Joy Harjo

Crazy Brave

“It was the spirit of poetry who reached out and found me as I stood there at the doorway between panic and love.”

Joy Harjo’s (born May 9, 1951) Crazy Brave is a story of orientation. A routing and rerouting we all navigate, but perhaps without as many spokes and axels as Harjo.

I was not brave.

I was pulled from my mother, whom I almost killed with the struggle. I was hooked up to a ventilator. I was dying even as I was being born. This continues to be a theme in my life, this struggle with transitions: between night and day, here and there, desert and water, earth and sky, and beginnings and endings. As I was being born, I had the same dying, gulping breaths as my father’s last breaths when he died several years later, in a small Texas town near the water.

'Clouds I' by Ellen Vrana. Featured in Joy Harjo's "Crazy Brave" in the Examined Life Library.
“My father was ephemeral. He was about ten percent body. The other ninety percent of him was spirit … He instinctively understood cloud language, the meanings of birds.” Harjo on her father. ‘Thoughts I’ by Ellen Vrana.

Harjo, a Native American of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and 23rd Poet Laureate of the U.S., was “born puny and female and Indian in lands that were stolen.”

Harjo’s imagination was freedom.

In those early years I lived in a world of animal powers. Most children do.1 In those years we are still close to the door of knowing. I got to know the trees, plants, and creatures around our little white house with red trim built in the postwar boom. Our house was one of many houses on the block. Each centered on a square of lawn, each with a gas meter perched near the street, in the place of a house altar. I played with garter snakes, horned toads, frogs, June bugs, and other creatures. Some of my favorite playmates were roly-poly bugs. They busied about with several legs and didn’t trip themselves up. They protected themselves when threatened by curling into a ball. As we played, I could see the light shining around their little armored bodies.

From an inner landscape etched by an unknowable father (“he lived in a far-away realm”), a mother who felt failure deeply and seemed to chase it, and memory of a deep wound that stretched decades, Harjo found her imaginative gift needed more nurturing if it was going to salve her wounded soul and disposed being.

And how do we imagine ourselves with an integrity and freshness outside the sludge and despair of destruction? I am seven generations from Monahwee, who, with the rest of the Red Stick contingent, fought Andrew Jackson at The Battle of Horseshoe Bend in what is now known as Alabama. Our tribe was removed unlawfully from our homelands. Seven generations can live under one roof. That sense of time brings history close, within breathing distance. I call it ancestor time. Everything is a living being, even time, even words.

'Clouds II' by Ellen Vrana. Featured in Joy Harjo's "Crazy Brave" in the Examined Life Library.
“Did I write to you about the storm I watched not long ago?… On the horizon a streak of light and above it immensely large dark grey clouds, from which one could see the rain coming down in slanting streaks.” Vincent van Gogh to his brother. ‘Thoughts II’ by Ellen Vrana.

There is a photo in Crazy Brave, a small haphazard print of Harjo as a teen when she had left her family to attend Indian School (Institute of American Indian Arts) in New Mexico. The girl stuns, avoiding the sun’s brightness but gives a direct gaze nonetheless.

What we see, and perhaps do not realize, is it is a woman in that doorway, in between. On the cusp of knowing? I think she must have been pregnant in this shot. A few years after it was taken, Harjo met poetry, and it lifted her from the doorway.

I became the healer, I became the patient, and I became the poem. I became aware of an opening within me. In a fast, narrow crack of perception, I knew this is what I was put here to do: I must become the poem, the music, and the dancer. I would not truly understand how for a long, long time. This was when I began to write poetry.

To become the music, to be the poem, to go into yourself and find within a field of blue that is the lost light. From the corners that support us to the walls that protect, the metaphor of home used to self-orient our being, a familiar structure in which we place our hopes, dreams, fears etc.

To rid ourselves of that home as being, as a place of memory, is to claim a wider freedom a more expansive orientation. Are we then lost? Perhaps, but “If this was lost, let us all be lost always” wrote Mary Oliver.

Eagle Poem

To pray, you open your whole self
To sky, to earth, to sun, to moon
To one whole voice that is you.
And know that there is more
That you can’t see, can’t hear
Can’t know, except in moments
Steadily growing
and in languages that aren’t always sound
But other circles of motion.

[…]

Breathe in knowing we are made of all of this
And breathe, knowing we are truly blessed
because we were born and die soon within a true circle of motion.
Like eagle, rounding out the morning inside us
We pray that it will be done
In beauty, in beauty.

Read full poem here.

'Clouds III' by Ellen Vrana. Featured in Joy Harjo's "Crazy Brave" in the Examined Life Library.
“Thoughts that occur to me while I’m running are like clouds in the sky… nothing, or else, something but who knows.” Haruki Murakami on our profundity of thought. ‘Thoughts III’ by Ellen Vrana.

Harjo’s first volume of poetry was published in 1975 as a nine-poem chapbook titled The Last Song, a threaded binding that held her concise, precious thoughts on the kind of orienting only poetry gives.

To imagine the spirit of poetry is much like imagining the shape and size of the knowing. It is a kind of resurrection light; it is a tall ancestor spirit who has been with me since the beginning, or a bear or a hummingbird. It is a hundred horses running the land in a soft mist, or it is a woman undressing for her beloved in firelight. It is none of these things. It is more than everything.

“You’re coming with me, poor thing. You don’t know how to listen. You don’t know how to speak. You don’t know how to sing. I will teach you.”

I followed poetry.

Harjo teaches us to mend our gapping sadness with tenderness and to extend wide in all directions. Supplement her broad reach with Pema Chödrön’s call for tenderness, Nan Shepherd’s luminous poems that catch the light, Simone Weil’s slip from the pedestal of ego to the comfort of universality, and my own singular focus on the broad beingness of eternity.

Illustration of Joy Harjo.