An American Sunrise: Poems

Image of An American Sunrise: Poems
Release Date: 
September 10, 2019
W. W. Norton & Company
Reviewed by: 

“Harjo evokes images, emotions, and places in a poetic biography of family perseverance. She proves sentiment.”

An American Sunrise is a bold and exciting offering from the new United States Poet Laureate Joy Harjo. Most reviews of An American Sunrise will focus on her description of tribal removal from Native land during the Trail of Tears, which occurred when Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act in 1830, forcibly moving tribes from the Southern Hemisphere to the Western North America. Reviewers will focus on American history and politics, and many poems do. But this review will focus on something different: family. 

Harjo writes about family. Her ancestors are tied to the earth; they draw their spirit, life, and culture from the powerful forces of nature and its “creator gods.” And even though Harjo writes specifically about her experience as a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, this collection is accessible all.

“Washing My Mother’s Body” strikes readers with its powerful sense of place in her mother’s home after her mother died. The poem transforms the experience of washing a body after death into intense feelings of sorrow and guilt, which end in permanent relief and peace.

“I never got to wash my mother’s body when she died. / I return to take care of her in memory.” Harjo describes being bathed as a baby, her mother’s dresses, her mother’s bathroom soap, her mother’s scars, her mother’s perfume, and several other powerful images to finish with “and then I let her go.” Harjo creates a permanent memory of her mother, and she gifts us her sentiment.

Here are some lines from “For Earth’s Grandsons”: “Stand tall, no matter your height, how dark your skin / Your spirit is all colors within / You are made of the finest woven light / From the iridescent love that formed your mothers, fathers / Your grandparents all the way back on the spiral road­—”

In a poem about grandsons, Harjo writes of the necessity to bind to family roots. They are to learn from adversity and the elders who fought for them. They are to study dictators, massacres, and the heartless, and then honor ancestral strength, perseverance, bonds, and ceremony to guide their paths through life. They are to honor heritage.

Harjo’s decision to insert historical descriptions is curious. They provide context and explain topics such as the Columbian Quincentenary, the history of saxophones, and the mounds in Tennessee. These images should be poems and speak for themselves.

As poems, descriptions would provide metaphors with layers of meaning. Harjo’s poetics would force readers to learn content, to harness it, thus making true history a permanent memory instead of a passive read.

But in the end she grips us with song. She writes lyrics in “Welcoming Song.” In tribal language, she sings of her ancestors dancing together, reuniting, and celebrating life; she fortifies the spirit of family: to learn from elders, cherish culture, love one another, celebrate today, and then welcome tomorrow.    

Harjo evokes images, emotions, and places in a poetic biography of family perseverance. She proves sentiment. She transforms tribal and ancestral memories, history, and culture into feelings of grief, compassion, togetherness, and acceptance within the rugged American landscape. All of us will enjoy this historical, poetic, and lyrical collection.