Book Review

A Latin phrase is included in the Great Seal of the United States: “E pluribus unum,” meaning, “Out of many, one.” This is etched into the fabric of the American story. In Poet Warrior: A Memoir, Native Nations’ first United States Poet Laureate, Joy Harjo, indeed makes out of many, one. In her second memoir, a later companion to Crazy Brave, Harjo creates a ritualized practice of memory, one based in Indigenous tradition. She brings to the ritual stories of her family’s births and deaths, ancestral genealogies, histories of a nation, her own memories, landscapes stretching from the New Mexico heat to the Amazonian rainforest, dreams, messages from owls and snakes, messages from the Old Ones, and poetry—both hers and that of others. Each textual thread has its own “root,” as Harjo calls it, and no thread is hierarchical above the other. When stitched together, the threads form a mesmerizing pattern.

Poet Warrior is divided thematically into six parts: “Ancestral Roots,” “Becoming,” “A Postcolonial Tale,” “Diamond Light,” “Teachers,” and “Sunset.” It traces the war stories of a family from the Muscogee (Creek) Nation who were forced to march from the South to Indian Territory, to what later became known as Oklahoma. Never strictly chronologically, Harjo traces the war story of her teachers, as she respectfully names them. Her first teacher, her mother, fought to overcome extreme poverty, raised Harjo and Harjo’s three siblings essentially on her own while working tirelessly at many jobs and battling mental instability and abusive partners. Harjo writes, “I would like to tell my mother that I see her story as a story of bravery, of how she found the strength to keep going and find her way out of there. I am evidence of that strength; because of her, I am.”

Harjo then traces the war story of her father, who slammed her mother’s head into the bathroom wall; who, when Harjo was a baby, threatened Harjo’s mother “to shut that baby up or he would kill me”; whose many betrayals—with violence, with affairs, with abandonment—have their own genealogy within him. His mother belonged to a line of respected warriors, and she died when he was still a nursing infant, leaving him in the care of a violent father of his own, the root of the thread. Yet, Harjo preserves her love for her father throughout his entire life.

The monster in Poet Warrior is Harjo’s stepfather. He sexualized Harjo and often beat her with a belt. He alienated the family from their circle of extended family and friends. He broke into Harjo’s diary and read it aloud in a mocking voice. After reading a letter Harjo wrote to her mother, he banished Harjo from the family. Terrifyingly, Harjo’s mother went along with the monster’s violence and with Harjo’s banishment. Harjo writes, “I did not ask for this stepfather. He was not my choice; it was my mother’s decision to bring him into our lives. I do not want his story here with mine even now.” Yet, Harjo preserves the love for her mother throughout her entire life.

There are other war stories, stories of stolen land and colonized culture. Stories of police stops and flashlights into their faces “because we were Indian.” Stories of racial slurs and department chairs calling her a “primitive poet.” Stories of the generation of Indigenous children stolen as babies from their parents’ arms. Stories of energy companies fighting for the development of uranium, coal, and oil even as it meant mass destruction of the earth and its many gifts.

But in this ritual of memory practiced, there are also stories almost told. Stories whose non-presence is like a glint of sharpened metal. Harjo merely hints at her attempted rape and the sexualized violations she has endured (the coming too close of her stepfather, the former playmates who “tried to get a touch”). Harjo writes almost nothing on her teen pregnancies, on the violence she herself endured at the hands of a partner. Yet the most transformational non-presence in Harjo’s war stories is the non-presence of anger. She writes, “I was angry but I buried it so it would not destroy me. I have a hard time owning anger even now.”

Harjo is disciplined and conscious in her practice of moving without anger into forgiveness. In Poet Warrior, everyone is reforged, reformed, or pardoned. Sometimes all three. Sometimes immediately. Her mother and father, each cared for, and each ultimately forgiven for the pain they inflicted. The father of Harjo’s granddaughter, who Harjo calls “gifted,” is forgiven for that instance in which he held a knife to her daughter, forced her into a car, and tried to kill her. He is held with compassion, with recognition, with light. Even the monster is reestablished in Poet Warrior. Harjo writes:

He is probably one of my greatest teachers. Because of him I learned to find myself in the spiritual world. To escape him I grew an immense house of imagination. . . . I saw the future; I saw the past. I battled monsters, then sat with them at the table to hear their stories. Everyone has a story. Even the monster has a story.

The monster also has a root. He has his own genealogy of injustice, a genealogy that he did not start.

Only one story in Poet Warrior gives itself over to rage. Harjo tells of an incident when she was a young girl in which she felt her parents’ relationship begin to keel from the weight of the tension. It was dusk and she had not been called back inside. She suddenly stalked a robin hopping on the fence line close to her; she landed on the robin and smothered the bird to death. “Fury overtook me,” she writes—she knew she had “broken a law.” But Harjo is herself forgiven. Although many years later, the birds, she writes, “had quite a discussion among themselves,” and they decided that she was a “strange and rare hybrid of human and bird,” embracing her back into their circle.

Harjo’s cultural practice of writing (and living through) war without engaging anger is a radical act that undoes, at least in part, the traditional canon of war literature. At the foundation of war literature is Ivor Gurney’s contention that war creates a “strange hell,” Wilfred Owen’s caustic anger at “the old lie: Dulce et decorum est / Propatria mori” (it is good to die for your country), Joseph Heller’s satirical indictment of the military in Catch-22, and Bertolt Brecht’s infuriating Mother Courage who does not recognize that “the war moves on, but will not quit. / And though it last three generations, / We shall get nothing out of it.” Anger is the praxis of Western, Eurocentric war literature.

Through Poet Warrior, Harjo redefines what it means to be a warrior. In an interview about the book with Eleanor Wachtel on CBC Radio’s Writer’s and Company, Harjo states:

I always had a fighting instinct. But I think I’ve come to see ‘warrior’ as something else—as someone who will keep going, no matter the failures. You get back up and keep walking. I know that most people associate warriors with men who battle in war. Especially with Native warriors, that’s who you see most in history books.

And yet, many of our finest warriors are those who get up at dawn, make meals for the children, get everyone dressed, get them out, go to work, make sure everyone is taken care of—and do this day after day and do it gracefully. That, to me, is the sign of a warrior going into the battle of life.

Harjo is adamant that war stories must be transformed: First, they must be observed, then felt, then let go of, then forgiven. Finally, war stories should be used as materials to build what Harjo calls “a house of knowledge.” That spiritual practice of transformation is how she comes to poetry. She writes in Poet Warrior:

Poet Warrior reached for a gun.
She was given a paintbrush,
A saxophone, a pen.
These will be your instruments of power
The Old Ones said.

However, Harjo’s “instruments of power” are never used for harm; they are used for insight and compassion. That is how a Poet Warrior wins, not the battle, but the whole war. Out of many, one.

About the Reviewer

Yael Hacohen is a Ph.D. student at UC Berkeley. She has a research/teaching fellowship from Tel-Aviv University and Bar Ilan University. She has an MFA in Poetry from New York University, where she was an ‎NYU Veterans Workshop Fellow, International Editor at Washington Square Literary ‎Review, and Editor-in-Chief at Nine Lines Literary Review. Her work has been featured in Prairie Schooner, The Poetry Review, The Missouri Review, Bellevue Literary Review, New York Quarterly Magazine, Consequence ‎Literary Review, Comstock Review, and many many more. ‎Hacohen published Between Sanctity and Sand with Finishing Line Press in 2021.