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Know the West

Joy Harjo’s singing trees and trickster saxophones

The U.S. poet laureate’s new collection of poems incorporates history and breaks time.


An American Sunrise, Joy Harjo’s first book since she was named poet laureate of the United States, weaves together history, music and memory. The collection of poems wields nonlinear time as a form of resistance — a bold response to the manifest destiny narratives found in history books. Harjo’s poems break free from time and find a different kind of truth through imagination.

The pages include a number of historical interludes, with snippets of archival texts as well as sections of prose that provide some factual context. Because the volume’s layout doesn’t always differentiate between Harjo’s poetry and the historical moments she incorporates, the history begins to read much like the poetry. The book’s lyrical, seamless structure allows the reader a deeper access to Harjo’s visionary context. 

In this way, Harjo’s work harks back to the writings of Claudia Rankine, whose 2014 volume, Citizen: An American Lyric, mingled essays with poetry and striking photographs, creating a confluence of forms that grips the reader politically and emotionally. It also has echoes of N. Scott Momaday’s The Way to Rainy Mountain, which she quotes in the book, in its poetic blend of history, storytelling and memoir.

For example, Harjo tells a story about her grandfather, Monahwee, who was briefly allowed to visit his home in Okfuskee, in modern-day Dadeville, Alabama, staying for just one night before he was forced into exile with his family.

“When I cross the great river, my desire is that I may never again see the face of a white man,” Harjo quotes her grandfather as saying. Appearing after the first poem in the collection, “Break My Heart,” the segment on Monahwee acts as both footnote and a poem in and of itself. Both pieces are about heartbreak, but the specificity of Harjo’s grandfather’s story offers new insight into the broader understanding of loss. She writes in “Break My Heart”:

The end can only follow the beginning.

And it will zigzag through time, governments, and lovers.

Be who you are, even if it kills you.

Likewise, Harjo follows the poem “Rabbit Invents the Saxophone,” which imagines a saxophone player as a trickster entering a jazz club in New Orleans, with a short explanation placing the saxophone’s invention in 1846 by Adolphe Sax in context with the Creek Nation’s own history of turmoil.

It’s another example of a device Harjo uses throughout the book, where a poem’s subject matter is further explored and deepened through the prose on the following page. When Harjo informs us about the invention of the saxophone, she is not explaining her previous poem, but rather riffing on it. 

Harjo’s temporal connections are loose and written in sweeping metaphor. She jumps from the Creek Nation’s forced relocation west of the Mississippi River after the Creek Wars in 1814 to the saxophone’s invention in 1846 to her grandmother learning to play it in the early 1900s, throwing in a passing mention of the instrument’s growing popularity in brass bands throughout the South in the 1850s. In this way, she seems to draw a personalized thread between her own lineage and that of an instrument she loves. By jumping through decades to make these connections, Harjo resists the rhythm of time itself.

Sometimes Harjo employs striking visual design to strengthen the meaning of her poems. In “How to Write a Poem in a Time of War,” lines appear on opposite sides of the page, giving the reader the sense that more than one voice is speaking. It reads much like a conversation between a writer and an editor, perhaps happening inside Harjo’s own head. The two voices argue about where to begin a poem about war.


In “Becoming Seventy,” written in honor of the 70th birthday of Marilyn Kallet, Harjo’s colleague at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, the first section of words appears on the page as a cascading waterfall, with each line growing incrementally — visually echoing the growth of age and wisdom that the poem explores.

“Becoming Seventy” touches on one of the book’s major themes: memory and time, and how both are malleable through poetry, music and language. In “Exile of Memory,” Harjo invokes the biblical story of Lot’s wife, who was instructed not to look back at Sodom, but did so and was turned into a pillar of salt. Harjo describes how the story was used as a warning in Sunday school: “Don’t look back.” In her version, though, what lies behind is Eden itself and its trees and waters, land and sky. Looking back and remembering isn’t just remembering the violence, it’s also remembering hope:

The final verse is always the trees.

They will remain.

The trees circumvent time, and through this disruption comes a different kind of future — one that is freed from the grip of colonialist narratives.

Harjo challenges the rules that readers think they know. Think you know what a poem is supposed to look like? Harjo, through her hybrid style, counters with a whole new vision of what a poem can be. Think time is linear? Maybe not so much. Just ask the singers. Just ask the trees.

Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis-based writer. She has written for Hyperallergic, Bomb, The Washington Post, First American Art Magazine and The Star TribuneEmail HCN at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor