"Don't worry about what a poem means. Do you ask what a song means before you listen? Just listen." — Joy Harjo
To open Joy Harjo's How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems 1975-2001 (W.W. Norton, 2002) is to be immersed in the power of nature, spirituality, memory, violence, and the splintered history of America's indigenous peoples. To read her poetry is to get drawn into the rhythms, sounds, and stories of Harjo's Creek heritage. The collection offers a glimpse into the first quarter-century of Harjo's career, and includes an introduction about the circumstances at play in her life when she wrote the poems. Drawing together "the brutalities of contemporary reservation life with the beauty and sensibility of Native American culture and mythology," writes Publishers Weekly, the book shows "the remarkable progression of a writer determined to reconnect with her past and make sense of her present." "I am driven to explore the depths of creation and the depths of meaning," said Harjo. "Being native, female, a global citizen in these times is the root, even the palette" (Terrain).
The collection begins with poems from Harjo's first two chapbooks, The Last Song (Puerto del Sol Press, 1975) and What Moon Drove Me to This (I. Reed Books, 1979). Many of the poems explore the idea of place—a longing to get from one place to another, a longing for a place to feel safe and whole. In the poem "3 A.M," the speaker has an epiphany as she travels home from Albuquerque in the middle of the night. In "Are You Still There?" the speaker has a fraught conversation across miles of telephone wire. In "Crossing the Border," the speaker feels a crushing sense of suspicion as she crosses into Canada. In contrast, poems such as "Watching Crow, Looking South Toward the Manzano Mountains," and "for a Hopi silversmith" convey a sense of peace and connection that comes from observing natural beauty.
The collection also includes poems from She Had Some Horses (Thunder's Mouth Press, 1983), now considered to be a classic. The title poem, propelled forward by the chanting of the title phrase, wrestles with the question of how our own contradictory parts can coexist. The question carries over into other poems, such as "Call It Fear," and "The Woman Hanging from the Thirteenth Floor Window." "I feel strongly that I have a responsibility to all the sources that I am," said Harjo, "...to all voices, all women, all of my tribe, all people, all earth" (Poetry Foundation). Several of the poems are infused with spiritual and historical memory, such as "New Orleans," which describes how an American city was built over a place where indigenous people used to live, and how their memory survives in the stones.
For her book Secrets from the Center of the World (University of Arizona Press, 1989), Harjo collaborated with astronomer and photographer Stephen Strom, writing prose poems inspired by his photographs of Navajo country. In these short, direct, often philosophical poems—such as "My House Is the Red Earth" and "Anything That Matters"—Harjo describes the center of the world as a modest place, one easily overlooked, but essential. In Harjo's book, In Mad Love and War (Wesleyan University Press, 1990), the poems, while also often concerned with the notion of place, confront "violence, revenge, loss, disillusionment, [and] brutality" in order "to reach a human, miraculously graced center" (Choice). "...How do we imagine ourselves with an integrity and freshness outside of the sludge and despair of destruction [resulting from colonization]?" asks Harjo (PEN America).
In her introduction to How We Became Human, Harjo writes that she doesn't believe there's a distinction between poetry, stories, events, and music—a point of view that seems to have especially informed the poems from The Woman Who Fell from the Sky (W.W. Norton, 1994), and A Map to the Next World: Poems and Tales (W.W. Norton, 2000), which blend myth and traditions of music and oral storytelling with everyday experiences and historical realities. "If Whitman were a Muskogee jazzman, he would have written [The Woman Who Fell from the Sky]," writes Booklist. Of A Map to the Next World, Publishers Weekly writes: "[The book] reveals regenerative human cycles that occur even in the midst of the most oppressive histories." In that book's title poem, Harjo splices together unexpected imagery and sensations—for example, the smell of traditional cooking and the view of a far-away galaxy—to explore what it truly means to be "human."
In addition to the selections from past collections, How We Became Human includes notes about many of her poems, as well as a number of previously unpublished poems, including "When the World as We Knew It Ended," written after September 11, 2001, and "Morning Prayers," which references the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speech "I've Been to the Mountaintop." Among these newer poems is also "It's Raining in Honolulu," from which the collection's title—"how we became human"—is drawn.
"Alive with compassion, pain and love, this book is unquestionably an act of kindness," writes Publishers Weekly. "[Harjo] contends that poetry is not only a way to save the sanity of those who have been oppressed to the point of madness, but that it is a tool to rebuild communities and, ultimately, change the world."