By ADA SEINE KAI, a student in the Writing and Consciousness MFA program at CIIS. She received her MA in East-West Psychology and splits her time between writing poetry and sharing poetry through movement and myth in the yoga sessions she leads. She lives in San Francisco, where she is working on her first book of poems.
This post was written as an assignment for professor Brynn Saito's multi-genre MFA-level writing workshop, WRC 7093. In this class, students produce new fiction, poetry, and nonfiction, while reflecting on their lives, influences, and processes as artists and writers.
I know better than to judge a book by its cover, but I’ve met some life-changing poems after judging them on their titles. I knew I was going to like Joy Harjo’s prose-poem "Grace" the moment my eye caught that word. Grace, so soft and unassuming, is packed with the grating feeling of masculine power-over and divine withholding. I remember too many hell-talks on Sunday to be able to think of grace as meaning much besides: I am doing it all wrong. Other traditions helped me soften to the concept some, but that early imprint—as they tend to do—stuck.
The need for resolution and the promise of emotional depth drew me into the poem. It helped to know that Harjo is of both Western European and Native American descent (Cherokee and Creek). As a young feminist of similarly mixed origin (Shawnee and Irish), I resonate strongly with her indigenous voice and use of natural symbols. The first lines of Grace are bold and elegant. “I think of Wind and her wild ways the year we had nothing to lose and lost it anyway in the cursed country of the fox.” She plainly says what she wants to say; there are no contrived line breaks or mechanisms to toy with us.
The whole poem is right there. Harjo unpacks it with a bit of narrative arc, but the meaning is ours for the taking, if we like. It is an invitation, on our terms. These lines define an ambivalent relationship with grace, and they express a complexity between the invisible and visible world that is developed later in the poem. At once there is a heart-breaking depth of pain alongside the lightness of language that perfectly captures the empowered experience of grace. “We had to swallow the town with laughter, so it would go down easy, like honey.” It is a tough choice, but it is still their choice.
As a perpetual outsider, Harjo provides insight into how we see ourselves as women from culture to culture. From her poem, "Book of Myths":
There is Helen in every language; in American her name is Marilyn / but in my subversive country, / she is dark earth and round and full of names / dressed in bodies of women / who enter and leave the knife wounds of this terrifyingly / beautiful land; / we call ourselves ripe and pine tree woman.
The sensuality of earth, nature, and roundness provide images that empower women away from the violent and oppressive symbolism of patriarchal systems that might call a beautiful woman, say, a bombshell blonde with killer legs. What does it take to live in that subversive country? It definitely takes bravery to change our word choice and meaning-making systems. And it must also take a little bit of crazy to provide that unique perspective in the first place.
The poems cited here are from the collection of poems “She Rises Like the Sun,” edited by Janine Canan. Joy Harjo's memoir, “Crazy Brave” came out this summer. For more on Joy Harjo’s music, writings, and poetic adventures visit her blog.