Earlier this summer, Joy Harjo became the first Native American woman to be named the U.S. Poet Laureate. In her new post, Harjo will “raise the national consciousness to a greater appreciation of the reading and writing of poetry”—something she has wasted no time exploring. Today, she releases her newest collection of poems, titled An American Sunrise, which tackles the history of her people—the Muscogee Creek Nation—head-on.
To truly grasp Harjo’s new body of work, one must understand the full context of it. In the early 1800s, Harjo’s ancestors were forcibly removed from their land (in what is now considered Oklahoma); over 200 years later, the poet returns to their traditional territory, opening up a new dialogue between the land and its history. There, Harjo confronts the ghosts of her ancestors—she explores a lingering feeling of injustice and tries to forge a new beginning, all the while weaving in themes of beauty and survival.
In doing this, Harjo grapples with her own personal traumas—but she often relates it back to the broader struggles of her people. Take “Washing My Mother’s Body,” a piece of poetry that recalls her mother’s death. In it, she writes: “I never got to wash my mother’s body when she died. I return to take care of her in memory. That’s how I make peace when things are left undone. I go back and open the door.” Harjo “opens the door” throughout the book, exploring various stories and histories her people have endured; one can’t help but connect the lack of closure Harjo feels around her mother’s death, for instance, to the “lost generation” of children placed in residential and boarding schools, beginning in the late 19th century. For many indigenous families, that door can never be closed.
Still, while the subject matter of her new poems continuously hits you in the gut, Harjo brings a sense of resilience to that dark history too; she refuses to give it complete power. In ”Granddaughters,” she writes of continuing on her culture’s traditions through the new generations. “There’s a dress, deerskin moccasins, The taste of berries made of promises.” In “My Man’s Feet,” she also uses footsteps as symbolism for her culture, collectively, forging ahead: “He carves out valleys enough to hold everyone’s tears, With his feet, these feet, My man’s widely humble, ever steady, beautiful brown feet.”
Originally Appeared on Vogue