Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 825
The first line of “Anniversary” asks a question that the remainder of the poem answers. The last word, “this,” refers to what is about to be described. Notice that the speaker—Harjo herself, it is safe to assume—does not imply that she can explain how the world began nor why, but only what it was like as it developed.
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These lines contain description that serves both as pure poetics and as an allusion to scientific theory. Harjo describes the origin of the universe as “A little flame illuminating a rough sea.” This is not only poetical, but also refers to the big bang theory, which contends that all the matter and energy in the universe today was once condensed in an extremely small, infinitely hot mass. Line 3, which is just as poetic when read as is, is also an allusion to this theory. When the big bang explosion occurred, it sent the condensed matter and energy expanding in all directions, eventually collecting into clouds that began to condense and rotate, forming the forerunners of galaxies. Harjo depicts this agitation of the universe’s ingredients as “something fermented.” The “question / of attraction” she mentions alludes to the big bang theory’s explanation of how stars were formed. According to the big bang theory, changes in pressure within the newly formed galaxies caused gas and dust to form distinct clouds. If there was sufficient mass and adequate force within the clouds, gravitational attraction would have caused some of them to collapse. If the mass of material was sufficiently compressed, a star would form from the resulting nuclear reactions. While “something sweet” may not figure into the scientific explanation of the universe, it does add an optimistic flare for the poetic explanation.
Poetic license allows writers to fudge a bit on reality without being held accountable for scientific accuracy. In these lines, Harjo jumps ahead in the evolution of the universe, saying that at this point “a bird or two were added,” including “the crow of course to / joke about humanity,” and another bird not specifically identified, but that must be one most people would consider “beautiful.” The description of the crows is an allusion to the legendary reputation of the black birds—often interchangeable with ravens, in folklore—which portrays them as evil-filled beasts who enjoy the suffering of human beings. In some Native American myths, crows have the supernatural power to predict death, and myth has it that if the shadow of the black bird crosses you while it is in flight, you will soon die. The hapless crow was probably destined for such a dubious distinction in human terms simply because of its caw. The high-pitched cry often sounds like a person’s shrill laugh, and when a group of them call out from the branches of trees, the noise resembles a cacophony of mad laughter. The imagery in line 6 is worth noting. Apparently the beauty of the second type of bird was so great that human sight is indebted to it. Just the songs of these magnificent creatures paved the way for “our eyes [to] be imagined.”
Line 7 implies that by this time, at least the seeds of what would become the human race were planted in the story of the universe. Simply stated: “we were then.” But originally nothing existed as a free, individual entity, and, so, “there was no separation” between humans and the stars, planets, galaxies, or any matter that spun together in space. Only after the Earth itself came into being, giving birth to marvelous vegetation, oceans and rivers, and mountains and canyons formed from the furious throes of her survival—all together, the “cries of a planet”—could “our becoming” be possible.
Line 9 follows from line 6, confirming the creation of human eyes. As the Earth settled down after its chaotic growing pains, “We peered through the smoke” now sporting at least shoulders and lips, or perhaps that is all that was visible as humans “emerged from new terrain.”
Here the poem becomes more philosophical than descriptive. This stanza returns to the notion of “attraction,” but now it comments on the ongoing, unanswerable questions of creation that, when asked, only lead to more questions instead of solutions. Lines 12 and 13 contain the first mention of a deity’s presence in the origins of the universe, but note that Harjo does not refer to “God” but to “gods.” This is in keeping with the belief system of many Native American tribes (as well as other ethnic groups) that there are different gods for different things. When the human mind ponders too long the mysteries of the universe and human life, it can become confused or turn into “a spiral,” going round and round with the debate between creation and evolution. Perhaps the agitated intellect travels “toward the invention of sky” because that is where many deities, including the fundamental Christian God, is thought to live.