Friday, May 1, 2009

Joy Harjo's "When the World as We Knew It Ended"

There are many poems in Joy Harjo’s, How We Became Human, that have touched me (See Joy Harjo’s “Raining in Honolulu”). But, as I was flipping through her book the other day, I came across another poem that reminded me how amazing poetry can be. The poem is, “When the World as We Knew It Ended.” This is a post 9/11 poem that captures the feelings of detachment, uncertainty, and alienation that our country felt immediately after the attacks. This poem is beautiful because it invokes our own memories of 9/11, but gives us a sense of hope. I will summarize the poem here by including lines from different sections.

Two towers rose up from the east island of commerce and touched the sky.

Then it went down. Swallowed

by a fire dragon, by oil and fear.

Eaten whole.

And then it was over, this world we had grown to love

for its sweet grasses, for the many-colored horses

and fishes, for the shimmering possibilities

while dreaming.

But then there were the seeds to plant and the babies

who needed milk and comforting, and someone

picked up a guitar or ukulele from the rubble

and began to sing about the light flutter

the kick beneath the skin of the earth

we felt there, beneath us

a warm animal

a song being born between the legs of her,

a poem.

This is such a moving poem because it tells us that we alone have the power to create hope and make things better. 9/11 was a tragedy. But, we still had to wake up the next day and make the world a better place. In many ways, I believe it is our duty as humans to make the world better for the generations that follow us. To me, this idea is part of what this poem is saying. We woke up on 9/12 and wrote a poem, sang a song, raised our young, and persevered.

What I find even more touching about this poem is that it is written by a Native American. Historically, Native Americans have been branded as the “other,” which makes the status quo forget that they are Americans too. That is an odd thing to say because Native Americans are the only people living in this country whose ancestors were not immigrants. But the fact that Joy Harjo wrote this poem is a reminder that we are all in this together, regardless of race or gender.


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