This book has been a journey. An education, really. More than any book of poetry I’ve read lately, this one has challenged my thoughts about cultural divisions. By which I mean, I understand from an academic perspective what Harjo’s mythologies and their totemic creatures and landscapes represent—in very broad strokes. But I’m also missing something essential about these images.
It reminds me of what I once heard someone say about Kerouac’s haikus. It’s tough (is it possible?) for western writers to replicate real haiku because its imagery—the lotus, the crane, etc.—doesn’t register at the subconscious level in the same way that it does for eastern writers/readers. These images have been part of a cultural heritage thousands of years in the making. You can’t just access the full meaningfulness of something like that without already being part of it somehow.
So what does this mean for me—someone who admires and studies global literature and who aspires to make deeper connections to the imaginations of cultures far and wide? Deeper than Wikipedia summaries, for sure. It means I will always stand outside the cultural boundaries of some art, not because I want to, but because the walls reach higher than I can possibly even see. And then I think: but why should that be an uncomfortable thought? It should be something I celebrate, shouldn’t it? As I mentioned in my post on Eddie Glaude’s book, I love going to Japan. It’s my favorite place in the world, even though I’ll never fully understand that place. But what a terrible day it would be if I did reach a point of understanding so complete that I didn’t fall in love with the art and experience of Japan anew, every single day. Same with my recent explorations of Native American literature. I’m in a constant state of irresolvable wonder.
I hope that never changes. Not just for the exhilaration of it, but because it clarifies moments of true universality in a work of art and gives me even more reason to pause and appreciate those moments when they do occur. That’s exactly what happens in Harjo’s final poem. I may not fully—at a deep emotional level—understand what the panther or crow or fox means for Harjo or the Muscogee people, but this, THIS—everyone understands this:
“The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live.”
“At this table we sing with joy, with sorrow. We pray of suffering and remorse. We give thanks.”