'An American Sunrise'
If you read only one book of poems this summer, make it “An American Sunrise” (Norton) by Joy Harjo, the first Native American to be named U.S. poet laureate. In these stunning pages, Harjo, a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation, recalls her ancestors’ forced relocation from Alabama to Oklahoma following the Indian Removal Act of 1830. She also visits those lost lands, trying, like the ghosts of her forebears, to find the way back home. Every step of the journey is deeply moving. Harjo doesn’t just honor the people, creatures and landscapes that were lost, she embodies and embraces them, as in these lines from “Exile of Memory”: “We could not see our ancestors as we climbed up/ To the edge of destruction/ But from the dark we felt their soft presences at the edge of our mind/ And we heard them singing.” Harjo also hears their grief, anger and wisdom: “I was taught to give honor to the house of the warriors/ Which cannot exist without the house of the peacemakers.” She also helps readers see the web of connections between native people, the natural world and the spiritual realm. As the gorgeous poem “Directions to You,” explains, “Take a deep breath,/ Pray./ You will not always be lost./ You are right here,/ In your time,/ In your place.” Rich and deeply engaging, “An American Sunrise” creates bridges of understanding while reminding readers to face and remember the past: “Let’s honor the maker,” Harjo writes. “Let’s honor what’s made.”
Carmen Giménez Smith turns a sharp, sometimes withering eye toward contemporary culture in her sixth collection, “Be Recorder” (Graywolf). As she documents a range of subjects — including reality TV, capitalism and the exploitation of immigrant workers — Smith questions how an individual’s experiences are shaped by the dominant culture and how to push back. She also envisions a new “Emancipatory lyric poetry. Deregulated lyric poetry. Lyric poetry with workboots,” to reflect the Latina experience. The work expands as Smith questions what it means to be an American and turns personal as she describes her mother, who became a citizen decades ago but lost those years and more to dementia. “The lesson:/ memory, which once seemed impermeable, had always been/ a muslin, spilling the self out like water.”
“Lima:: Limón” (Copper Canyon) by Natalie Scenters-Zapico details the many hardships experienced by Latinas on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. Scenters-Zapico spotlights how enduring ideas about gender roles compound those struggles by confining and restricting women’s choices. As the speaker explains in one of several poems called “Macho:: Hembra,” “Like my father/ did to my mother at parties, he called me tontita. When we danced, I/ pressed my body against his. He smiled & pet my head like a dog. A good/ hembra never speaks of the violence of men.” Scenters-Zapico speaks fearlessly throughout this, her second book. In doing so, she illustrates what needs to change so that victims can be freed from the cycle of abuse.
Tina Chang’s “Hybrida” (Norton) opens with these powerful lines about her son: “Everywhere I look I see him,/ I have a right to fear for him,/ though I have no right to his color./ His blackness is his to own and what will/ my mouth say of that sweetness.” As she reflects on the threats her son — and to a lesser extent, her daughter — faces, Chang asks evocative questions about identity and the complicated inheritance of anyone “who has ever been born of mixed race.” She also considers the language of motherhood and the “fusion of artistic forms made manifest through the lens/ of protection.” In the process, Chang, the poet laureate of Brooklyn, weaves powerful narratives and uses various poetic forms to create a momentous landscape.
Elizabeth Lund writes about poetry every month for The Washington Post.