18 August 2012

A Girl Becoming: Joy Harjo’s Crazy Brave

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photo: Carlo Allegri

Most people I know from NM have a first-time-I-saw-Joy Harjo anecdote, and they're often tales of delight, as if having discovered a seashell in the desert. 

My own such story harks back to 1995, when I was a music critic assigned to cover a concert Harjo and her then-band Poetic Justice were giving at the Paolo Soleri stage in Santa Fe. I knew little of who Joy was, and gasped a bit when she took the stage, so strong was her resemblance to my mother (the late artist, poet, and children's book author Lois Utz). As she began to sing, play sax, and recite strands of deliriously beautiful poetry, I came to understand that she was not just my mom's physical twin, but aligned with her soul’s spirit as well. The evening left me in a state of awe--simultaneously magnetized by this poet-musician’s mystical presence and euphoric at having been brought back to my mother’s face and submersed in the great continuum of art and spirit.

As Joy and Poetic Justice subsequently performed local gigs and released albums, I was fortunate to be able to interview her and attend several of her shows and readings. She was even, for a short time, my neighbor in Albuquerque, when I was enduring a season of hell. (The irony of living proximate to Joy during heartache was undoubtedly lost on me then.)

Harjo's memoir is as graceful and lovely as the artist herself. The book limns the earliest parts of her life through her early 20s, as she grew up in Oklahoma, nurtured her muses at IAIA and UNM, gave birth to 2 children and mothered 3. It is a tale of difficulty and struggle, with only occasional periods of respite. Its title derives from the name Harjo, which means “crazy brave.”

What distinguishes this volume from most memoirs are the author’s shifts into metaphor, dream, and poesy. These lyrical junctures form a lovely collage of image--the fragments apt echoes of the moments she describes. Their presence not only heightens Harjo’s description but also denotes the inspirations for several of her famed poems.

There’s plenty of pain here, both in Joy’s immediate family and in her nexus of Native community. And after the extended description of her stepfather’s abuse, I felt overcome by sadness and the vivid sense of being trapped by a predator, and tabled the book for several days. When I returned to it, I remembered that some of our most moving art derives from its creators’ deepest wounds, via the openings that give wisdom when pain forces one to seek it. And that shrouds of darkness have their seasons, which flow but also ebb.

Like the ache of a Patsy Cline song, the prose often reflects a bittersweet quality. “My mother would sing along with Patsy as my father would take his keys out of his jacket and hold open the door for her. He’d carry a fifth from the bootlegger next door. He’d take a swig while my mother gave instructions to the babysitter. I remember whimpering because I knew that the magic of beauty is dangerous. It is easily taken apart and destroyed. I had seen it happen other times when my parents came home, bringing the party with them. I had seen her dresses ripped. I had seen the jewelry and lipsticks scattered and broken by my father’s rage.” 

Crazy Brave’s subtlety and brevity can belie the richness it holds.  The book touches on  many facets of growing up creative, sensitive, and financially impoverished. Yet it is Harjo's ability to hear and see into the future that sustains her, a "knowing" that carries her through times of abuse, fear, and great despair. And given the acuity of her suffering, it would have been easy for her to succumb.

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She writes, “A palm reader would tell me in the Eighties that in the palm of my left hand exists an alternate lifeline. In that line was a girl of sixteen or seventeen. She was dead of a drug overdose on the street of a California city.”

While Crazy Brave is not overtly political in tone, it does finely illustrate the toll that marginalization has taken on the Indian nation, which in a relatively brief time has gone from being 100% of the U.S. population to 1.2%. Many have been lost to drink and tuberculosis, which Joy links to internalized sorrow. While explicit indictments are not her style, Harjo reminds us of the degree to which alcoholism and domestic violence have scarred our Native populations.

After 164 pages, this rich torte of a book ends too soon, prior to most of the successes Harjo has known in her creative life. I wanted to hear more about her writing process and her journey in taking up musical performance in her fifth decade. About the ways in which she has contextualized and transcended the difficulties of her past.

I’m hoping that more about which has been borne will be born.