How to Write a Poem in a Time of War

- 1951-

You can’t begin just anywhere. It’s a wreck.

                                                                             Shrapnel and the eye

Of a house, a row of houses. There’s a rat scrambling

From light with fleshy trash in its mouth. A baby strapped

to its mother’s back, cut loose.
                                                                       Soldiers crawl the city,

the river, the town, the village,

                                the bedroom, our kitchen. They eat everything.
Or burn it.

They kill what they cannot take. They rape. What they cannot kill
                                                                                        they take.

Rumors fall like rain.

                                   Like bombs.

Like mother and father tears

swallowed for restless peace.

Like sunset slanting toward a moonless midnight.

Like a train blown free of its destination.                      Like a seed

fallen where

there is no chance of trees          or anyplace       for birds to live.


No, start here.                    Deer peer from the edge of the woods.


                                                         We used to see woodpeckers

The size of the sun, and were greeted

by chickadees with their good morning songs.

We’d started to cook outside, slippery with dew and laughter,

                                    ah those smoky sweet sunrises.

We tried to pretend war wasn’t going to happen.

Though they began building their houses all around us

                                         and demanding 
more.

They started teaching our children their god’s story,

A story in which we’d always be slaves.

No. Not here.

You can’t begin here.

This is memory shredded because it is impossible to hold with words,

even poetry.

These memories were left here with the trees:

The torn pocket of your daughter’s hand-sewn dress,

the sash, the lace.

The baby’s delicately beaded moccasin still connected to the foot,

A young man’s note of promise to his beloved—
 

No! This is not the best place to begin.


Everyone was asleep, despite the distant bombs.

                                        Terror had become the familiar stranger.

Our beloved twin girls curled up in their nightgowns,

                                                                 next to their father and me.

If we begin here, none of us will make it to the end

Of the poem.

Someone has to make it out alive, sang a grandfather

to his grandson, his granddaughter,

as he blew his most powerful song into the hearts of the children.

There it would be hidden from the soldiers,

Who would take them miles, rivers, mountains

                                     from the navel cord place of the origin story.

He knew one day, far day, the grandchildren would return, 


generations later over slick highways, constructed over old trails

Through walls of laws meant to hamper or destroy, over stones

bearing libraries of the winds.

He sang us back

to our home place from which we were stolen

in these smoky green hills.

Yes, begin here.

More by Joy Harjo

Deer Dancer

Nearly everyone had left that bar in the middle of winter except the
hardcore.  It was the coldest night of the year, every place shut down, but
not us.  Of course we noticed when she came in.  We were Indian ruins.  She
was the end of beauty.  No one knew her, the stranger whose tribe we
recognized, her family related to deer, if that's who she was, a people
accustomed to hearing songs in pine trees, and making them hearts.

The woman inside the woman who was to dance naked in the bar of misfits
blew deer magic.  Henry jack, who could not survive a sober day, thought she
was Buffalo Calf Woman come back, passed out, his head by the toilet.  All
night he dreamed a dream he could not say.  The next day he borrowed
money, went home, and sent back the money I lent.  Now that's a miracle.
Some people see vision in a burned tortilla, some in the face of a woman.

This is the bar of broken survivors, the club of the shotgun, knife wound, of
poison by culture.  We who were taught not to stare drank our beer.  The
players gossiped down their cues.  Someone put a quarter in the jukebox to
relive despair.  Richard's wife dove to kill her.  We had to keep her
till, while Richard secretly bought the beauty a drink.

How do I say it?  In this language there are no words for how the real world
collapses.  I could say it in my own and the sacred mounds would come into
focus, but I couldn't take it in this dingy envelope.  So I look at the stars in
this strange city, frozen to the back of the sky, the only promises that ever
make sense.

My brother-in-law hung out with white people, went to law school with a
perfect record, quit.  Says you can keep your laws, your words.  And
practiced law on the street with his hands.  He jimmied to the proverbial
dream girl, the face of the moon, while the players racked a new game.
He bragged to us, he told her magic words and that when she broke, became human.
But we all heard his voice crack:

What's a girl like you doing in a place like this?

That's what I'd like to know, what are we all doing in a place like this?

You would know she could hear only what she wanted to; don't we all?  Left
the drink of betrayal Richard bought her, at the bar.  What was she on?  We all
wanted some.  Put a quarter in the juke.  We all take risks stepping into thin
air.  Our ceremonies didn't predict this.  or we expected more.

I had to tell you this, for the baby inside the girl sealed up with a lick of
hope and swimming into the praise of nations.  This is not a rooming house, but
a dream of winter falls and the deer who portrayed the relatives of 
strangers.  The way back is deer breath on icy windows.

The next dance none of us predicted.  She borrowed a chair for the stairway
to heaven and stood on a table of names.  And danced in the room of children
without shoes.

You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille With four hungry children and a
crop in the field.

And then she took off her clothes.  She shook loose memory, waltzed with the
empty lover we'd all become.

She was the myth slipped down through dreamtime.  The promise of feast we
all knew was coming.  The deer who crossed through knots of a curse to find
us.  She was no slouch, and neither were we, watching.

The music ended.  And so does the story.  I wasn't there.  But I imagined her
like this, not a stained red dress with tape on her heels but the deer who
entered our dream in white dawn, breathed mist into pine trees, her fawn a
blessing of meat, the ancestors who never left.

Anchorage

               for Audre Lorde

This city is made of stone, of blood, and fish.
There are Chugatch Mountains to the east
and whale and seal to the west.
It hasn't always been this way, because glaciers
who are ice ghosts create oceans, carve earth
and shape this city here, by the sound.
They swim backwards in time.

Once a storm of boiling earth cracked open
the streets, threw open the town.
It's quiet now, but underneath the concrete
is the cooking earth,
                                 and above that, air
which is another ocean, where spirits we can't see
are dancing                joking                   getting full
on roasted caribou, and the praying
goes on, extends out.

Nora and I go walking down 4th Avenue
and know it is all happening.
On a park bench we see someone's Athabascan
grandmother, folded up, smelling like 200 years
of blood and piss, her eyes closed against some
unimagined darkness, where she is buried in an ache
in which nothing makes
                                       sense.

We keep on breathing, walking, but softer now,
the clouds whirling in the air above us.
What can we say that would make us understand
better than we do already?
Except to speak of her home and claim her
as our own history, and know that our dreams
don't end here, two blocks away from the ocean
where our hearts still batter away at the muddy shore.

And I think of the 6th Avenue jail, of mostly Native
and Black men, where Henry told about being shot at
eight times outside a liquor store in L.A., but when
the car sped away he was surprised he was alive,
no bullet holes, man, and eight cartridges strewn
on the sidewalk
                        all around him.

Everyone laughed at the impossibility of it,
but also the truth. Because who would believe
the fantastic and terrible story of all of our survival
those who were never meant
                                                to survive?

All the Tired Horses in the Sun

from “Mama and Papa Have the Going Home Shiprock Blues”

Forever.
And ever.
And ever.
There’s my cousin. Auntie. Uncle.
Another cousin.
Ever.
And ever.
And ever.
Vending machines and pop.
Chips, candy, and not enough clean water.
And ever, ever, ever.
Waiting and tired.
Tired of waiting.
Forever.
And ever.
And ever.
Go water the horses.