Joy Harjo’s “Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings” reviewed by Kelly Lydick

 

harjo-conflict

Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings
Joy Harjo

W.W Norton, 2015
160 pages
Hardcover $26.95
Paperback forthcoming January 2017

 

The Answers Are in the Questions

Evolutionary theory poises man as a hybrid thing: a mammal with a conscience, as well as a complex biological being with a capacity for consciousness. Humans are often viewed as being in a class of their own, forever in search of answers to long-held existential questions. But how do we balance logic against emotion, and animal instinct against human cooperation?

Joy Harjo’s most recent work, Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings, offers an in-your-face application of the wisdom inherent in a culture that is harmoniously aligned with the natural world. Her signature poetic style offers readers a way of looking at 21st century post-industrial life through the lens of an indigenous-American worldview. Conflict is dedicated to “the poets, the workers for justice, the dancers of ceremony, the singers of heartache, the visionaries, all makers and carriers of fresh meaning … we will all make it through, despite politics and wars, despite failures and misunderstandings. There is only love.”

Like a ceremonial blessing at the start of a sacred rite, this dedication opens an intimate collection of personal reflections and experiences. How do we experience the complexities of being human, while embodying the greater spirit, life, and emotion that runs through it all? That’s the real question Harjo’s book seeks to answer.

Short, untitled, and reflective prose passages separate each of the works in this collection. The poems themselves explore everything that has become normalized in the modern era—humans poised for war, separation among beings, exhaustion, distrust, and a disconnection from the natural world. They also call for a deeper humane presence and more harmonious ways of living—and the hybridity of their structure reflects the hybridity of human nature.

“We Were There When Jazz Was Invented” challenges the historical dominance of any one particular musical tradition. Traditional chants, woven between lines of narrative, serve as a background soundtrack that conjures up memories of Native American history, while paying homage to the late Miles Davis and his famous song “Round Midnight”:

… Back there the ceremonial fire was
disassembled, broken and bare, like chord breaks
forgetting to blossom. Around midnight, I turn my back
And watch prayers take root beneath the moon. Not that dreams
Have anything to do with it exactly. I get jumpy
In the aftermath of a disturbed music. (22)

Among other things, the poem is a comment on the historical condemnation of native rites that don’t conform to Western religious ideals:

To stomp grounds where jazz was born. It’s midnight.
How holy. (23)

“Reality Show (song)” approaches modernity with a farcical sensibility, challenging notions of political hierarchies. The poem’s preceding prose passage sets its tone:

This is only one of many worlds. Worlds are beings, each with their own themes, rules, and ways of doing. Humans in this world fall too easily to war, and quick to take offense, and claim ownership. “What drama,” said crow, dodging traffic as he wrestled a piece of roadkill. (24)

Beginning and ending with a chant in Harjo’s native tongue, “Nizhoniigo no hey nay,” this poem is sandwiched between deeper calls to spirit. “How do we get out of here?” the poet asks repeatedly; and the phrase “reality show” turns into an ironic symbol for that which is unreal in society.

What are we doing napping, through war?
We’ve lost our place in the order of kindness
Children are killing children
We call it real. (25)

“Mother Field,” a poem expressive of the late-night camaraderie that envelops strangers at a local bar, offers a glimpse into the despair of circumstance, and the impacts of global conflict on individuals.

In this bar, we traded despair for disco dance vision, made art of trouble,
While boxcars filled with uranium slid up and down
The king’s highway along the rushing, shallow river; the 
yellow chaos
Metal made us sick and downward mental. (37)

Here, each character tends his or her origin story—or flees from it—trying to make sense of the apparent conflict between destiny and choice.

“Falling, Falling (song),” laments the asynchronistic rhythms of the head and the heart: those feelings of despair over a lost love that find a home in the familiar comfort of a glass of whiskey:

My mind can’t make up its crazy mind,
When it’s burdened by storm clouds of desire.

Falling, falling
Falling, falling

I didn’t want to make the same mistakes. 
I had to find my own midnight star.

But when you touch my skin I want back in again. (59)

The poem also prompts the question of where, exactly, “home” is.

Imagine if we natives went to the cemeteries in your cities and dug up your beloved relatives, pulled off rings, watches, and clothes, and called them ‘artifacts,’ then carried the bones over to the university for study so we could understand you. Consider that there are more bones of native people in universities and museums for study than there are those of us living. (61)

In this subtext is the despair of peoples who have been physically displaced from their natural homes and environments. This sentiment echoes a prose passage earlier in the collection:

Where we lived, the settlers built their houses. Where we drew fresh water, the oil companies sucked oil … Now, a fence cuts the road home. Next the sky will be tethered, and we will pay for air. (36)

In “This Morning I Pray for My Enemies,” a short, nine-line poem about discernment and perspective, the narrator says:

The door to the mind should only open from the heart.
An enemy who gets in, risks the danger of becoming a friend. (75)

What was once hidden in the usual dark place can no longer remain hidden; it has been replaced with vulnerability and personal truth. The collection’s last poem, “Sunrise,” sheds light on the narrator’s experience, and upon the conflict and darkness of the world.

Sunrise, as you enter the houses of everyone here, find us.
We’ve been crashing for days, or has it been years.
Find us, beneath the shadow of this yearning mountain, 
crying here. (139)

And it is the only poem in the collection without a quest for more:

And one day, in relentless eternity, our spirits discerned movement of prayers
Carried toward the sun.
And this morning we are able to stand with all the rest
And welcome you here.
We move with the lightness of being, and we will go
Where there’s a place for us. (139)

Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings affirms that the personal is political, that the environmental is personal, and the microcosm cannot be separated from the macrocosm. It is a call to a deeper way of seeing, feeling, and being in the world.

 

 


0706-headshot-cropped-300-dpiKelly Lydick received her M.A. in Writing and Consciousness from the New College of California, San Francisco (now at CIIS).  Her writing has appeared in Guernica, Drunken Boat, Switched-on Gutenberg, Mission at Tenth, Thema, and Tarpaulin Sky.

Her nonfiction articles have appeared in Java, Western Art Collector, Santa Fean, and True Blue Spirit magazines, as well as on the home page of ElephantJournal.com. Her work has also been featured on NPR’s The Writers’ Block. She is the author of the chapbook We Once Were, and the experimental work, Mastering the Dream.

In addition, Kelly holds professional certifications as a Meditation Facilitator, Past Life Healer, and Gateway Dreaming™ Coach.  She teaches writing and metaphysical workshops throughout the United States, and offers private consultations through her company Waking the Dream. You can learn more about her work at www.kellylydick.com.