America Starts Here: On “When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through: A Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry”

By Dean RaderNovember 9, 2020

America Starts Here: On “When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through: A Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry”

When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through by Joy Harjo

2020 WORKED HARD to be one of the worst years in recent memory, but for readers of Native American literature, this era is proving to be among the most exciting in the history of Indigenous writing, especially for poetry. To wit: Joy Harjo has just begun her second term as poet laureate of the United States, the first Indigenous poet to hold that position. Whereas, a 2017 debut collection of poems by Layli Long Soldier, was named a finalist for the National Book Award, shortlisted for the prestigious Griffin Prize, and won the National Book Critics Circle Award. A new generation of Indigenous poets like Tommy Pico, Sherwin Bitsui, Jake Skeets, and Natalie Diaz are actively changing how the American poetry establishment thinks about Native poetics. And in October, Cambridge University Press issued the first volume of a massive history of Native American Literature, which will serve as a companion to 2014’s Oxford Handbook of Indigenous American Literature. Finally, after being largely ignored for decades — centuries — it would appear that Indigenous American writing just might be receiving the popular and critical attention it deserves.

Nothing underscores this trend more than the improbable but rather remarkable explosion of Native American poetry anthologies. In the last three years, three different but equally ambitious compilations of Indigenous poetry have hit the shelves. The first, New Poets of Native Nations (Graywolf, 2018), edited by Heid E. Erdrich features 21 poets whose first books were published after 2000, making it a particularly current and relevant collection. In 2019, Native Voices: Indigenous American Poetry, Craft and Conversations (Tupelo Press) appeared, edited by CMarie Fuhrman and me. This book focuses on Indigenous poetry published since 1960 and includes essays on poetic craft by most of the poets. Its aim is to highlight the aesthetic contributions and innovations of Native poetics. And now, just over a year later, the third — and perhaps the most anticipated — compilation has made its appearance on what has become a surprisingly crowded stage: When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through: A Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry, edited by Joy Harjo with LeAnne Howe and Jennifer Elise Foerster. It is a remarkable collection and a vital addition to the vast Norton anthology lineup.

With 161 authors, 400 pages of poetry, over 300 years of coverage (1678–2019), and more than 90 nations represented, the Harjo/Norton is the most inclusive and the most comprehensive anthology of Native American poetry to date. Because so many poets and nations are included, no poet is given more than three poems, and most get only one or two. This may surprise some readers, but such an approach foregrounds historical breadth rather than authorial reputation. In this sense, When the Light of the World Was Subdued is an unusual anthology in that it seems to have no interest in individual canonicity. It prioritizes genealogy over gatekeeping. Or, put another way, the anthology is less about poets and more about poems, which aligns with much Native aesthetic production. Native poets rarely, if ever, wax on about individual genius; they ground their poetics in community, story, tradition, and participation. Harjo, Howe, and Foerster have done a marvelous job demonstrating how Indigenous poetry is a not a banner but a quilt.

In addition to scope, the editors make other fascinating editorial decisions. One is the book’s arrangement. Instead of presenting the poets chronologically, this collection is organized by region. Each region features a contributing editor (or editors) who provides an introduction to the poetry of that section/region. They are: Northeast and Midwest (Kimberly M. Blaeser); Plains and Mountains (Heid E. Erdrich); Southwest and West (Deborah A. Miranda); Southeast (Jennifer Elise Foerster), and Pacific Northwest, Alaska, and Pacific Islands (Cedar Sigo, Diane L’xeis’ Benson, and Brandy Nālani McDougall). This editorial cartography serves at least two important purposes: first, it makes the argument that not all Indigenous poetry (and not all Indigenous poets) are the same. Second, it reorients readers to geographical locations where landforms, animals, seasons, bodies of water, mountains, and botanical life are part of the landscape/worldview/language of tribal communities. Consider how different the landscapes (and languages) were (and are) of the Acoma, Onondaga, and Tlingit. Those distinctions are often reflected in the poems, not only in content, but sometimes also in form. A third subtextual effect of this design might also be to remind readers of the times, means, and nations of contact as well as the horrific realities of relocation and removal. For example, French contact in the upper Midwest differs from Spanish conquest in the Southwest, which differs from the history of the tribes of the Southeast who were removed to what is now Oklahoma. Allowing the poems of the regions to have conversations with these events (and each other) accentuates shared experiences. It makes the subtle argument that Indigenous America is a nation of many nations. There are macro convergences, yes, but there are also discrete regional particularities.

