Review: 'Poet Warrior,' by Joy Harjo

By Marion Winik

NONFICTION: Native writer Joy Harjo retells her most important stories.

"Poet Warrior" by Joy Harjo; W.W. Norton (226 pages, $25)

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The first Native writer to serve as U.S. poet laureate, Joy Harjo is revered for speaking truth to power with lyricism and compassion in her nine books of poetry and a memoir, "Crazy Brave." Her new book, "Poet Warrior," is a hybrid memoir, combining poetry and prose as it returns to the life passages revealed in "Crazy Brave."

"I have told some of these stories many times," she writes, but "some stories are demanding. The stories tap you on the shoulder, pull at your shirt, begging for attention again." The father who abandoned her, the stepfather who abused her, the mother who inspired her, the Native friends at school with whom she discovered activism and built community, the mentors and teachers who nurtured her spirit — they gather again in these pages, their long shadows shifting across the road of her life.

Harjo was in second grade when she was given Louis Untermeyer's "Golden Treasury of Poetry," and discovered "a refuge from the instability and barrage of human disappointment." She thrilled to Emily Dickinson and Alfred Noyes' "The Highwayman," but "Girl-Warrior was lonely/ for the poetry-talk of the Old Ones" — the voices of Native culture she found scant evidence of until a bit later in her life.

"When I hit puberty," she tells us, "I was locked to the destiny of physical body. There was no more flying and dreaming in eternal time, there was only here and survival. There was a fire burning in my body, the same dangerous desire that had led my mother to disaster."

Her stepfather, "the monster," raged against her enjoyment of rock music, forbade her to sing, broke into her diary and mocked her, beat her with his belt. When her mother failed to stand up for her, she drowned her anger and misery in cheap vodka and beer.

Harjo became a mother at 17 and soon after moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, with her son to train as a pediatric nursing assistant. "The hospital work engaged me in a way nothing else had to that point. My innate impulse is healing, which is also standing up for justice, which can heal hearts and nations."

The connection made here between physical and spiritual healing, between the healing of the individual and the healing of the collective, is central to Harjo's identity. At the University of New Mexico, plans for a premed major dissolved as her focus became painting, poetry and the Kiva Club, the Native American student organization. Blissfully, Harjo, now a mother of two small children, blossomed in a "brave, brilliant, hilarious" circle of friends.

Continually eliding the material and the ethereal, the political and the mystical, the poetry of words and the poetry of action, Harjo ends this iteration of her life story with a journey down the Amazon, a sighting of pink dolphins, and in the final pages, her mother's death.

If her many fans could have their way, this will not be the last we hear of these things.

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Marion Winik is a writer and professor in Baltimore.


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