Living Nations, Living Words Edited by Joy Harjo

“Living Nations, Living Words: An Anthology of First Peoples Poetry” Collected and with an Introduction by Joy Harjo, 23rd U.S Poet Laureate. Forward by Carla D. Hayden, Librarian of Congress. W. W. Norton & Company. May 4th, 2021. 240 Pages.

Living Nations, Living Words Edited by Joy Harjo

Joy Harjo, 23rd U.S Poet Laureate and member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, collected the poems that compile Living Nations, Living Words, a poetry anthology that is devoted to the work of First Peoples.

When reading the works in this book, what I first noticed was a bilingual poem by Ray Young Bear, titled Wichihaka, or, in English, The One I Live With. The use of repetition- “Your traditional dance dress is beautiful, traditional dance dress is beautiful…” combined with the topic, a single sentence of praise repeated to “The One I Live With,” both struck me with its minimalistic beauty and reminded me of the importance of cultural preservation, even when (and perhaps especially when) not everyone will understand what one might be saying.

In the words of Marcie Rendon, in her poem Resilience, one can hear the stories of the one and the many- an artist “Creating beauty out of beauty discards” and the many fathers doing as fathers must-“waiting, waiting, waiting, for children to return.” The many examples of resilience given in her piece spell out the varying types of resilience shown by individuals placed in situations that can seem hopeless or inescapable. Many of these situations, such as standing in line at the Salvation Army, are relatable to so many people, but Rendon also includes in her lines the specific act of selling beadwork, serving as a reminder that each of the acts mentioned in her poem are examples of the resilience of Native Peoples, and as such have layers of meaning and history that must be respected as unique.

The book is separated into the sections Becoming/ East, Center/ North-South, and Departure/ West. The introduction references the early history of maps, and speaks of the collection as a map itself- a fitting term for a such an atlas that spans across states, drawing out landmarks of peoples and places, culturally significant actions like making frybread, and providing history to contextualize works such as the Poem on Disappearance, by Kimberly Blaeser. In this piece, which seems to speak both to the disappearance of so many cultures caused by colonization, and the disappearance of Native women that is an epidemic, one can feel the heat of the words cast upon the page- the poem ends with a remark that reflects the emptiness left behind, both across a continent that has been colonized and in the place of missing and murdered indigenous women- “turn your hand to the new continent. Again picture it- nothing.”

The entire book imparts upon the reader a sense of urgency, an urgency of understanding. If Living Nations, Living Words is a map, then it is a map both for Native Peoples to recognize themselves in art, something that the book states is rarely seen in the United States, and for non-indigenous people to begin to gain just the slightest bit of understanding of what it is like to continue to live a life and rebuild a culture in a world that is all too quick to forget who the First Peoples are.

This book is a poetry compilation that shines with intention and execution, and will certainly engage the minds and touch the hearts of readers.

Cyna Woodard is a Library Assistant I at Graham Public Library. She can be reached at cwoodard@alamancelibaries.org.