America’s new poet laureate, Joy Harjo, will be a dependable light in the darkness of the New Year

Poet's Notebook.

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America’s new poet laureate, Joy Harjo, will be a dependable light in the darkness of the New Year

Stand tall, no matter height, how dark your skin

Your spirit is all the colors within 

You are made of the finest woven light  . . .

Writing Christmas cards last month was a chastening act: Not only was our dog-eared address book—that collection of old friends from high school and college years, our army time and early marriage days—now resembling the field guide to a cemetery, but the addresses themselves heading in a dubious direction. In place of Main Street, Lake Drive, Cedar Pine Lane and Central Avenue, we now find Emerald City Center, Golden Valley Resort, Azalea Senior Living Community and the like.   

But 2020 is a hopeful number. It reminds me of my youthful eyesight when the bricks around our front door in Brooklyn and the sharp edges of stoops gleamed in late afternoon light, the red geraniums of our window boxes exploding like flowers in “The Wizard of Oz.” I was about the size of a Munchkin when the movie came out, and liked to put on a James Cagney grimace (from “The Public Enemy”), do a little shuffle, and chant “I represent the Lollypop Gill, the Lollypop Gill,” welcoming Dorothy to Oz (“Gill” because I’d never heard of a “Guild”). We saw a lot of movies in those days; as Bernie Sanders has reminded us, the nearby Quentin Theater cost 11ȼ for a double feature, with World News and a cartoon. This was shortly before the brave violence of D-Day (Operation Overlord), and the still endless string of wars that followed.    

Joy Harjo—quoted above and below—is America’s new poet laureate, and will be a dependable light in the darkness of the New Year. Our first Native American Laureate knows what we have done, and are still doing, to the Indians, but she never forgets to praise the brave and the beautiful. Her name is hopeful, so I’m hoping she brings us luck, or some Indian magic: we’ll need it.

The impeachment trial of President Trump only makes us feel worse, underlining as it does the deep chasm dividing our states. Even if Trump is defeated this fall, he’s done long-term damage to the whole country. He’s cheapened the dignity of the presidency, twisted the meaning of truth, set back our handling of climate change, raised the levels of race prejudice and misogyny, warped the Supreme Court along with our national and local judgeships, and weakened our security by offending natural allies and befriending a trove of brutal dictators. What seems to make everyone happy is the stock market, which is soaring. That is, for everyone but the poor and working-class, who have no stocks and can see and feel their lifelong financial inequality gaping beyond redemption.

In addition, people like us feel—not hatred, as the Republicans at the trial claimed during the trial—but disappointment, and sometimes despair, at the failure of American education, once the envy of the world. Brought low by TV, cell-phones, the internet, and the consequent weakening of our daily newspapers, we teachers, like the Republican leaders in the 2016 debates, have been beaten down. America has lost its healthy skepticism and falls for one con man after another, culminating in Donald J. Trump. 

Even though our new Laureate seldom if ever mentions him, Trump is on her mind and in her poems. Pasty, soft, and deceitful, Trump is the very opposite of an Indian brave; and Harjo isn’t afraid of him. Filled with the great grief and awful truth of the Indian/American story, her poems often sing of loss, but not of defeat:

And no matter what happens in these times of breaking

No matter dictators, the heartless, and liars

No matter—you are born of those

Who kept ceremonial embers burning in their hands

All through the miles of relentless exile

Those who sang the path through massacre

All the way to sunrise

You will make it through—

Both quotes from “For Earth’s Grandsons” by Joy Harjo, in An American Sunrise (W. W. Norton & Co., 2019).

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