When Joy Harjo published her first chapbook The Last Song in 1975, Native American literature was just beginning to gain literary and critical attention. Writers such as Leslie Marmon Silko, Linda Hogan, N. Scott Momaday, and Harjo, once considered pioneers of this important movement, are now viewed as accomplished artists whose work is often included in American literature anthologies. Harjo’s poetry, in particular, has gained wide recognition and praise for its political, social, cultural, and spiritual content. A mixed-blood Muskogee Creek, Harjo frequently blends traditional Native American values and myth with images from contemporary life to highlight themes such as the interrelatedness of all things, survival, the power of language and memory, feminist concerns, continuance, and transcendence. Her book In Mad Love and War (1990) won the prestigious William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America and the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Prize from New York University. How We Became Human collects poems from each of seven previous books—two of which are now out of print—and includes thirteen new poems.
The first section of How We Became Human features eight of the ten poems originally published in The Last Song, which were eventually incorporated into Harjo’s second book, What Moon Drove Me to This?(1980). Many of the poems are devoid of punctuation and capitalization. Her lack of concern for the “proper” rules of English grammar reflects the influence of other Native American poets Harjo was reading at the time these poems were written and may be a conscious protest against the language of the European colonizers. Largely autobiographical, Harjo’s early poems also incorporate many of the images and themes that she would develop in her later work.
The title poem in The Last Song, for example, tells the story of Harjo’s visit to her childhood home in Oklahoma. Landscape and a sense of place are primary concerns in Harjo’s work and spring from her Native American perspective. Her deep connection to her birthplace is reflected in the last lines, “oklahoma will be the last song/ i’ll ever sing.” Not only is the land an essential part of her personal history, it also provides a tangible link to her tribal culture and past. The importance of land, memory, and the Native oral tradition is evident in the following lines:
an ancient chant
that my mother knew
came out of a history
woven from wet tall grass
in her womb
and i know of no other way
than to surround my voice
with the summer songs of crickets
in this moist south night air
These lines blend a mythic perspective with feminist and cultural viewpoints, a potent combination upon which Harjo would eventually expand. Her feminist and cultural concerns are also represented in “I Am a Dangerous Woman,” which appeared for the first time in What Moon Drove Me to This? The setting of the poem, a modern airport surrounded by the Sandia Mountains, illustrates the clash between Native and Anglo values. This conflict is further emphasized when the Native speaker is asked to step into the security guard’s “guncatcher machine.” The refrain “I am a dangerous woman” is repeated twice in the poem and highlights the speaker’s feminine power.
Harjo’s next book, She Had Some Horses (1983), moved away from the short lyrics of The Last Song and What Moon Drove Me to This? to include longer poems that weave together more complex themes and images and draw more extensively from American Indian myth and legend. Arranged in a cyclical fashion, the poems not only explore social issues such as racism, injustice, and the destructive effects of colonialism on marginalized peoples, but also examine the detrimental effects of those issues on the speaker’s psychological and spiritual landscapes. Beginning and ending with poems about fear, the entire work represents a journey from fragmentation to wholeness.
The best example of this journey is the title poem, “She Had Some Horses.” The poem, written in the form of a Native American chant, repeats the phrases “she had some horses” and “she had horses,” giving the work a rhythmic quality while reinforcing the speaker’s native identity. The speaker’s inner landscape has been scarred as a result of her living as a mixed-blood Native American in an alien society. She attempts to heal the wounds within herself by engaging in a ritual that will reconcile conflicting aspects of her personality. By the end of the poem, she realizes her goal when she says, “She had some horses she loved./ She had some horses she hated./ These were the same horses.” This ceremony is a necessary predecessor to “I Give You Back,” the last poem of the collection, where the speaker is...
(The entire section is 2018 words.)