Published on Academy of American Poets (https://poets.org)


How to Write a Poem in a Time of War

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.

Credit


From An American Sunrise: Poems by Joy Harjo. Copyright © 2019 by Joy Harjo. Used by permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Author


Joy Harjo

Joy Harjo was appointed the new United States poet laureate in 2019. Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1951, Harjo is a member of the Mvskoke/Creek Nation. She is the author of several books of poetry, including An American Sunrise, which is forthcoming from W. W. Norton in 2019, and Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings (W. W. Norton, 2015). She is a current Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Date Published: 2019-10-13

Source URL: https://poets.org/poem/how-write-poem-time-war