Vassar Critical Journal

The Vassar College English Department Student Journal of Critical Essays

Tell me your story. 

This proposal is a massive undertaking; one which, if taken seriously, requires you to map out your life extensively. However, it is not an impossible feat. Joy Harjo creates a “series of maps” in An American Sunrise, a poetry collection born of her physical and spiritual journey to her ancestral homeland in Oklahoma, “the site where the Mvskoke people… were forcibly displaced” (“There is a map” 1, cover copy). Forming narrative mountains and lyric valleys, she tells stories that interweave histories and transcend linear time. She does not simply tell her story though. “Washing My Mother’s Body,” the prose that follows, and the titular “An American Sunrise” exist in conversation with one other, each referring to “the story,” a subtle motif that Harjo returns to intermittently. “The story” remains undefined and generalized, never adopting a possessive “my story” or “your story.” Instead, the variable ambiguity of “the story” allows it to exist in three poetic registers: the personal, the collective, and the earthly. By weaving “the story” through the collection, Harjo asserts herself as a traveler through these three poetic terrains, and thus as someone who belongs on various maps.1 In doing so, she radically resists the cultural and political erasure of Indigenous identity. She demands to take up space by mapping out her journey toward “becoming.”

Through an intimate narrative style interspersed with palpable imagery of the body, “Washing My Mother’s Body” defines “the story” on a personal scale, as one carried through “body memories” (88). The poem’s succinct beginning and ending reinforce its storytelling quality: the speaker “[washes her mother]… in memory,” a sense of closure she seeks that allows her to “let [her mother] go” (1-2, 118). The narrative is invariably personal as tangible depictions of her mother’s body anchor the reader’s understanding of this poem as a piece in Harjo’s story.

Every act in the process of washing her mother—“[picking] up the bar of soap… [lifting] up each arm to wash,” cleaning her face, neck, and feet—catalyzes recollections of her biography since “time’s beginning” (23-53, 34). She weaves historical threads from her mother to her grandmother to her great-grandmother, unraveling her ancestral lineage. She discovers tokens that have been passed down through generations; she remembers her father’s abuse, her husband’s quips, her mother’s sacrifices, all through this bodily bond. It becomes increasingly clear how visceral Harjo’s memories are: “The story is all there, in [her mother’s] body,” causing Harjo’s own “body memories [to] rise up as [she] washes” (86, 88). As she honors her mother’s “body for carrying [her] through the tough story,” so too does she honor her own body, which “[carried]… and [fed]” her children (76, 89-90). The connection of their bodies, even intangibly, creates a throughline of her family’s matriarchal and feminine power. In these first references to “the story,” though the language is not possessive, it solely embraces Harjo. Therefore, this first poetic register– the personal– marks Harjo’s coming-into-being. By recognizing her ancestors’ bodies as valuable, she celebrates the physical space they occupied. She maps out her experience of genealogical memory, challenging centuries of cultural assimilation and identity erasure. Through this poem, Harjo establishes hers as a story that deserves to be told, heard, and honored. However individualized, Harjo quickly opens up her embrace. 

The second poetic register of “the story–” the collective—develops through Harjo’s use of unconventional, anachronistic metaphors and cultural juxtaposition in the prose “There is a map.” Harjo employs these devices to akin herself with those who, at first glance, do not exist on the same map as her. She writes of her mother’s artistry as a “songwriter and singer,” expressing that her mother “is William Blake’s / ‘Little Lamb…’ and Alfred Lord Tennyson” (8, 8-10). Though metaphors do not traditionally compare two seemingly similar entities (one person to another person), Harjo’s nuanced comparisons work to both distance her from and draw her closer to a collective story. Blake and Tennyson were English poets during the 19th century, both of whom have become canonical in English literature. By comparing her mother, the tenor, to these poets, who serve as the vehicle, Harjo honors her mother as a true artist on par with the greats, even though her “gifts were trampled / by economic necessity and emotional imprisonment” (14-15). Therein lies the metaphor; Harjo’s mother, an Indigenous woman, and these poets, white men from nineteenth-century England, still exist in different planes that thoroughly dictated the course of their lives. Though neither their time in history nor their structural circumstances were the same, their stories overlap through the collective need to create and express. Harjo’s metaphors become increasingly complex when she reveres her mother through American songs: “She is the ‘Burning Ring of Fire’ / running away… at sixteen. She is / ‘Crazy’ sung by Patsy Cline in a wake of heartache” (11-13). While the allusions toward English literature serve to ponder “what could have been” in her mother’s life, the allusions toward American song-writing contemplate “what was.” The references to Johnny Cash and Patsy Cline, two American country artists, represent the inextricable link between Indigenous culture and what we understand as the “American sound.” Harjo simultaneously esteems her mother through these artists and indicates that both Cash and Cline’s style is rooted in the music and rhythm of her ancestors. Through layers of metaphor, Harjo marks the cyclicality of inspiration. Consequently, she does not alienate her mother from music and art; rather, she places her at the center of these cultural signifiers. When Harjo shifts toward her father’s story, she describes “a dancer, a rhythm keeper” who “looked for a vision or song to counter the heartache of history” (16). His artistry stems from his ancestors, a reaffirmation that they were creatives in their own right. Harjo intentionally juxtaposes those whom we consider to be foundational artists of the Western canon—Blake, Tennyson, Cash, and Cline—and the actual earliest traditional artists in the West, her own ancestors. Through such contrast, she pays homage to each pillar of her formation as a creative individual. These are all “the [stories]” from which Harjo “emerged”: the story of artistry (22). This prose becomes metapoetic as Harjo, a poet herself and an extension of her parents’ inspirations, places herself on the map containing all artists and poets. Her identity amalgamates each of these influences—Indigenous, British, American, and otherwise—as if every artist lives within Harjo. These allusions broaden the boundaries of “the story” toward a collective while simultaneously signifying Western notions of traditional, canonical art. “The Story” not only captures Harjo’s poetic genesis but creates a network in which silenced poets—like her parents—and celebrated poets exist on a shared map.     

