I’m so excited about this: The Woman Who Fell from the Sky has been on my to-read list for a while now. Joy Harjo is our first Native American United States Poet Laureate. She’s a member of the Mvskoke Nation. And friends have been telling me for years, Read Harjo, read Harjo! So here we go!
Just finished reading the title poem—like Layli Long Soldier’s poetry, not conventional by any textbook definition of poetry. It’s a myth, written in paragraphs: magical ascensions and Icarus-like falls mixed with “glass advertisements,” the Vietnam war, Dairy Queen, and grocery store parking lots. A story about the rarity (the almost mythical rarity, given life’s indiscriminate and discriminate violence and unfairness) of falling in love and being fallen in love with.
“Myth was as real as a scalp being scraped for lice,” the poem says. Which is definitely the case for Johnny and Lila, the star-crossed lovers of the story who meet as children, one mistreated in Catholic school, the other abused at home. War sends Johnny in one direction, and (I’m not one hundred percent certain of this) the children from an affair sends Lila in another direction. Times passes—experience, suffering, other stories— and one day, both Johnny and Lila fall into one another’s lives again, in a parking lot, where a stray cat, like some casual and indifferent god of good and bad luck, oversees the “coincidence” from the trash heaps.
Harjo and Soldier really push me to rethink poetry as a genre. It seems to me that some poetry, maybe in Native American traditions in particular?, refers to a kind of storytelling that has nothing to do with breaking lines of speech into metrically compact units of thought. Even though you do see that in the poetry of other Native American writers: Linda Hogan, for example. But it’s not a defining aspect of their poetry. It’s not a formal necessity.
What the poetry of the storytelling tradition and the poetry of the lyrical line share, however, is concision. You might even call it a severe concision. And that concision depends on blank spaces or gaps. In the western tradition of lyrical prosody, the gap defines the stanza. It is the break between one quatrain and the next. In a poem like, “The Woman Who Fell from the Sky,” the gap happens in the way the falling woman and the Dairy Queen overlap. Myth and reality, narrative sequence and metaphor/image/symbol, meet one another in the parking lot. And everything it takes to close that gap falls into the gap itself.
So that’s what I’m thinking right now: poetry might be, in a more global sense, the art, or crafting, of severe narrative concision and well-arranged blank spaces?