On Joy Harjo’s Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings

Elle Magnuson

New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2015. 139 pages. $15.95.

“Who is your singer?” Joy Harjo asks in “Entering the Principality of O’ahu by Sky Roads,” the sixth poem of her tenth poetry collection, Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings. Winner of the 2015 Wallace Stevens Award, Conflict follows Harjo’s transcendent Crazy Brave (2012), a memoir that describes her family, her Native American history, and her voice as a poet. Harjo is a musician, a professor, an acclaimed poet, and a performer and writer of the Muscogee (Creek) nation. The title poem reads as a handbook, and numerically lists the steps for understanding human respect. Working in the lyric mode, Harjo’s free verse calls attention to the history of the human landscape and asks the reader to consider our mistakes. She suggests the resolution for our conflicts: to listen.

The book’s proem ends, “There is only love.” The forty-three poems that follow are arranged in four sections: “Part One: How It Came to Be,” “Part Two: The Wanderer,” “Part Three: Visions and Monsters,” and “Part Four: The World.” The collection includes lyric poems, prose poems, epigraphs, songs, and prayers.

Untitled vignettes of prose poetry feature multiple voices—sometimes the voices of strangers, sometimes the voices of Harjo’s friends and acquaintances. “Had-It-Up-to-Here Round Dance” includes dialogue between her friend Charlie Hill and Harjo. Epigraphs from Native American figures, such as Muscogee (Creek) elder Phillip Deere and Dineh poet Norman Patrick Brown, evidence the kinship she shares with fellow Native Americans. The collection takes on many other voices, even that of the birds, to examine the violence created by humans and offer a resolution to our conflicts: we must understand how we were created, and that to exist in harmony, we must listen to one another and to our own souls. The collection’s strength rests in its spirit of voice—in its ever-changing form, ever-growing speaker, our forgetting, our waiting, and our ability as humans to love one another.

Harjo’s poetry features haunting lyricism drawn from Native American traditions.  Thematically, horses frequently appear in her poems, as does the spirit she calls upon. The theme of travel is presented through walks Harjo depicts and the airports she sits in on her way home. Always, she searches for a way back to the peace before European Americans marched her ancestors up to Oklahoma—another journey in the landscape Harjo interrogates. Conflict presents the same trajectory of Harjo’s themes as her other work—the sounds of the earth, the sounds of music, conversations with the sun, language of the Muskogee and Creek. However, Conflict seems to have a much grander trajectory than most of Harjo’s previous work, in that it speaks to the necessity of resolving the conflict in today’s America. By situating each poem in the vulnerable mother field of past human violence and mistakes, she speaks directly to those who are not willing to listen.

The text encompasses strangers and their circumstances (spiritual and domestic), as well as Harjo’s own personal accounts—the stories of her mother, her native tribe, the songs of the Muscogee, her poetry, and her saxophone. The composition and traveling of the book encompass all souls, natural and human, for Harjo includes the reader as part of earth’s mystery by ensuring everyone experiences heartache, even the trees. The speaker concludes in the final poem “Sunrise” that one day “we will go where there is a place for us.”

Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings is a collection for the poet who understands the urgency to listen. It is a collection for the young reader who questions her place in the world, who questions the power of poetry. It is a collection for the man who has not yet thanked his ears or his eyes but hopes for something different in his future. It is a collection for the time ahead, for poets and non-poets alike, and for future readers who have grown up in violence or in peace. Harjo reimagines poetry’s function in this visionary verbal landscape to connect the present with the past, to engage with conflict as an active, resolving presence.

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