For me, “Pacific Northwest, Alaska, and Pacific Islands” is a particular treasure. I’ve been reading, teaching, and writing about Indigenous poetry for over 20 years, and in this section, there are a handful of poets that not only had I never read, but that I had never even heard of. One example is Lincoln Blassi, whose “Prayer Song Asking for a Whale” is printed first in St. Lawrence Yup’ik then translated into English. There is something about seeing the original language on the page and trying to say or sing it that underscores its sacredness, especially considering that it is a prayer for the emergence of a whale — the intentional and unintentional metaphorics of that feel ominous yet beautiful. Two other standout poets in this section whose work I did not know include Iñupiaq author Cathy Tagnak Rexford’s fantastically smart poem “The Ecology of Subsistence” and Haunani-Kay Trask, whose “Night Is a Sharkskin Drum” is a masterclass of compressed lyric imagery and intensity. One of my favorite emerging poets is the Nimíipuu, Nez Perce writer Michael Wasson, so I was thrilled to see him among these voices. His “A Poem for the háawtnin’ & héwlekipx [The Holy Ghost of You, the Space & Thin Air]” is not to be missed.

Those familiar with Native American poetry will find many of their favorite poets represented in these pages. Each of the section editors have poems in the anthology, as do Harjo, Howe, and Foerster (but, again, never more than three). Some readers may not be familiar with Jennifer Elise Foerster and could be surprised to see her name alongside icons like Harjo and Howe, but Foerster is an excellent poet, and I hope this anthology serves as a springboard for her work, especially as it is placed alongside other luminaries like Paula Gunn Allen, Luci Tapahonso, Simon Ortiz, Sherman Alexie, N. Scott Momaday, Zitkála-Šá, Louise Erdrich, Elise Paschen, Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, Gerald Vizenor, Ray Young Bear, Leslie Marmon Silko, Linda Hogan, James Thomas Stevens, Janice Gould, and many others. There is also a generous selection of younger poets — Diaz, Skeets, Pico, Bitsui, and Long Soldier, of course — whose work is fabulously rich and deserves wider readership, like dg nanouk okpik, Bojan Louis, Julian Talamantez Brolaski, Orlando White, Laura Da’, Tanaya Winder, and Santee Frazier. It is exciting to see their poems enter into conversation with those of earlier generations of poets from the same regions.

While work by most of the younger poets tends to skew toward the formally experimental, all of the poets in these pages share a commitment to narrative, place, identity, and history. One thread that runs throughout is deep anger toward the colonial project, though “anger” feels like an inadequate word. I loved coming across so many modes of resistance over so many years and across so many nations. One example that comes to mind is Elizabeth Woody’s “Translation of Blood Quantum,” a three-part poem that is impossible to paraphrase and must be experienced. Its takedown of the insane laws surrounding tribal affiliation and blood quantum is extensive. Here are the opening lines:

31/32 Warm Springs–Wasco–Yakama–Pit River–Navajo
1/32 Other      Tribal roll number 1553


Here and in the rest of the poem, Woody explores how the long history of unfair laws targeting Native communities have not only fragmented nations and communities but engendered a fragmented sense of individual identity.

Though it takes a slightly different approach, I also want to call attention to Tacey M. Atsitty’s “Sonnet for My Wrist,” which begins:

I tend to mistake your ribs for a hand towel,
it hangs on a nail above the washbowl, the hand towel,
ripped. There’s something wearing about the end curve
of thread. When I sleep I keep my palms open. Verve:
we were lovers in a field of gray. In Navajo, we say something
rote: I’ll radical when you hurt me something

Note how differently the two poems make their entrances on the page. Atsitty’s sense of play is refreshing here. She kicks it old-school with heroic couplets but has some fun with line breaks and repetition. I also recommend Esther G. Belin’s wonderfully meta “Assignment 44,” a strikethrough poem in the form of a writing prompt, as well as the collaborative masterpiece “Dreams of Water Bodies  Nibii-Wiiyawan Bawaadanan” by Kimberly Blaeser and Margaret Noodin, a vertical poem in English on one side and Anishinaabemowin on the other. Space prohibits me from listing more must-reads, but in all honesty, wherever one opens the book, one will encounter a poem that feels urgent, timely, necessary.

