Joy Harjo is the first Native American poet to serve as U.S. Poet Laureate. She is also the second poet to be appointed a third term as U.S. Poet Laureate. In her 2019 collection, “An American Sunrise,” Harjo returns to the land her ancestors were forcibly removed from in the early 1800s during the Trail of Tears. She explores her own personal history alongside tribal history.
The first thing that stood out to me when reading Joy Harjo’s book of poems is the accessibility of her writing. The messages, themes and images are powerful, yet the word choice by Harjo allows everyone to read and grow from her work; you don’t have to be an expert in poetry to understand what is being said.
One of the collections’ throughlines is the idea that time is not a straight line; what was done in the 1800s and today are both important and impactful. Throughout the book Harjo includes short narratives from her life and her family. One of the most beautiful pieces is about Harjo’s connection to her grandfather and his life. In the narrative Harjo attends a community gathering in her homeland on the anniversary of a battle that was essentially a massacre of members of the Muscogee Nation. On the drive home Harjo sees her grandfather riding his horse along her car and Harjo writes, “My grandfather had come back to show me how he folded time. The Old Ones will always tell you, your ancestors keep watch over you. Listen to them.”
Joy Harjo’s “An American Sunrise” is poetry for everyone. It’s the type of poetry you can feel as you read, even without greater analysis. Readers don’t have to be poetry scholars to be able to enjoy Harjo’s words.
“An American Sunrise” is a collection of evocative, achingly beautiful poems full of striking imagery. The collection includes her own poems, as well as interviews and other excerpts to tell the story of her ancestor and her journey back to their lands. Throughout it, Harjo entwines grief and honor, memory and loss. There’s a deep nostalgia for something that was never known to her, long-last, taken. And yet it still exists within her, something shared through generations. Harjo mourns the loss of what was stolen while still working to celebrate it as well.
Her stories of her own family - her mother, her grandfather - are some of the most powerful pieces. “Washing My Mother’s Body” sticks out, a poem that encapsulates the details of a ritual with the memories, grief and attachment of the end of a life. With each poem, Harjo carries the reader with her, the emotions and words flowing easily.
Next month’s read
In July we will continue following along with the National Endowment for the Arts Big Read. Next month, we’ll be reading “The House on Mango Street” by Sandra Cisneros. This book is composed of vignettes that tell the story of Esperanza Cordero and her time growing up in Chicago. Read and beloved by people of all ages, Cisneros’ work captures the breadth of human emotion, from extreme joy to heartbreak.
Here are questions to consider while reading:
What do you think about the use of vignettes instead of traditional chapters? Did this impact how you interacted with the book?
“The House on Mango Street” is written in first person. Do you think that affected the emotions in the book?
Esperanza tells us that she and her family have moved many times in her life but she only talks about her time on Mango Street in this book. If you were to tell a story about your life but could only focus on one location, where would it be?
Esperanza is told that she has a home in the heart. What do you think that means?
Do you have a favorite vignette or storyline? If so, which one?
Would you recommend this book to a friend? Why or why not?