I had the privilege of hearing U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo speak and read her poems in January, and that same voice threads through her short, intense memoir, “Crazy Brave.”
Harjo, the country’s first Native American Poet Laureate, was born in 1951 into the Muscogee Nation in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she now lives. Her memoir, published in 2012, following the publication of several poetry collections, details her journey in and out of her origins. In raw and honest, beautiful yet spare language, she tells of a turbulent past with an abusive step-father, her escape into the world of learning, and her discovery of painting and then poetry at an Indian school for the arts in New Mexico.
She writes of the early cultivation of her mind: “I’d always liked the discipline and ritual of learning. To know something gave me more ability to move within my mind. There was more territory to contemplate. There were more doors.”
Along with this love of learning, she recognizes in herself a strong intuition that she calls “the knowing.” This is what saved her from certain dangers. She writes, “The knowing was a powerful warning system that stepped forth when I was in danger. Still, I often disregarded it.”
Embedded in her knowing is also the power of her ancestral roots. This is how she writes about her grandmother, a painter whom she never met: “She exists in me now, just as I will and already do within my grandchildren. No one ever truly dies. The desires of our hearts make a path. We create legacy with our thoughts and dreams. This legacy either will give those who follow joy on their road or will give them sorrow.”
Ultimately, she surrenders fully to her own knowing in the form of poetry. She writes, “To imagine the spirit of poetry is much like imagining the shape and size of the knowing. It is a kind of resurrection light; it is the tall ancestor spirit who has been with me since the beginning, or a bear or a hummingbird. It is a hundred horses running the land in a soft mist, or it is a woman undressing for her beloved in firelight. It is none of these things. It is more than everything.”