Songs and Maps Against Forgetfulness — Joy Harjo

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by | Oct 11, 2019

“Crucial to finding the way is this: there is no beginning or end.
You must make your own map.” —Joy Harjo

The notion of mapmaking while journeying is potent for me. Whitman and Eliot draw upon it; Strand, Rich, Bishop and Frost as well; and Homer, of course. For a long time, my attraction was mainly to the idea of coming to know something new in the deceptive familiar, as in Eliot’s line:

“We shall not cease from exploration, and
the end of all our exploring will be to
arrive where started and know the
place for the first time.”

The idea of no beginning or end is why I am also taken with Joy Harjo’s wayfinding advice quoted above; and these days her invocation of maps against the fog of forgetfulness, the erasure of traditional knowledge and the displacement of older world views.

(And by that way-of-finding, what and who will we honor on October 14, 2019?)

Five years ago or so, I was fortunate to hear the poet, musician, writer Joy Harjo “sing a lecture” in Portland, OR. She was speaking at Pacific Northwest College of Art through its wonderful collaboration with the Museum of Contemporary Craft. Harjo’s lecture was part of Illuminations, a city-wide event series celebrating Native arts and culture centered around This is Not a Silent Movie, which was on exhibit at the Museum.

I remember being mesmerized by this artist and her spontaneous and personal engagement with the audience: Stories, songs, recollections each emerging almost as if they were volunteering to speak with and through her. There was nothing concocted about the performance and thus no sense of the performative in it. But, it was very present and evocative of the presence of others—parents, grandparents, elders, children—unclear to me whether they were still actually alive in body, yet very evident through the evening how very alive they were in the moment. They were each and all transported and there.

I can’t remember whether Harjo read “A Map to the Next World,” from her collection How We Became Human (2002), but it conveys the mood she spun that evening.

A Map to the Next World
for Desiray Kierra Chee

In the last days of the fourth world I wished to make a map for
those who would climb through the hole in the sky.

My only tools were the desires of humans as they emerged
from the killing fields, from the bedrooms and the kitchens.

For the soul is a wanderer with many hands and feet.

The map must be of sand and can’t be read by ordinary light. It
must carry fire to the next tribal town, for renewal of spirit.

In the legend are instructions on the language of the land, how it
was we forgot to acknowledge the gift, as if we were not in it or of it.

Take note of the proliferation of supermarkets and malls, the
altars of money. They best describe the detour from grace.

Keep track of the errors of our forgetfulness; the fog steals our
children while we sleep.

Flowers of rage spring up in the depression. Monsters are born
there of nuclear anger.

Trees of ashes wave good-bye to good-bye and the map appears to
disappear.

We no longer know the names of the birds here, how to speak to
them by their personal names.

Once we knew everything in this lush promise.

What I am telling you is real and is printed in a warning on the
map. Our forgetfulness stalks us, walks the earth behind us, leav-
ing a trail of paper diapers, needles, and wasted blood.

An imperfect map will have to do, little one.

The place of entry is the sea of your mother’s blood, your father’s
small death as he longs to know himself in another.

There is no exit.

The map can be interpreted through the wall of the intestine—a
spiral on the road of knowledge.

You will travel through the membrane of death, smell cooking
from the encampment where our relatives make a feast of fresh
deer meat and corn soup, in the Milky Way.

They have never left us; we abandoned them for science.

And when you take your next breath as we enter the fifth world
there will be no X, no guidebook with words you can carry.

You will have to navigate by your mother’s voice, renew the song
she is singing.

Fresh courage glimmers from planets.

And lights the map printed with the blood of history, a map you
will have to know by your intention, by the language of suns.

When you emerge note the tracks of the monster slayers where they
entered the cities of artificial light and killed what was killing us.

You will see red cliffs. They are the heart, contain the ladder.

A white deer will greet you when the last human climbs from the
destruction.

Remember the hole of shame marking the act of abandoning our
tribal grounds.

We were never perfect.

Yet, the journey we make together is perfect on this earth who was
once a star and made the same mistakes as humans.

We might make them again, she said.

Crucial to finding the way is this: there is no beginning or end.

You must make your own map.


And frequent travelers will identify with this airport-inspired blues, which she wrote about a flight she was trying to take to Newport News, Virginia—a place nearby where my recently identified Polish great-great-grandparents are buried.


