On the River with Joy Harjo, Our New U.S. Poet Laureate


When women gather at the river, something rather wonderful happens. Like eagles, we have  been gathering at the river for thousands of years. To bathe our children. To wash our clothes. To gather water for drinking, for ceremony, for cleansing. Even, like the eagles, to catch the fish we will feed our families.

Six years ago, 18 of us gathered on the Colorado River with Joy Harjo. We laughed. We bathed. We danced. We wrote in our journals. We asked, "How do we know when a story ends?"

In "Eagle Poem," Joy writes about eagles that soar over rivers, sweeping our hearts clean with sacred wings. She writes about the eagles that "round out the morning" in each of us.

On Day 2 of the river trip, we hiked to the top of a steep rim above the river. "Rocks calm me," I wrote in my journal, "because of their stillness. The wind is speaking a gentle language, whispers...." Joy sat on the edge of the rim with her flute, her notes rounding out the morning as they soared over the river.

On Day 3, we watched an early morning wake of turkey vultures perched atop old creosote poles ten feet in the air, their wings spread wide. Each, in identical fashion, faced east as if in prayer. A wildlife biologist would tell you that they were actually drying the damp morning dew from their sleek black feathers, but sometimes the truth reaches farther than we can see.

After the vultures, we climbed out of our rafts and walked to a massive red rock grotto, where we sat encased in silence within the curved walls. The clear notes of Joy's flute broke the silence, rising from the floor of the grotto more than a hundred feet up, over the rim and into the wide expanse of sky above us. A black raven answered and we listened for several minutes to a duet - Joy and her magical flute, the raven and her ancient song. As Joy's breath became the air in which the raven flew, the raven's wings became the resounding beat of all our hearts.

In her memoir Crazy Brave, Joy writes, “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…This was about the time I acquired language, when something happened that changed my relationship to the spin of the world.”

Our first night on the river, Joy talked about the story matrix and the idea that we are all living within a grand story. Later, we asked ourselves, “What is our relationship to the spin of the world?”

Eleven days ago, on a much grander scale, something else rather wonderful happened, and the literary world is spinning with the news.  The Library of Congress announced that the next U.S. Poet Laureate would be a Native American woman, Joy Harjo, a member of the Mvskoki (Creek) Nation.

It is not remarkable that a poet and musician who has risen to such national acclaim would receive this honor, but it is a cause for celebration to know that a Native voice such as Joy’s will be given this elevated platform to share her stories and music.

In "Eagle Poem," Joy also writes "That we must take the utmost care/And kindness in all things."

How do we do this? 

On the river, when we asked each other how we, as writers, know when a story ends, we spoke about the sacred moment that opens, allowing the space for a story to be told. We talked about the moment when that space closes and encircles us. "It's like sitting in the beauty of that dark place, like being in God's eye. That's when you know."

Perhaps Joy's poetry, the music that she brings to the world, the Native perspective that gives birth to her art, perhaps this will lead us closer to understanding what it means to take the utmost care, to have kindness in all things.

But the story has not ended. We are only circling back to its beginning, which might be the path that will lead us to a more hopeful ending. Perhaps, in a hundred or a thousand years, we will better understand our relationship to the spin of the world.

Notes: Read more about Joy Harjo on her website.  Read about Joy Harjo's appointment as first Native U.S. Poet Laureate on Huffington Post and watch video. Listen to Joy read "Eagle Poem."

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