Joy Harjo’s “Anniversary” is a “creation” poem— that is, it attempts to recount how the world began and when humankind came to be. It is included in the aptly titled collection Map to the Next World, but it differs from many other poems in this book in that its themes and language are not as pessimistic and they do not center on human cruelty. Published in 2000, on the brink of a new millennium, and subtitled “Poetry and Tales,” Map to the Next World takes readers through stories, in both prose and verse, of America’s brutal history, the long suffering of Indians, and memories of the poet’s own bitter past. However, some of the poems in this collection offer hope for a better future and describe the miracles of human nature instead of its brutality. “Anniversary” is one of these.
The title of this poem is indicative of its celebratory premise, for anniversaries are typically considered happy occasions. Yes, humans also mark the sad dates of the deaths of loved ones or of national tragedies with the same word—the anniversary of the assassination of John Lennon, for instance—but more often an anniversary is a measurement of time for a pleasant event. Harjo, of course, cannot specify exactly which anniversary this is for the human race. That debate has been going on among theologians and scientists for centuries. She treats the number, no matter what it is, as relatively insignificant. The last line of the poem reads simply, “And it’s been years.” But the rest of the poem—with descriptions of flames and crows, smoke and “a spiral of gods,” fish and “waving grass”—makes it very clear that there is nothing insignificant at all about the story the poem tells.
Lines 1-13 Summary
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.
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 entire section is 1,496 words.)