Lessons in Survival and Resilience for a World in Perpetual Crisis
How can we survive a reality so obviously bleak and oppressive? The answer’s in a poem.
Philosopher Jacques Derrida wrote that the death of a person is, in a sense, the end of a form of the world, the terms through which a vital experience arrives within the world. Throughout history, not only individual worlds have come to an end, but also the shared and intertwined stories of lives whose destinies went hand in hand. This was through the advance of colonialism, the destruction and appropriation of natural resources, wars, and in our own century, through the ghosts of religious radicalism and terrorism.
Native American nations have coexisted with this painful reality since the beginning of European colonization in the Americas. Most original peoples were exterminated. The “fortunate” were politically, racially, socially and economically relegated to reservations that confined their lives to ghettos. How, then, can we survive a reality so obviously bleak and oppressive?
Poet Joy Harjo was born in 1951 within the Mvskoke (Creek) Nation, originally from Tulsa, Oklahoma. During her lifetime, she’s received numerous awards and distinctions, most recently the Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets. In books like Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings, Crazy Brave, How We Became Humans, and Reinventing the Enemy’s Language, Harjo has integrated elements of modern Western poetry with symbols and values of her traditional worldview, questioning the limits of that subordinate position to which Western progress has placed the knowledge of original peoples.
In an interview, Harjo has said about the need to write:
I feel strongly that I have a responsibility to all sources of who I am: to all past and future ancestors, to my home country, to all the places that I touch down on and that are myself, to all voices, all women, all of my tribe, all people, all earth, and beyond, to all the principles and endings. In a very strange sense, [writing] frees me to believe in myself, to be able to speak, to have a voice, because I have to; it is my survival.
The poem “When the World as We Knew It Ended” (published in How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems: 1975-2001) perfectly exemplifies the vital position Harjo takes with respect to her writing. It opens us to the possibility of seeing a new beginning at every end. To understand that not all wars and rebellions are fought on the fields of war, but also in the care of others, in the loving of others and in the contact with the spirit with all that is alive.
When the World as We Knew It Ended
By Joy Harjo
We were dreaming on an occupied island at the farthest edge
of a trembling nation when it went down.
Two towers rose up from the east island of commerce and touched
the sky. Men walked on the moon. Oil was sucked dry
by two brothers. Then it went down. Swallowed
by a fire dragon, by oil and fear.
It was coming.
We had been watching since the eve of the missionaries in their
long and solemn clothes, to see what would happen.
We saw it
from the kitchen window over the sink
as we made coffee, cooked rice and
potatoes, enough for an army.
We saw it all, as we changed diapers and fed
the babies. We saw it,
through the branches
of the knowledgeable tree
through the snags of stars, through
the sun and storms from our knees
as we bathed and washed
The conference of the birds warned us, as they flew over
destroyers in the harbor, parked there since the first takeover.
It was by their song and talk we knew when to rise
when to look out the window
to the commotion going on—
the magnetic field thrown off by grief.
We heard it.
The racket in every corner of the world. As
the hunger for war rose up in those who would steal to be president
to be king or emperor, to own the trees, stones, and everything
else that moved about the earth, inside the earth
and above it.
We knew it was coming, tasted the winds who gathered intelligence
from each leaf and flower, from every mountain, sea
and desert, from every prayer and song all over this tiny universe
floating in the skies of infinite
And then it was over, this world we had grown to love
for its sweet grasses, for the many-colored horses
and fishes, for the shimmering possibilities
But then there were the seeds to plant and the babies
who needed milk and comforting, and someone
picked up a guitar or ukulele from the rubble
and began to sing about the light flutter
the kick beneath the skin of the earth
we felt there, beneath us
a warm animal
a song being born between the legs of her;
“When the World as We Knew It Ended” from How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems:1975-2001 by Joy Harjo. Copyright © 2002 by Joy Harjo. Used by permission of W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., www.wwnorton.com
*Image: Pubic Domain
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