I don’t usually read poetry collections for funsies, or much at all really. But when the Poet Laureate of the United States decided to do a talk/reading at the mid-level state school where I work, I made an exception. To decide if I wanted to brave the crowds, I got a copy of one of Joy Harjo’s collections In Mad Love and War from the library.
I don’t often enjoy a lot of contemporary poetry; I’m a little too much of a formalist for that to typically work out, but I have to admit I really did enjoy some of this collection. It’s a pretty good mix of poetic prose and stanzaic poems that make use of more traditional structures. Take for example, a pair of poems on facing pages in the “Mad Love” section. “Santa Fe” reads and looks like prose, but the language, literal and figurative, is poetry. It begins, “The wind blows lilacs out of the east. And it isn’t lilac season. And I am walking the street in front of St. Francis Cathedral in Santa Fe. Oh, and it’s a few years earlier and more. That’s how you tell real time. It is here, it is there. The lilacs have taken over everything; the sky, the narrow streets, my shoulders, my lips. I talk lilac.” This piece ends up telling a pretty clear story (find and read the rest, you’ll see; more here would be spoilers), but it also has some pretty clear poetic stuff going on as well. The kind of poem that can do the literal and figurative and the technique this equally well is not super common (at least to me) in poetry written after about 1960.
The poem on the facing page does much the same. “Climbing the Streets of Worcester, Mass.” looks more like poetry, but it does the same kinds of things “Santa Fe” did with meaning and language. The first stanza goes (and looks) like this:
Houses lean forward with their hands
on thin hips.
I walk past their eyes
of pigeon grey, hear someone
playing horn, and there’s the wind
trying to teach some trees
There’s all kinds of cool structural technical stuff here, especially involving line structure, like enjambment, line breaks, and caesura. There’s kind of an iambic meter going on, but thanks to the lineation, it never really settles into a pattern lasting more than a few lines. And that’s not even going anywhere near the potential for symbolism, imagery, and all the other poetic techniques you were probably told about but really wanted to ignore or be done with in school
Taking the collection as a whole, there’s also a clear feminist/female-centric perspective at work, as well as Native American influence and content. Both of these reflect the poet’s own heritage, but the interesting thing about the poetry is that while the themes etc. are clearly there, you don’t have to be super knowledgeable about the theoretical or historical background to still understand and get something from the poetry. This is the kind of poetry that people who are scared of poetry should be exposed to. And if you are comfortable with poetry, there’s plenty for you to appreciate here as well.