A Diary Left Open: On Joy Harjo

By Jack ShakelyAugust 16, 2012

Crazy Brave by Joy Harjo

JOY HARJO'S SAD and insightful little chapbook of a memoir, Crazy Brave, brings one of our finest — and most complicated — poets into view. And in an era when all poets are hard to see and Native American poets are invisible, it couldn't come at a better time.

Muscogee/Creek Joy Harjo is an Indian writer. Those two words tongue-and-groove easily these days, but for all of the nineteenth and most of the twentieth century, there were Indians and there were writers, but no Indian writers. Well, there was Will Rogers, of course, but despite his ready acknowledgement of his Cherokee heritage, we thought of him as a cowboy, not an Indian. And then Kiowa author N. Scott Momaday changed everything with his 1968 masterpiece, House Made of Dawn, when he explored what it means to be an Indian in modern society.

House Made of Dawn is primarily a story of a self-destructive Indian World War II veteran returning to the reservation, suddenly an outsider in his own land. The novel struck a responsive chord with readers of every ethnic stripe; it was a best seller and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1969.

But it did far more. It gave an entire generation of young Indian writers permission to explore their own Indianness in relation to the modern world, ushering in what is now known as the Native American Renaissance. The bevy of writers Momaday influenced includes Louise Erdrich, James Welch, Simon Ortiz, Leslie Marmon Silko, Gerald Vizenor, and Joy Harjo.

Harjo burst onto the literary landscape in 1983 with her remarkable collection of poems She Had Some Horses. Often writing in a chant-like cadence, she uses deceptively simple declarative words that echo the verse of Emily Dickinson, whom Harjo admires. It is unlikely, however, that Dickinson could have imagined a line like this one: "She had some horses who licked razor blades."

Readers new to Harjo might begin with She Had Some Horses before tackling Crazy Brave, which is less memoir than it is a diary carelessly (or not so carelessly) left open. It is full of non-linear events, dreams, and people — some of whom are named, some not — and is often cryptic until juxtaposed against her poems (the "licked razor blades" might be more than simile, we discover). In fact, Crazy Brave is the key that unlocks many of the coded poems in Horses, The Woman Who Fell from the Sky, and In Mad Love and War, among others.

Harjo doesn’t mind if we struggle a little with some of her poems; she struggled hard enough just to feel authorized to write them. Harjo was the daughter of an alcoholic and mostly-absent full-blood Muscogee/Creek father (whom she seems to love even more because of his weaknesses than despite them) and a pretty, mixed-blood Cherokee mother who made wrong choices when it came to men. She grew up in near-poverty in Tulsa, where she suffered the same anxieties of not belonging shared by the biracial characters who often appear in her writing. “You fight to get out of the sharpest valleys cut down into the history of living bone,” she writes in “Night Out.” “And you fight to get in."

Harjo's other recurring theme is that each of us inherently possesses a fully developed spirit helper, wise and raring to go even before we enter what she calls "the breathing realm." She saw these spirits clearly at the birth of her grandchildren, one "fierce and determined" who "bided her time impatiently through babyhood." In her poem "This is my Heart" from her 2001 book of poetry, A Map to the Next World, she writes:          

This is my soul. It is a good soul.

It tells me, "Come here, forgetful one."
And we sit together.
We cook a little something to eat,
then a sip of something sweet,
for memory, for memory.

Harjo calls her own spirit helper the Knowing. Throughout her life the Knowing has given her warnings and wise advice, which she has routinely ignored. And for this she pays the price.

Harjo is as raw and honest in her memoir as she is in her poetry. She writes about her struggles with alcohol and self-abuse, her inherited tendency to gravitate towards the wrong man (the Cherokee pizza maker who fathered one child; the hard-drinking and abusive poet who fathered another), and, out of nowhere, a panic attack so lasting and severe she found it difficult to put one foot in front of the other.

But Joy Harjo fought off those demons. Like many adult Indians, she chose a new name for herself, assuming the maiden name of her grandmother, Naomi Harjo Foster. The name has been carried by some great Muscogee/Creek Indians, people like Echo Harjo, who was chief during the Civil War, and Chitto Harjo, who was chief at the turn of the century. Harjo is the Muscogee/Creek word meaning reckless in battle, or crazy brave. It is a good name and one she has earned.


Recommended Reads:

LARB Contributor

Jack Shakely is president-emeritus of the California Community Foundation and is former chair of the Los Angeles City/County Native American Indian Commission.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.