An American Sunrise

By Joy Harjo, reviewed by Laura Eve Engel

“The indigenous peoples who are making their way up from the southern hemisphere are a continuation of the Trail of Tears. May we all find the way home.” So opens the Poet Laureate of the United States’ ninth collection, bringing President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act and the violent displacement of Native peoples into dialogue with present-day treatment of immigrants by the current administration. Reflecting upon her tribal heritage and ancestral narratives, Harjo’s poems are marked by generosity, sharing with an empathetic reader their earnest resilience: “Gather strength, pull it in / Be right where you are.” These poems take care to remind us that “None of us is above the other / In this story of forever.” Here, memory is more omnipresent than linear, where what’s past is a constant and tangible presence, and “we are surprised by a herd of colored horses breaking through time. / [...] We breathe hard with them / As if we are running through time with them.” Indeed, poems like “Exile of Memory” offer images of 1800s-era forced migration that echo today’s news from detention camps along the border: “They were bathed in pesticides / And now clean, given prayers in a foreign language to recite / As they were lined up to sleep alone in their army-issued cages.” Informed by a long memory and an urgent message, these poems mourn the loss of an old and driven-away song, even as they sing it back it into being.

Read poems by Joy Harjo.

This review originally appeared in the Books Noted section of American Poets, Fall-Winter 2019.