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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

JOY HARJO: CRAZY BRAVE



From my small window seat, I can see the left wing of the plane that was taking John and me from Portland, Oregon, to Denver, Colorado.  I have just finished reading Joy Harjo’s new memoir CRAZY BRAVE.  Painted on the wing tip of the plane are two polar bears.  Stenciled in bold white paint on the curve of the jet engine, and on a flimsy metal fin bolted to the engine, are the words NO STEP.  The unstated meaning, DANGER, is clear.

If our impending births came with the same warning, LIFE IS DANGEROUS, would most of us have the courage to step across the threshold from unborn to born, let alone write about it?  As Joy shares stories from her life, she carries us back and forth across this threshold, from one awareness to another, from one danger to the next.  “Once I was so small I could barely see over the top of the back seat of the black Cadillac my father bought with his Indian oil money…” she writes.  “This was about the time I acquired language, when something happened that changed my relationship to the spin of the world.” 

The world beneath the plane, nearly 39,000 feet below, is spinning.  As the air thins and the horizon curves, it is easy to believe Joy when she tells us that many of her experiences do not come from this earthly realm—but travel across the thin veil that separates the dream world from the conscious world, perhaps like music invisibly links us.  For Joy Harjo, the veil is so thin that at times there is no separation.  Her dream life floats within her consciousness.   Her stories remind us that our own lives are mythic, which sounds cliché except that I really mean “mythic” in the same way that Odysseus was mythic—replete with witches and Sirens and six-headed monsters. 

Joy Harjo and John Gritts, Boulder Book Store
Long before page 135, when Joy was pregnant and living in the Cherokee capitol of Tahlequah, our own sense of reality shifts and, immersed in the book’s lyrical rhythm, our conscious minds begin to travel too.  “As I walked,” Joy writes, “I could hear my abandoned dreams making a racket in my soul.  They urged me out the door or up into the night, so they could speak to me.  They wanted form, line, story, and melody…”  They did not understand why she had allowed these detours in her life.  “Think for yourself, girl,” her dreams demanded.  “Your people didn’t walk all that way just so you could lay down their dreams.” 

CRAZY BRAVE is far more than a lyrical autobiography, though.  What Joy shares with us, what we come to believe in as we read this book, is an understanding that we can choose to live our lives large—to understand all the mythic realms in which we exist, to tell our life stories not only by looking back, but by looking through.  

This is the challenge of the memoirist—to look through the veil, beyond the tangible tip of the wing, to the mythic realm, to what lies within. “Bones have consciousness,” Joy writes.  “Within marrow is memory.”  Several pages later, she tells us, “It was the spirit of poetry who reached out and found me as I stood there at the doorway between panic and love.” 

Joy doesn’t tell us that writing poetry saved her; she tells us that the spirit of poetry reached out and found her.  

Have you become lost to your dreams?  What will awaken them?  Are they tapping on the window of your earthly journey, even as you read this?  NO STEP we are warned.  LEAP! we are urged.  The wild blue yonder awaits. There is poetry in the wind.  Can you hear it? It is the sound of your people's footsteps.  It is the smell of trampled grass.  It is the seed of tomorrow lying in wait.

Note:  In the 1960s, John Gritts and Joy Harjo were students together at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe.  More about this prestigious tribal college.   Read Joy's blog "Poetic Adventures in the Last World."  Read excerpt from Crazy Brave in ORION