Everybody Has a Heartache: A Blues

In the United terminal in Chicago at five on a Friday afternoon
The sky is breaking with rain and wind and all the flights
Are delayed forever. We will never get to where we are going
And there’s no way back to where we’ve been.
The sun and the moon have disappeared to an island far from
anywhere.

Everybody has a heartache — 

The immense gatekeeper of Gate Z–100 keeps his cool.
This guardian of the sky teases me and makes me smile through the
mess,

Building up his airline by stacking it against the company I usually
travel:

Come on over to our side, we’ll treat you nice.
I laugh as he hands me back my ticket, then he turns to charm
The next customer, his feet tired in his minimum wage shoes.

Everybody has a heartache — 

The man with his head bobbing to music no one else can hear has
that satisfied

Feel — a full belly of sweet and a wife who sings heartache to sleep.
In his luggage (that will be lost and never found) is a musty dream of
flying

Solo to Africa, with a stop on the return to let go the stories too difficult
to

Carry home. He’ll take off his shoes to walk in a warm, tropical sea.
He’ll sing to the ancestors:
Take me home to mama. No one cooks like her.
But all the mamas worked to the bone gone too young.
Broken by The Man.

Everybody has a heartache — 

Everyone’s mouthing fried, sweet, soft and fat,
While we wait for word in the heart of the scrambled beast.
The sparkle of soda wets the dream core.
That woman over there the color of broth did what she was told.
It’s worked out well as can be expected in a world
Where she was no beauty queen and was never seen,
Always in the back of someplace in the back — 
She holds the newest baby. He has croup.
Shush, shush. Go to sleep, my little baby sheepie.
He sits up front of her with his new crop of teeth.

Everybody has a heartache — 

This man speaks to no one, but his body does.
Half his liver is swollen with anger; the other half is trying
To apologize — 
What a mess I’ve made of history, he thinks without thinking.
Mother coming through the screen door, her clothes torn,
Whimpering: It’s okay baby, please don’t cry.
Don’t cry. Baby don’t cry.
And he never cries again.

Everybody has a heartache — 

Baby girl dressed to impress, toddles about with lace on this and ruffle
on that — 

Her mother’s relatives are a few hundred miles away poised to
welcome.

They might as well live on a planet of ice cream.
She’s a brand new wing, grown up from a family’s broken hope.
Dance girl, you carry our joy.
Just don’t look down.

Everybody has a heartache — 

Good-looking punk girl taps this on her screen
to a stranger she has never seen:
Just before dawn, you’re high again beneath a marbled sky,
I was slick fine leather with a drink in my hand.
Flying with a comet messenger nobody sees.
The quick visitor predicts that the top will be the bottom
And the bottom will flatten and dive into the sea.
I want to tell her:
You will dine with the lobster king, and
You will dance with crabs clicking castanets. You will sleep-
Walk beyond the vestibule of sadness with a stranger
You have loved for years.

Everybody has a heartache — 

This silence in the noise of the terminal is a mountain of bison skulls.
Nobody knows, nobody sees — 
Unless the indigenous are dancing powwow all decked out in flash \
and beauty

We just don’t exist. We’ve been dispersed to an outlaw cowboy tale.
What were they thinking with all those guns and those handcuffs
In a size for babies?
They just don’t choose to remember.
We’re here.

In the terminal of stopped time I went unsteady to the beat,
Driven by a hungry spirit who is drunk with words and songs.
What can I do?
I have to take care of it.
The famished spirit eats fire, poetry, and rain; it only wants love.

I argue:

You want love?
Do you even know what it looks like, smells like?

But you cannot argue with hungry spirits.

I don’t know exactly where I’m going; I only know where I’ve been,
I want to tell the man who sifted through the wreck to find us here
In the blues shack of disappeared history — 
I feel the weight of his heart against my cheek.
His hand is on my back pulling me to him in the dark, to a place
No soldiers can reach.
I hear the whoop-cries of warriors calling fire for a stand
Against the brutality of forgetfulness — 

Everybody has a heartache — 

We will all find our way, no matter fire leaping through holes in jump
time,

No matter earthquake, or the breaking of love spilling over the dreck of
matter

In the ether, stacking one burden
Against the other — 

We have a heartache.

About Lines of Thinking

Lines of Thinking is a monthly feature from College President Tom Manley. Each installment features a poem selected for its powers to transport us to some higher, lower or common ground, and, possibly in the process, provide fresh perspective and insight on the ground we occupy daily.