I came across an article celebrating a female poet from Oklahoma winning a great poetry honor. She was from Tulsa, and I had read some of her poetry in a collection of Oklahoma poets, so her name was familiar. I read on and learned this award was the Academy of American Poets highest honor, the Wallace Stevens Award, for proven mastery in the art of poetry. How exciting! I knew right then I had to read this book.
CRAZY BRAVE by Joy Harjo
Published by: W.W. Norton &
Release Date: July 9, 2012
Genres: Autobiography, Memoir, Poetry
In this transcendent memoir, grounded in tribal myth and ancestry, music and poetry, Joy Harjo, one of our leading Native American voices, details her journey to becoming a poet. Born in Oklahoma, the end place of the Trail of Tears, Harjo grew up learning to dodge an abusive stepfather by finding shelter in her imagination, a deep spiritual life, and connection with the natural world. She attended an Indian arts boarding school, where she nourished an appreciation for painting, music, and poetry; gave birth while still a teenager; and struggled on her own as a single mother, eventually finding her poetic voice. Narrating the complexities of betrayal and love, Crazy Brave is a memoir about family and the breaking apart necessary in finding a voice. Harjo’s tale of a hardscrabble youth, young adulthood, and transformation into an award-winning poet and musician is haunting, unique, and visionary. (Plot summary from Goodreads.)
The writing is nothing short of mystical. I connected with it as an artist right away, but in a way that was not easy to define. It all just made complete sense to me. Harjo was speaking my language. I was entranced by her story, and I weeped at the end when she found her way back to poetry.
I couldn’t stop crying. It may have had more to do with where I am in my life right now, but I was still very moved by her story.
Here’s an excerpt from the beginning :
East is the direction of beginnings. It is sunrise. When beloved Sun rises, it is an entrance, a door to fresh knowledge. Breathe the light in. Call upon the assistance you need for the day. Give thanks.
East is how the plants, animals, and other beings orient themselves for beginnings, to open and blossom. The spirit of the day emerges from the sunrise point. East is also the direction of Oklahoma, where I was born, the direction of the Creek Nation.
Once I was so small I could barely see over the top of the back seat of the black Cadillac my father bought with his Indian oil money. He polished and tuned his car daily. I wanted to see everything.
This was around the time I acquired language, when something happened that changed my relationship to the spin of the world. It changed even the way I looked at the sun.
This suspended integer of time probably escaped ordinary notice in my parents’ universe, which informed most of my vision in the ordinary world. They were still omnipresent gods.
We were driving somewhere in Tulsa, the northern border of the Creek Nation. I don’t know where we were going or where we had been, but I know the sun was boiling the asphalt, the car windows were open for any breeze as I stood on tiptoes on the floorboard behind my father, a handsome god who smelled of Old Spice, whose slick black hair was always impeccably groomed, his clothes perfectly creased and ironed. The radio was on. Even then I loved the radio, jukeboxes, or any magic thing containing music.
I wonder what signaled this moment, a loop of time that on first glance could be any place in time. I became acutely aware of the line the jazz trumpeter was playing (a sound I later associated with Miles Davis). I didn’t know the words jazz or trumpet. I don’t know how to say it, with what sounds or words, but in that confluence of hot southern afternoon, in the breeze of aftershave and humidity, I followed that sound to the beginning, to the birth of sound. I was suspended in whirling stars. I grieved my parents’ failings, my own life, which I saw stretching the length of that rhapsody.
My rite of passage into the world of humanity occurred then, through jazz. The music was a startling bridge between familiar and strange lands. I heard stomp-dance shells, singing. I saw suits, satin, fine hats. I heard workers singing in the fields. It was a way to speak beyond the confines of ordinary language.
Not the typical beginning for an autobiography, and yet, it was the perfect voice for Harjo’s life story. In between the storytelling, I found a brutally honest examination of a life, with no excuses, and a deeper understanding of humanity. And above all, a way through, with bravery.
Needless to say, this book has found a special place in my heart, and I know it will touch yours as well.
Learn more about Joy Harjo here.
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Subscribe to Joy’s YouTube Channel here.