Book Review: Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz and An American Sunrise by Joy Harjo

Diaz, Natalie. Postcolonial Love Poem. Graywolf Press, 2020. Paperback. 120 pages. 978-1-64445-014-7 $16.00.

Harjo, Joy. An American Sunrise. Norton, 2019. Paperback. 144 pages. ISBN: 978-0-393-35848-3. $15.95.

“Poetry uses language despite the confines of language, be it the oppressor’s language or any language….It is beyond language in essence.” ~ Joy Harjo, quoted in Smithsonian Magazine

Thanks to Poetry@Tech, I recently had the privilege of attending a virtual poetry reading featuring Natalie Diaz. Her poems were beautiful, and her style of reading was energetic and captivating. Interestingly, Emory University sponsored a virtual reading given by Joy Harjo in March 2021 (just a few weeks ago), and only a last-minute conflict prevented my attendance. Missed opportunities do not sit well with me, especially one like this, and I have been resentful and difficult to live with ever since. Both of these award-winning poets identify as Native American (Natalie Diaz belongs to the Gila River Indian community, while Joy Harjo is part of the Muscogee nation). Harjo also currently serves as Poet Laureate of the United States, the first Native American poet to hold that position. Because of these recent experiences, these two poets have been on my mind. As a result, I wanted to take this opportunity to write about their most recent collections of poetry, Diaz’s Postcolonial Love Poem and Harjo’s An American Sunrise.

In a March 2020 book review in The New York Times, Emilia Phillips writes about Postcolonial Love Poem, saying, “This book asks us to read the world carefully, knowing that not everything will be translated for us.” Similar thoughts occurred to me when I was reading Harjo’s An American Sunrise, both in terms of reading the world and the theme of translation. I find Phillips’ comment particularly germane in connection with “Ren-Toh-Pvrv,” “Cehotosakvtes,” and “Welcoming Song,” in which we find a blend of indigenous language and English. Even as Harjo attempts to bridge the worldviews represented by these different languages, the reader must also confront the limits of what translation can reasonably achieve in conducting us between cultural realms. For example, in “Welcoming Song,” Harjo writes, “ALLAY NA LEE NO ar-ri-no” with the translation “(while I go/came?).” This translation maintains that the terms go and came are equally likely as English equivalents to the original language, while still remaining mere approximations (hence the uncertainty indicated by the question mark).

To go a step farther, in English, going and coming are generally understood as two different (even opposing) actions, but Harjo’s translation would seem to suggest that they are essentially the same action and only by taking them together can we receive a better understanding, however incomplete, of the ideas contained in the original tongue and text. The phrase “go/came?” indicates a much richer understanding of relationality than is often present in the English language. Going involves an increasing distance from wherever “here” is, and coming is a diminishing distance from wherever “here” is. But “here” can only exist if it is occupied by a subject, and the widening or diminishing distance between where I am and where the subject’s “here” resides is merely a function of the everchanging relationship between us. In other words, “go/came?” is not so much a matter of motion, but of the affinities that connect each of us to others. The richness of this relationality is one example of the kinds of viewpoints that can go missing in translation. Referring back to Phillips’ idea that “not everything will be translated for us,” I might suggest that perhaps it is more accurate to say that “not everything can be translated for us.” Diaz, too, touches on the limitations of translation in “The First Water Is the Body,” writing, “But who is this translation for and will they come to my language’s four-night funeral to grieve what has been lost in my efforts at translation?” The answer is no, of course; the audience cannot grieve without access to the original because they do not know what has been lost or what a translator must have sacrificed.

While translation forms makeshift and frequently inadequate bridges, at the same time, poetry represents an endeavor to overcome the inadequacies of language, turning gaps in meaning into portals that transport us out of ourselves while also returning us to ourselves, so that we can realize or recall our true relationship with the world. Much of the poetry in both Diaz’s and Harjo’s collections deals with not only human relationships, but a much broader, more complex relationship among all things, including, as Harjo puts it, “all the inhabitants of the land, including animals, plants, elements, all who share this earth” (“To Those Who Would Govern”). For Diaz, water is one element that connects humans at a fundamental level.  In “exhibits from the American Water Museum,” Diaz characterizes her relationship to water not only as though it is as close to her as family, but also as a part of her. She writes, “The river is my sister—I am its daughter. / It is my hands when I drink from it, / my own eye when I am weeping, / and my desire when I ache like a yucca bell / in the night…. / I am both the river and its vessel.” Essentially, Diaz is so closely connected to the element of water that they are one and the same. Harjo makes a similar suggestion about the relationship that exists between humans and the land, reminding us, in an allusion to the Woody Guthrie song “This Land Is Your Land,” “These lands aren’t our lands. These lands aren’t your lands. We are this land” (“Bless This Land”).

While culture, belief, and experience might shape the ways we think about and define our relationship to our most precious resources, there can be no doubt they form a kind of common ground. For example, because we cannot live without water, we are the same in that regard. Diaz writes, “The ache of thirst, though, translates to all bodies along the same paths—the tongue, the throat, the kidneys. No matter what language you speak, no matter the color of your skin” (“The First Water Is the Body”).  In many ways, language might fail to bring people together, but the needs that stem from our basic human makeup can produce universally shared experiences and feelings that connect all of us perfectly. The water binds us; the land connects us. As a result, we have a shared moral imperative to care for these natural resources, water, land, animals, and each other. Indeed, that is our purpose, as Harjo writes in “Advice for Countries, Advancing, Developing and Falling,” “We cannot own anyone else, people, the lands, or resources. We are here to care for each other.” While our shared history has produced ample conflict and division, returning to the land and fulfilling our obligations to it and each other contain the promise of future unity and healing.

Reviewed by Jeff Howard