In two discussions of “An American Sunrise” by Joy Harjo, FYI Book Club attendees have all gained a greater appreciation for the poetry and sweet ferocity of this poet’s voice.
Readers gathered at two locations — the Kansas City Museum and the National World War I Museum — to talk about the work of three-term American poet Harjo. In addition to being the newest book club title, “An American Sunrise” is the current NEA Big Read selection hosted by the Kansas City Public Library.
A number of poems resonated with readers: “Washing my mother’s body” was mentioned most frequently. “My Man’s Feet” was a close second. and attendees enjoyed comparing how Harjo used the physical body to convey feelings of love and ancestral connection.
Diane Lewis of Kansas City was familiar with the practice of washing a loved one’s body. “I thought it was powerful that even though Harjo couldn’t do this for her own mother, she was doing it in her mind and with her heart. She wrote this piece as a way to say goodbye and to convey memories of her mother,” she said.
Glenn North, Kansas City, found this poem inspiring while struggling to write a poem honoring the memory of a lost friend. “It was helpful to read ‘Mother’s Body’ and repair those lost opportunities to connect. Harjo also plays with time and memory in this poem, and she does it so well,” North said.
History, ritual and the transmission of cultural traditions are the elements that have remained with Trish Cecil, Lenexa. Cecil linked the very personal actions recounted by Harjo to the way Native American World War I veterans were revered by their tribes. “They were considered the guardians of death because they had been so close to it,” she said. “Native American veterans were the ones who helped communities grieve and get through death.”
Franklin Cline, Kansas City, also saw the connection to the ancestors in “My Man’s Feet”. “I can’t help but think of my ancestors who walked the trail,” he says. “I can’t think of my feet or my father’s feet without thinking of the feet that brought us here. One generation after another.
Readers have found many connections to artists, musicians, other poets, and historical figures. They noted the passing of the Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 and how before that America had stifled the right of Native Americans to practice their cultures and engage in artistic expression.
“It blew my mind that this is illegal for Native American cultural expression,” said Lisa Timmons, of Kansas City. “To me, this explains why the painter TC Cannon and Harjo are so creative in so many disciplines: opera, visual arts, lyrics.”
Tori Kottwitz referenced one of Harjo’s memoirs: “Even his family told Harjo not to write poetry, but they were more concerned about his ability to earn a living. But still, it’s a calm form of smothering expression.
Cecil showed examples of Cannon’s paintings and how they connect to Harjo’s poetry and Bob Dylan’s music. “This painting, ‘All the Horses Weary in the Sun’, is inspired by a song by Bob Dylan, and the painting inspired one of the songs in a larger poetic cycle that Harjo includes in his collection. A song inspires a painting that inspires a poem.
Cline brought up “The Story Wheel” to highlight how Harjo recognizes other poets, different literary forms, and history to create a single piece. “Harjo uses what N. Scott Momaday is doing here,” he said. “The poem on the left, the prose on the right, the historical fact below. It leaves room for lyricism. The poetry is full of hope and imagination in combination with the harsh reality of prose and historical fact.
Cline continued, “’The Story Wheel’ does so much work largely because of the way it ends. The factual trail. Writing or creating as a native was illegal. Look at Harjo, she writes as Poet Laureate almost saying, “Look at this” with defiance and confidence.
Paul Lewis of Kansas City was stunned by the collection. “I see Harjo dealing with three levels in these poems – the person, the culture and the wider world,” he said. “And ask how should they intersect? How to have did they meet? I had never read Harjo before. What a pleasure to start with this collection.
Kathy Lindsey found a connection to recent events in “Honoring.” “I just loved it,” she said. “I read it and reread it, especially since today is Earth Day. Once I realized she was writing about modern times, it reminded me of during the pandemic. We talked about everyday heroes, postal workers, truck drivers, nurses, and it is to them that she pays tribute. She talks about food and clothes. But it was so wise and kind. Most of his poems are those things.
Lewis drew attention to “Song 7 Three Ghost Figures”, a smaller poem in a larger cycle, “Mama and Papa Have the Going Home Shiprock Blues”.
“If you look at the last three lines of this poem, there is a sense in which things are negative or strongly bad. But they are a way to achieve something good, safety,” Lewis said. “Harjo seems balanced and impartial. That our lives are made up of both angelic and satanic things.
Kottwitz urged people to read the poems aloud, “or better yet, listen to the author read his own poetry.”
Susan Jackson, Kansas City, said, “Read these poems more than once. This conversation proves that you could miss a lot if you only read them once. And talk about the poems with other readers. It is not a book that is returned. You keep it. It stays on your shelf for you to come back to.
Join the club
The Kansas City Star and the Kansas City Public Library feature a selection of current books every few weeks and invite the community to read. To participate in the next discussion led by Kaite Stover from the library, email [email protected]
You can watch author Joy Harjo’s presentation in Kansas City through May 31 at YouTube.com/klibrary.