Wednesday, April 07, 2021


When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through:
A Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry
Edited by Joy Harjo (Mvskoke), with LeAnne Howe (Choctaw), 
Jennifer Elise Forester (Mvskoke), and Contributing Editors
Cover art by Emmi Whitehorse (Navajo)
Published in 2020
Publisher: W.W. Norton and Company
Review Status: Highly Recommended
Reviewer: Debbie Reese


I watched the livestream when this Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry, When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through was launched on August 21 at Collected Works Bookstore in Santa Fe. I love the title, and I love seeing "Native Nations" in the subtitle! 

Luci Tapahonso (Diné) was there, with Joy. Thinking about it this morning makes me smile as I recall the warmth between these two Native women. And I recall Harjo's reading of "Rabbit Is Up To Tricks." It was weeks before the presidential election. When you read or listen to it, you will likely feel the same chill I felt. That poem was first published in Harjo's 2015 book, Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings. 

Last year when the anthology was published, I wrote about Marcie Rendon's poem, "What's an Indian Woman to Do?" Since then, I page through my copy of the book and see names of people I know and think that I've got to do a blog post about their poems, especially for teachers who are using their books. Here at American Indians in Children's Literature and elsewhere, I've written about poems and stories and books by Kimberly M. Blaser, Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, Heid E. Erdrich, Louise Erdrich, Eric Gansworth, Joy Harjo, Layli Long Soldier, Deborah A. Miranda, Simon Ortiz, Marcie Rendon, Kim Shuck, Leslie Marmon Silko, Luci Tapahonso, Laura Tohe, Mark Turcotte, James Welch, Gwen Westerman, Tanaya Winder, and Ofelia Zepeda. Teachers who assign their works can add their poems to the author studies they do of these wonderful Native writers. For each writer in the book, you'll find their tribal nation listed by their name. 

The anthology has 161 poets! I recognize some names but not all of them. As we move what I hope is the end of the weight of the pandemic, I hope to read them all. I'm grateful to Harjo and the editors for the care that went into this anthology. I recommend you study her introduction to it, too. Among the passages that stand out for me is this one (page 3): 
Many who open the doors of this text arrive here with only stereotypes of indigenous peoples that keep indigenous peoples bound to a story in which none of us ever made it out alive. In that story we cannot be erudite poets, scholars, and innovative creative artists. It is the intent of the editors to challenge this: for you to open the door to each poem and hear a unique human voice speaking to you beyond, within, and alongside time. This collection represents the many voices of our peoples, voices that range through time, across many lands and waters.
One of the voices I found inside is Chief Seattle. Many people feel they know him and his writing, due to the ways a speech he gave in 1854 have been mis-used by non-Native writers. Some of you may recall the criticism I've written of Susan Jeffers's book that uses that speech. In the anthology you'll find a different excerpt. 

Over time, I'll write about poems in the book. For now, I want to draw your attention to the art on the cover. Yesterday as I gazed out the window, in the early dawn and in the late afternoon, I was thinking about the quality of the light. Beside me on the table was When the Light of the World Was Subdued. I wonder if my unconscious mind was at work, forming links from the light to the book cover. Here's the cover again, in a larger size than I used above:

This morning as I thought about the book I wanted to know more about Emmi Whitehorse. At Chiaroscuro, she wrote this about her work:
My paintings tell the story of knowing land over time - of being completely, micro-cosmically within a place. I am defining a particular space, describing a particular place. They are purposefully meditative and meant to be seen slowly. The intricate language of symbols refer to specific plants, people and experiences."
The art on the cover is titled Kin Nah Zin #223. Whitehorse created it in 1983. For me, it has depth that reflects the fact that we, Native peoples of the continent currently known as North America, have been here, always. And the qualities of the light--its very presence as rendered by Whitehorse--shine light on what was, and what will be, too. If I was a poet I might have the words needed to say what I feel as I look at that cover and think about the anthology and about Harjo, too, and the light she brings forth.

Yesterday (April 6, 2021) I watched a zoom event that featured Harjo. Like the poems she writes and the music she creates, the words she spoke yesterday are ones that I will return to. You can watch it, too, on YouTube. As noted above, I highly recommend When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through. Get a copy for yourself and ask your library to get a copy for their collections. 

And... a couple of ideas that take you from an admirer to an activist! If your institution is among those that are doing land acknowledgments, look for a poet of the people that your acknowledgment names. Use the anthology to find one, and read that poem at your gathering or meeting or conference. Go to your bookstore and library, and put in requests for other writings by the poets in your area.