Can I really include Joy Harjo a third time this month? OF COURSE I CAN.
I was thrilled to hear that Joy would be doing a second year as U.S. Poet Laureate today. On top of that, it is my husband’s birthday, and this “birthday” poem caught my eye. It is a lovely gift.
BY JOY HARJO
Knoxville, December 27, 2016, for Marilyn Kallet’s 70th birthday.
This poem was constructed to carry any memory you want to hold close.
when the days
grew legs of night.
Chocolates were offered.
We ate latkes for hours
to celebrate light and friends.
We will keep going despite dark
or a madman in a white house dream.
Let’s talk about something else said the dog
who begs faithfully at the door of goodwill:
a biscuit will do, a voice of reason, meat sticks —
I dreamed all of this I told her, you, me, and Paris —
it was impossible to make it through the tragedy
without poetry. What are we without winds becoming words?
Becoming old children born to children born to sing us into
love. Another level of love, beyond the neighbor’s holiday light
display proclaiming goodwill to all men who have lost their way in the dark
as they tried to find the car door, the bottle hidden behind the seat, reason
to keep on going past all the times they failed at sharing love, love. It’s weak they think —
or some romantic bullshit, a movie set propped up behind on slats, said the wizard
of junk understanding who pretends to be the wise all-knowing dog behind a cheap fan.
It’s in the plan for the new world straining to break through the floor of this one, said the Angel of
All-That-You-Know-and-Forgot-and-Will-Find, as she flutters the edge of your mind when you try to
sing the blues to the future of everything that might happen and will. All the losses come tumbling
down, down, down at three in the morning as do all the shouldn’t-haves or should-haves. It doesn’t matter, girl —
I’ll be here to pick you up, said Memory, in her red shoes, and the dress that showed off brown legs. When you met
him at the age you have always loved, hair perfect with a little wave, and that shine in your skin from believing what was
impossible was possible, you were not afraid. You stood up in love in a French story and there fell ever
a light rain as you crossed the Seine to meet him for café in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. You wrote a poem beneath the tender
skin from your ribs to your hip bone, in the slender then, and you are still writing that song to convince the sweetness of every
bit of straggling moonlight, star and sunlight to become words in your mouth, in your kiss — that kiss that will never die, you will all
ways fall in love. It doesn’t matter how old, how many days, hours, or memories, we can fall in love over and over
again. The Seine or Tennessee or any river with a soul knows the depths descending when it comes to seeing the sun or moon stare
back, without shame, remorse, or guilt. This is what I remember she told her husband when they bedded down that night in the house that would begin
marriage. That house was built of twenty-four doves, rugs from India, cooking recipes from seven generations of mothers and their sisters,
and wave upon wave of tears, and the concrete of resolution for the steps that continue all the way to the heavens, past guardian dogs, dog
after dog to protect. They are humble earth angels, and the rowdiest, even nasty. You try and lick yourself like that, imagine. And the Old
Woman laughed as she slipped off her cheap shoes and parked them under the bed that lies at the center of the garden of good and evil. She’d seen it all. Done it
more than once. Tonight, she just wanted a good sleep, and picked up the book of poetry by her bed, which was over a journal she kept when her mother was dying.
These words from May Sarton she kept in the fourth room of her heart, “Love, come upon him warily and deep / For if he startle first it were as well / to bind a fox’s
throat with a gold bell /As hold him when it is his will to leap.” And she considered that every line of a poem was a lead line into the spirit world to capture a
bit of memory, pieces of gold confetti, a kind of celebration. We all want to be remembered, even memory, even the way the light came in the kitchen
window, when her mother turned up the dial on that cool mist color
of a radio, when memory crossed the path of longing and took
mother’s arm and she put down her apron
said, “I don’t mind if I do,” and they danced, you watching, as you began your own cache of remembering. Already you had stored the taste of mother as milk, father as a labor
of sweat and love, and night as a lonely boat of stars that took you into who you were before you slid through the hips of the story. There are no words when you cross the
gate of forbidden waters, or is it a sheer scarf of the finest silk, or is it something else that causes you to forget. Nothing is ever forgotten says the god of remembering
who protects the heartbeat of every little cell of knowing from the Antarctic to the soft spot at the top of this planetary baby. Oh baby, come here, let me tell you the story
of the party you will never forget, no matter where you go, where you are, or where you will be when you cross the line and say, no more. No more greedy kings, no more disappointments, no more orphans,
or thefts of souls or lands, no more killing for the sport of killing. No more, no more, except more of the story so I will understand exactly what I am doing here, and why, she said to the fox
guardian who took her arm to help her cross the road that was given to the care of Natives who made sure the earth spirits were fed with songs, and the other things they loved to eat. They like sweets, cookies, and flowers.
