Joy Harjo

This is my Heart; it is a Good Heart

This is my heart.
It is a good heart.

Bones and a membrane of mist and fire

are the woven cover.

When we make love in the flower world

my heart is close enough to sing

to yours in a language that has no use

for clumsy human words.

— excerpted from Joy Harjo’s 2000 collection, “A Map to the Next World”

The first time I heard a Joy Harjo poem, I was in a ramshackle room on top of a mesa in New Mexico, and the sun was sliding down the cliffs all around us. We were about a dozen, we women, and all about us scarves and books and weavings and earrings lit the room. A woman read aloud Harjo’s “I Give It Back: a Poem to Get Rid of Fear”. The words washed over us like water and fire – true, complicated, simple – those words entered us through our ears and went right into our hearts, which recognized them, the way the heart recognizes a drumbeat. Surge is the feeling, a movement through the body, a current that wants to leap up in recognition. Words braided into my memory of the start of an enduring love affair with that enchanted land, and with the poetry of Joy Harjo.

You could say that Harjo is a native American poet, which would be true (she is a member of the Mvskoke Nation, born in Oklahoma). You could say she is a feminist writer, which would be true (ask any woman who has read Harjo and they are likely to tell you how her words beat a direct path to a feminine power source). You could say her writing is political (see her well-known 1990 “In Mad Love and War”, for starters). Harjo could be described by the awards and acclaim her writing has achieved (poets no less esteemed than Adrienne Rich and Marge Piercy have sung her praises), or by Harjo’s other music-making, the kind with a saxophone and a band (the Arrow Dynamics). But her work is wider and deeper than the sum of these descriptors.

She has called herself a travelling kind, one who alights in many places; her writing, too, moves between worlds, between time, lands and histories, between the specific and personal and the wide collective. Her writing feels drawn from some essential human place – you want to return to it over and over and drink of it and be made strong. She uses language that is unsentimental and unblinking and heart-nourishing and generous, to form a road to somewhere we’ve been yearning to go.

Kerry Mulholland, April 2014

Kerry Mulholland is a writer rooted in Alberta’s soil, with loyalties divided between prairie, desert, city and sea. She lives in Edmonton.