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When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through: A Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry

Review by Sawnie Morris

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W. W. Norton | 2020 | 496 pages

When the Light of the World was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through: A Norton Anthology of Native Nations PoetryThe beauty and significance of When The Light Of The World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through: A Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry, edited by U.S. poet laureate Joy Harjo (Mvskoke) with contributing editors Leanne Howe (Choctaw) and Jennifer Elise Foerster (Mvskoke), cannot be overstated. The volume contains poems by 161 poets from 90 of the 573 federally recognized indigenous nations living on the mainland United States and Alaska, as well as Hawai’i, Guahan, and “Amerika Samoa.”

As such it serves as gift, event, and record. Gift to the reader, because of the quality, accessibility, and range of its poetics, along with the revelatory complexity of voices the poems offer. Event, because of the wide-reaching and collaborative manner in which the anthology came into being, which the geographic and ceremonial arrangement of the poems reflects. It is also record, as all works of great literature are, of a uniquely devastating history and the powerful resilience of a people whose songs, indeed, have come through.

In her elegant and comprehensive introduction to the anthology, Harjo discusses the editorial decision-making process and the nuanced choices made by the editors in light of shared Native values. Her comments are as necessary and instructive with regard to historical context as they are illuminating with regard to culture. Two points stand out:

At contact with European invaders, we (Native people) were estimated at over 112 million. By 1650 we were fewer than six million. Today we are one-half of one percent of the total population of the United States. Imagine the African continent with one-half of one percent of indigenous Africans and you might understand the immensity of the American holocaust.

As part of that violent transformation, Native children were removed from their homes and families by the U.S. government, starting in the mid-1800s, and ensconced in boarding schools where they were force-fed English while their mother-tongues (collectively, over 150 indigenous languages) were, often, beaten out of them. (A number of the poems in the anthology deftly address the boarding school experience, and, given the nature of its catastrophic consequences, they do so with remarkable compression, wit, and humor.) It was not until 1978, with passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act, that Native American parents regained the right to deny their children’s placement in off-reservation schools.

Harjo calls attention to the fact that cultural tribal-nation expression, which includes religious expression, was outlawed until 1978, when the American Indian Religious Freedom Act was passed. She addresses the kinship between those denied categories of expression and poetry:

A poem can be considered a sacred site, in which so much of our culture is stored, made into form to be acknowledged, given a place, even a place to hide. Many of our oldest and most traditional poems and songs contain maps of the stars, road maps, or precepts of spiritual knowledge.         

Small wonder that this anthology, which takes its place within the prestigious academic Norton series, opens with a poem by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and author N. Scott Momaday (Kiowa), titled, “Prayer For Words, My voice restore for me, (Diné).”

Harjo’s other foundational point is this: “We begin with the land.” The poems that follow, written as early as 1678 and spanning to the present, are presented in relation to geography, rather than solely by chronology (as in most other Norton Anthologies). The editors, working in teams of five for each geographical area, employed “the Muscogean directional path, which begins East to North and continues to the West and then to the South.”

Each region, which is announced with its own compelling preface, contains the work of poets indigenous to that area, with the understanding that within each region exist poets from a range of tribal nations, “very different in orientation, ritual, and practices.” Kimberly M. Blaeser, (Anishinaabe) introduces poems from the “Northeast and Midwest,” Heid E. Erdrich (Anishinaabe-Turtle Mountain Band) speaks of poems from the “Plains and Mountains,” and Cedar Sigo (Suquamish), Diane L’xeis’ Benson (Tlingit), and Brandy Nalani McDougall (Kanaka Maoli) provide discussions about poems of the “Pacific Northwest, Alaska, and Pacific Islands.” Deborah A. Miranda (Ohlone/Costanoan-Esselen and Chumash people) and Jennifer Elise Foerster, respectively, address poems from the “Southwest and West” and “Southeast.” Each introduction provides an enlightening survey of poetics, as well as relevant geographical and historical contexts for the poems.

