.
You will have to walk back through the bloom of strawberries
without her. Lonelier than the crow with the moon in his mouth.

Here’s a mostly final draft of the poem:

GRIEF

Tonight a crow dressed in sadness cries from the roof of the sky
The sun lets go into the Pacific.
You disappear into the intimate territory of grief
We stand here in the tracks of sundown so you will see the path
And make it back.
Jacaranda purples the night. Lovers broken with tenderness can’t pretend.
Crickets jam and sporadic sirens cry.
She’s gone, my friend.
You will have to walk back through the bloom of strawberries
Without her.
You will be lonelier than the crow with the moon in his mouth.

c Joy Harjo July 13, 2006


Posted in Uncategorized on Wednesday, July 19th, 2006 by Joy Harjo.