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OPINION | KAREN MARTIN: Passion, rhythm create a song out of a poem

by Karen Martin | June 20, 2021 at 8:45 a.m.
Karen Martin

On Saturday mornings, KABF, Little Rock's community radio station ("The Voice of the People") airs a show called Heartbeat of the Nation. It's hosted by Alfredo "Cuchi" Davila and features music (mostly) and information (some) about Native Americans.

I listen to this show during weekly trips to the supermarket. Some of the music is passionate drum-driven chants in Native languages, some is serenely traditional, some falls into the familiar, comfortable and unexceptional dog trots of mainstream pop.

Then I heard "She Had Some Horses," a 1983 poem by Joy Harjo, read by the author against an unobtrusive instrumental background. It's a striking exploration of women, ranging from despair, disillusionment, revelations, power, and love.

The words were so compelling that I cruised right past Starbucks without giving the attractions of an Americano a second thought.

Consider this stanza:

She had some horses.

She had horses who whispered in the

dark, who were afraid to speak.

She had horses who screamed out

of fear of the silence, who

carried knives to protect themselves

from ghosts.

She had horses who waited

for destruction.

She had horses who waited

for resurrection.

This is not a hidden gem; I was late to coming to the party in celebration of Harjo's work.

I wished my new-ish car still had a CD player like the car before it so I could back up and listen to the poem again, to solidify my instant affinity to its unique, affecting, and fiercely feminine perspective.

"[Joy Harjo's] poetry here is of mythic and timeless character, native and lyrical in its expression, profound in its reflection of a worldview that is at once precise and comprehensive," said author N. Scott Momaday. There is much of the oral tradition here, much that is worthy of our closest attention and deepest respect."

The poem has eight stanzas, explains "In each stanza, almost every line begins with the same sentence stem as the name of the poem. The rest of the lines enumerate different categories of horses that the unnamed 'she' once owned. As the lines build on each other, it becomes clear that the poem does not refer to literal horses; rather, through them, it develops a complex picture of human nature."

The darker impulses of that human nature are the framework for the second half.

"Harjo depicts horses that scream 'out of fear of the silence' and horses that bring knives wherever they go, hoping to fend off ghosts. ... Harjo is less sympathetic for individuals who blindly follow religious dogma at their own existential cost, writing of horses who kneel 'for any savior,' or who simply pray even as they are being marginalized or attacked."

Many women will instinctively understand what's meant by "any savior"--bad boyfriends and faithless lovers and big-booted "Fascists" Sylvia Plath imagined every woman could adore. "Savior" can be taken ironically, in contexts other than religious.

The ending leaves each reader open to determining its meaning, including aspects of one's self: "She had some horses she loved/She had some horses she hated."

Harjo, a faculty member in the English Department at the University of Arizona, is the first Native American to serve as U.S. poet laureate; last November she was reappointed to a rare third term by the Library of Congress. A saxophone player, dancer, painter and screenwriter, she's a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa and a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of Oklahoma.

"The story of America begins with Native presence, thoughts and words," she said in a statement announcing her third term. "Poetry is made of word threads that weave and connect us."

It was a sunny Saturday morning, driving west on Cantrell Road, with nothing more relevant to consider than the prices of produce and bagels at my destination, when I encountered Joy Harjo. I wasn't looking for anything more than diversion.

I didn't expect to find such a poignant and meaningful connection, expressed with devastating dexterity. Quite unexpectedly, an ordinary day was transformed.

Karen Martin is senior editor of Perspective.

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