It was getting late and the fox guardian picked up her books as she hurried through the streets of strife. But it wasn’t getting late. There was no late, only a plate of tamales on the counter waiting to be
or not to be. At this age, said the fox, we are closer to the not to be, which is the to be in the fields of sweet grasses. Wherever you are, enjoy the evening, how the sun walks the horizon before cross
sing over to be, and we then exist under the realm of the moon. There’s where fears slay us, in the dark of the howling mind. We all battle. Befriend them, the moon said as a crab skittered under her skirt, her daughter in
the high chair, waiting for cereal and toast. What a girl she turned out to be, a willow tree, a blessing to the winds, to her family. There she is married, and we start the story all over again, said her father
in a toast to the happiness of who we are and who we are becoming as Change in a new model sedan whips it down the freeway toward the generations that follow, one after another in the original
lands of the Mvskoke who are still here. Nobody goes anywhere though we are always leaving and returning. It’s a ceremony. Sunrise occurs everywhere, in lizard time, human time, or a fern uncurling time. We
instinctually reach for light food, we digest it, make love, art or
trouble of it. The sun crowns us at noon. The whole earth is a queen. Then there are always goodbyes. At sunset say goodbye to hurt, to suffering, to the pain you caused others,
or yourself. Goodbye, goodbye, to Carrie Fisher, the Star Wars phenomenon, and George Michael, the singer. They were planets in our emotional universe. Some of my memories are opened by the image of love on screen in an
imagined future, or broken open when the sax solo of “Careless Whisper” blows through the communal heart. Yes, there’s a cosmic consciousness. Jung named it but it was there long before named by Vedic and Mvskoke scientists. And, there is
a cosmic hearteousness — for the heart is the higher mind and nothing can be forgotten there, no ever or ever. How do I sing this so
I don’t forget? Ask the poets. Each word is a box that can be opened or closed. Then a train of words, phrases
garnered by music and the need for rhythm to organize chaos. Like right here, now, in this poem is the transition phase. I remembered it while giving birth, summer sun bearing down on the city melting asphalt but there we were, my daughter
and I, at the door between worlds. I was happier than ever before to welcome her, happiness was the path she chose to enter, and
I couldn’t push yet, not yet, and then there appeared a pool of the
bluest water. We waited there for a breath
to catch up, and then it did, and she took it that girl who was beautiful beyond dolphin dreaming, and we made it, we did, to the other side of suffering. This is the story our mothers tell but we couldn’t hear it in our ears stuffed with Barbie advertising,
with our mothers’ own loathing set in place by patriarchal scripture, the smothering rules to stop insurrection by domesticated slaves, or wives. It hurt everybody. The fathers cannot know what they are feeling in such a spiritual backwash. Worship
boxes set into place by the need for money and power will not beget freedom. Only warships. For freedom, freedom, oh freedom sang the slaves, the oar rhythm of the blues lifting up the spirits of peoples whose bodies were worn out, or destroyed by a man’s slash,
hit of greed. This is our memory too, said America. Heredity is a field of blood, celebration, and forgetfulness. Don’t take on more than you can carry, said the eagle to his twin sons, fighting each other in the sky over a fox, dangling between
them. It’s that time of the year, when we eat tamales and latkes. We light candles, fires to make the way for a newborn child, for fresh
understanding. Demons will try to make houses out of jealousy, anger,
pride, greed, or more destructive material. They place them in a
part of the body that will hold them: liver, heart, knee, or brain. So, my friend, let’s let that go, for joy, for chocolates made of ashes, mangos, grapefruit, or chili from Oaxaca, for sparkling wine from Spain, for these children who show up in our dreams and want to live at any cost because
we are here to feed them joy. Your soul is so finely woven the silkworms went on strike, said the mulberry tree. We all have mulberry trees in the memory yard. They hold the place for skinned knees earned by small braveries, cousins you love who are gone, a father cutting a
watermelon in the summer on the porch, and a mother so in love that her heart breaks — it will never be the same, yet all memory bends to fit. The heart has uncountable rooms. We turn to leave here, and so will the hedgehog who makes a home next to that porch. We become birds, poems