When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through: A Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry

Norton. Aug. 2020. ed. by ed. by Joy Harjo & others.. ISBN 9780393356809. pap. $19.95. POETRY.
A celebration of literary riches, this first-of-its-kind anthology of Native American poetry is a great witness to the joy and power of verse. Poet Laureate Harjo, a member of the Muscogee Nation, and her team have selected works from 161 writers and over 90 nations. Because determining who gets called a Native American can be difficult, the editors chose to include only works by enrolled tribal members or poets closely associated with an Indigenous community. Though the earliest poem is an elegy written by Harvard senior Eleazor (1678), much of the book focuses on contemporary and 20th-century poetry. The book is divided geographically into five sections, presenting a kind of journey that starts in the North-east, wanders to Alaska and the Hawaiian Islands, then down through the South and back through the Gulf to the Atlantic coast. There are familiar names here, old and new—e.g., Chief Seattle, Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, Gerald Vizenor, Leslie Marmon Silko, Sherman Alexie, Louise Erdrich, Layli Long Soldier, Tommy Pico, and Harjo herself—and stunning discoveries like Schoolcraft’s “To the Pine Tree.” First it is presented in Ojibwe with a literal, line-by-line translation, communicating the sound of the original with a hint of meaning; then Schoolcraft’s own English translation allows us to witness not only the ineffable creative act of translation but also the act of inculturation, producing a poem tamed by 19th-century lyrical petticoats. Elsewhere, William Walker’s “Oh, give me back my bended bow” captures a universal truth: no child wants to be trapped in a classroom with Homer when they could be outside joyfully living an odyssey! ­
VERDICT Essential, and not just as a resource; this is amazing poetry. [See “Versifying,” LJ 1/17/20.]
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