The list of distinguished contemporary Native poets whose work fills the pages of When The Light Of The World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through is long and includes, among others, the first Navajo poet laureate, Luci Tapahonso (Diné), whose iconic “Hills Brothers Coffee” beautifully reflects the subtleties of Native humor and the power of the image in an incisive sketch of daily life. She does so by way of conversation between the speaker and her uncle. Here’s an excerpt:

He tells me about how my mother seems to be gone
every time he comes over.
            Maybe she sees me coming
            then runs and jumps in her car
            and speeds away!
            He says smiling.
We both laugh—just to think of my mother
             jumping in her car and speeding.

Equally iconic is Harjo’s “She Had Some Horses,” which, as she explains, “would not have been written without stomp dance, or without my having heard Navajo horse songs.” Louise Erdrich’s (Anishinaabe-Turtle Mountain Band) “Advice to Myself” offers instruction for procrastinating writers (readers will never look at dust balls in the same way again). “Leave the dishes,” she begins, and ends 31 lines later with:

Recycle the mail, don’t read it, don’t read anything
except what destroys
the insulation between yourself and your experience.

An excerpt from the Pushcart winner From Sand Creek by Simon Ortiz (Acoma) eulogizes the massacre of women, children, and elderly Cheyenne Arapahoe by U.S. soldiers in southeastern Colorado in 1864:

Their children
hunkered down, frightened
into quilts, listening
to wind
speaking Arapahoe words
for pain and beauty and generations.

The tightly woven poems of Linda Hogan (Chickasaw) speak of family and tell us, “Blessed / are those who listen / when no one is left to speak”; while a raw, unflinching love poem titled “This Is The Time Of Grasshoppers And All That I See is Dying,” by Adrian C. Louis (Lovelock Paiute), written to his speaker’s wife, is the very reason we go to poetry.

The topics available to poets, no matter their origins, are as rich in range as reality itself. What distinguishes a poem is its ability to tell us something we did not know or had forgotten about the complexity of the human heart. Poets accomplish this by way of line breaks, compression, and the music of language. Particularly exciting in this anthology are poems by acclaimed poets such as Layli Long Soldier (Oglala Lakota), dg nanouk okpik (Iñupiaq), Orlando White (Diné), Sherwin Bitsui (Diné), Craig Santos Perez (CHamoru), Natalie Diaz (Mojave/Gila River), Cedar Sigo, and Heid E. Erdrich. The work of these poets, and many others, sets out to expand the reach for poetry on the page, often by commenting on language itself, the way it may be used to elucidate, but also to manipulate. Their poems at times alter syntax as well as gender, abscond with the long lines of prose, and make use of the visual richness of punctuation. Their poems slip cinematographically into our imaginations and bring their subjects to vibrant life, as well as, in some cases, by way of an optical shaping relationship between page and ink.

Layli Long Soldier’s poem “38” exemplifies many of these moves in a eulogy for “thirty-eight Dakota Men executed by hanging, under orders from President Abraham Lincoln.” Where the poems of Harjo, Tapahonso, and Ortiz have become classic Native works of an earlier generation, Long Soldier’s is a pivotal work of hers. “38” is a six-page, long-lined trial, in which each line is a single sentence, a thought isolated by spacing in a breathtaking delineation of inquiry and revelation. “38” informs regarding the treaties made by the U.S. government that were repeatedly broken, resulting in the depletion of hunting grounds, resulting in the starving of the Dakota people, resulting in “The Sioux Uprising,” followed by the hanging of the Dakota 38:

These amended and broken treaties are often referred to as The
Minnesota Treaties.

The word Minnesota comes from mni, which means water; sota which
means turbid.

Synonyms for turbid include muddy, unclear, cloudy, confused, and

Everything is in the language we use.