Harjo’s metapoetry deepens as she alludes to Gwendolyn Brooks in her titular work, “An American Sunrise,” expanding the collective of “the story” under the unifying force of artistry as a means of resistance. In the latter half of Brooks’ poem “We Real Cool,” she writes,

We

Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We

Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We

Die soon (5-10). 

In Harjo’s fifteen line poem, she employs these fifteen words (We… soon) as the final word of each line. While the poems hold different tones and meanings, Harjo’s direct citation of “We Real Cool” becomes a conscious decision to akin herself to Brooks, a Black poet of the American Canon. Harjo notably shifts toward a plural first-person perspective just as Brooks employs the repeated “We.” Harjo’s emulation of Brooks’ perspective allows her to parallel the shared plight of millions of Americans: “We knew we were all related in this story” (10). Through intentional parallelism, she posits that the story of the African diaspora and the story of displaced Indigenous Americans are thoroughly interconnected. She sees and desires to be seen by Brooks. Though similar in these regards, Harjo writes in the past tense while Brooks writes in the present tense, illuminating a sequence. Indigneous people lived in the part of the world we call America long before colonizers and enslavers. Harjo returns to the cyclicality of inspiration, reasserting that Indigenous history has shaped the rest of American history. Harjo writes, “We / Had something to do with the origins of blues and jazz,” genres of quintessential American music born of Black artistry (11-12). Harjo does not dismiss Black Americans’ influence in creating the American sound, as evident in her direct reference to Brooks’ line, “We / Jazz June” (Brooks 8-9). Rather, she enmeshes her Indigenous ancestors within this map of “We.” The story of “We” encapsulates all who have ultimately created America though the fact that they “are still America” is consistently contested (14). “The story” transforms into a socio-political solidarity, an embrace toward those who seek justice denied. As Harjo continues to expand “the story” then, is anyone truly excluded? 

Although each poem develops “the story” through different registers, Harjo incorporates geological imagery within its evolution, creating a poetic register that binds each of us together in a shared story: the Earth. In “Washing My Mother’s Body,” the speaker’s mother is “let down into earth” as a way to “return all stories to the earth” (87). This imagery marks a cycle. As entities of this Earth, we carry its stories within us; when we die, they will belong to the Earth again. In the successive prose, “There is a map,” Harjo’s imagery illuminates how this earthly intertwinement links us to one another. She conceives “a series of maps… transparent and layered” that represent “one generation over another… weaving… by image, sound, and sense” (1-2, 3-5). Maps, which typically depict lands and geography, become symbolic of the “lines of connection” between each of us and proof of our geological tether─ a physical way in which our stories are one (3). Harjo echoes these sentiments once more in “An American Sunrise” when she reveals a sense of ecstasy “[driving] to the edge of the mountains” to “Sing” and basking under the universe’s “starry stars” (6, 5, 7). Through these worldly contemplations, she becomes one with the land, trying to wrap herself in the Earth’s eternities. Each of us, as cohabitors of this world, can wrap ourselves in Earth’s stories. Harjo’s enlightenment of “the story” therefore allows us to find ourselves on the path toward becoming. 

On this map of stories, it would be easy to assume that An American Sunrise is just another geographical pinning, one story among trillions. While Harjo indeed creates a biographical collection, to deem it a single story, or just Harjo’s story, would be an oversimplification of what the collection accomplishes. By making “the story” expansive, no matter how pointed her material, she gives it a morphable quality. She pushes against singularism, instead asserting her belonging on every map that has allowed her to become—to find her way home. “The story” is ancestry and artistry. Plight and justice. Planetary connection. And “the story” is not hers alone; it becomes an amalgamation of literary maps that elucidates our coming-into-being. As readers, we allow “the story” to collide within us—in reading this collection, we, too, may extend our map(s) to proclaim where we belong; we may travel across vast terrains until we find our home.

Works Cited

  • Brook, Gwendolyn. “We Real Cool.” Poets.org. Academy of American Poets, n.d. Web. 07 Dec. 
    2021.
  • Cover copy. Harjo, Joy. An American Sunrise: Poems. New York: Norton, 2019. Print.
  • Harjo, Joy. “An American Sunrise.” An American Sunrise: Poems, Norton, 2019, 105. Print. 
  • Harjo, Joy. An American Sunrise: Poems. New York: Norton, 2019. Print.
  • Harjo, Joy. “There is a map.” An American Sunrise: Poems, Norton, 2019, 34. Print. 
  • Harjo, Joy. “Washing My Mother’s Body.” An American Sunrise: Poems, Norton, 2019, 30-33. 
    Print.

  1.  I refer to Harjo and the speaker interchangeably throughout the essay to provide a cohesive representation of the “speaking I” across three poems from An American Sunrise. The nature of the collection is highly autobiographical as the process of writing it came about from the author’s journey back to her ancestral homeland. “The story” I develop throughout the essay is itself an extension of this autobiographical quality.

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