Harjo, Howe, and Foerster have put together a fantastic anthology when it comes to reading and teaching, but when it comes to reviewing, there is virtually nothing scandalous for me to write about, even though, in the last decade, big poetry anthologies have emerged as lightning rods of controversy and criticism. In 2000, Cary Nelson’s Anthology of Modern American Poetry (Oxford University Press), was brutalized by major critics like Marjorie Perloff for foregrounding subject matter and identity politics over literary merit. Similarly, The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Literature (2011), edited by Rita Dove, enraged many for its attempt to level the playing field of modern American poetry by including more work by poets of color. Harvard’s Helen Vendler leveled a ruthless critique of Dove’s editorial vision in The New York Review of Books, prompting a defense by Dove in the same pages. More recently, the always entertaining Michael Robbins penned a gleefully lacerating takedown of the second edition of Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology (2013), edited by Paul Hoover, for both his curatorial choices and his author headnotes. While at it, he also takes Dove to task for similar reasons, claiming she and Hoover “deserve each other.” It is worth asking why readers (mostly critics) get so worked up about the makeup of anthologies, when inclusion or exclusion no longer necessarily means much in terms of canonicity, particularly when what we think of as “the margins” and “the center” are always in flux.

What makes this particular anthology unique (and useful) is its reluctance to play the hierarchy game or the poetic school game or the identity game. Harjo’s organizing principle appears to be equal parts generosity and pedagogy. One thing it teaches is that Indigenous American poetry is more than the few canonized poems readers already know. In fact, Harjo does not include her most iconic poems, like “She Had Some Horses” or “The Woman Hanging from the Thirteenth Floor Window,” in part, I think, to suggest that an anthology like this — like poetry in general — is more than a collection of greatest hits. What if we approached an anthology not as a grab bag of lists but as a map? To me, this book is a cartography of how Native writers have turned to poetry for centuries as a way of marking, naming, and preserving external and internal landscapes. Ultimately, this Norton anthology also teaches us how the history and literature of America is simultaneously the history and literature of Native America. You can’t know or claim to be a full citizen of the former without seriously engaging the latter.

Unlike most anthologies, the main story of this one is how and why Native poets write, not who is in or who is out. Of course, there are some excellent poets not included in the Harjo/Norton, but this will not detract from their reputation or readership. Similarly, there are some largely unknown and unread poets who will probably not necessarily grow their readership or book sales simply because they appear in these pages. But this is part of the anthology’s greatness: it decenters the individual author and his or her accomplishments in favor of supporting an entire community. Rather than an assemblage of solos, When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through is a chorus. And right now, we need as many powerful voices in union as we can get.


Dean Rader has written, edited, or co-edited 11 books. His debut collection of poems, Works & Days, won the 2010 T. S. Eliot Poetry Prize, and Landscape Portrait Figure Form (2014) was named by The Barnes & Noble Review as a Best Poetry Book.

LARB Contributor

Dean Rader has authored or co-authored eleven books, including Works & Days, winner of the 2010 T. S. Eliot Prize, Landscape Portrait Figure Form, a Barnes & Noble Review Best Book, and Self-Portrait as Wikipedia Entry, a finalist for the Oklahoma Book Award and the Northern California Book Award. Before the Borderless: Dialogues with the Art of Cy Twombly, is forthcoming in 2023 from Copper Canyon. His writing has been supported by fellowships from Princeton University, Harvard University, Headlands Center for the Arts, Art Omi, and the MacDowell Foundation. Rader is a professor at the University of San Francisco and a 2019 Guggenheim Fellow in poetry. 


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