Long Soldier writes line by hypnotic and meticulous line, and does so with the care of a person smoothing a very old, much-marked and wrinkled map on a kitchen table, a map that contains decisive truths regarding not only her location, but the spiritual location of our present, in this nation that is the United States. “Although I often feel lost on this trail,” her speaker says, midway through the poem, “I know I am not alone.”

Indeed, she and her contemporaries are not alone. Norton and the editors of When The Light Of The World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through, also provide a glimpse of poetry on the lip of song as recorded from the oral tradition of Native peoples, which goes back tens of thousands of years. Here is a song sung by Gegwejiwebinan (“Trial Thrower”) of the Midewiwin or Grand Medicine Society. The song was recorded and translated by ethnologist Frances Densmore, with “local interpreter” Mary Warren English, in 1907-09:

Upon the whole length of my form
The water birds will alight

Closer to the original and compelling in its unconventional syntax is a contemporary literal translation by Margaret Noodin, followed by a present day Anishinaabemowin spelling:

It is certain they land on me the thunderbirds across my existence.

Geget indabooniisaandaagoog Binesiwag akwaa-ayaayaan.

By viewing all three versions we gain a window on historical process, as well as the complexity of mingled visions. Nearly a century before the Grand Medicine Society song was recorded, the earliest known Native woman writer, Jane Johnston Schoolcraft (Bamewawage Zhikaquay) (1800-1842), was creating parallel versions of her own poems by writing in her own language (Ojibwemowin), as well as in the traditional English verse of the time. Here’s the first stanza of Schoolcraft’s “To the Pine Tree” in Ojibwemowin, accompanied by another literal translation by Noodin (the literal translation calls to mind the Modernist poems of H.D., which the original poem in Ojibwemowin predates by more than three-quarters of a century):

Zhingwaak! Zhingwaak! Ingii-ikid, – Pine! Pine! I said,
Weshki waabamag zhingwaak – the one I see, the pine
Dagoshinaan neyab, endanakiiyaan. – I return back, to my homeland.
Zhingwaak, zhingwaak nos sa! – The pine, the pine my father!
Azhigwa gidatisaanan – Already you are colored
Gaagige wezhaawashkozid. – Forever you are green

Here’s Schoolcraft’s poem as she wrote it in traditional English rhyme and meter, a formal approach skillfully applied by more than a few of the 19th century Native poets included in the anthology:

The pine! The pine! I eager cried,
The pine, my father! See it stand,
At first that cherished tree I spied,
Returning to my native land.
The pine! The pine! Oh lovely scene!
The pine, that is forever green.

Like the pine, the oral tradition has not disappeared into the written one. Native people continue to practice oral song traditions and this anthology gives readers a glimpse of that coexistence in poems such as “Yaqui Deer Song,” committed to paper by Don Jesús Yoilo’i (Yaqui) in 1981. Yoilo’i articulates the thinking heart of the hunted and slain deer and does so by way of repetition, syntactical inversion, and the extended step-lines, whose end words provide subtext:

Just I, never again I,
             will I on this world,
                         I, around will I be walking.

The memory of the deer as well as of the poet live on in this anthology that is essential to our country’s literature and now available to readers worldwide, Native as well as non-Native.

The poems of When The Light Of The World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through provide a riveting testimony to the truth of its title.



Sawnie MorrisSawnie Morris’s collection Her, Infinite is described by Major Jackson as, “A polyvocal, strident book of immense intelligence [and] tantalizing music.” Honors include a Poetry Society of America Bogin Award, the Ruth Stone Poetry Prize, inclusion in Best American Experimental Poetry, a feature in Poets & Writers, and a chapbook, Matapolvo Rain, which was a co-winner of a New Mexico Book Award. She is co-founder and past director of Amigos Bravos, a nonprofit advocacy organization for the waters of New Mexico. She lives in Taos with her husband, the artist Brian Shields.

Header photo by Free-Photos, courtesy Pixabay. Photo of Sawnie Morris by Brian Shields.

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