The Direction of Beginning

These poems undo the cultural invisibility of America’s Native Nations. They also, with unique abundance, secure the value of poetry itself.

“We have always been here,” writes US Poet Laureate Joy Harjo in her introduction to the new Norton anthology of Native Nations poetry, “beneath the surface of American poetic consciousness, and have questioned how there can be an American poetry without our voices.” Harjo’s When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through is a generous, well-crafted book. Teeming with contemporary voices, grounded in how tradition lives, rather than what it was or how it was perceived, the anthology undoes the cultural invisibility of America’s Native Nations on every page.

But it does more than that. When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through offers a new, vivid version of the argument for poetry’s value to all of us, even as it celebrates a continuing Native tradition made possible by Native poets, many represented here by only a poem or two each. More and less memorable poems can be found in this anthology’s pages, but no book I’ve read in recent memory has secured poetry’s value with such abundance.

Poetry anthologies aren’t famous for being inclusive; editors make their mark by being selective, and new selections make new debates. For example, Rita Dove’s Penguin Anthology of 20th-Century American Poetry (2011) collected the usual suspects (Eliot, Stevens) along with less lauded practitioners, many of whom were poets of color. Helen Vendler’s critique of the Dove anthology in the New York Review of Books was titled with a question Vendler appeared to answer in the negative: “Are these the poems to remember?” These days, Dove’s prophetic selections, like Gwendolyn Brooks and June Jordan, are the poets of the past whom many present-day practitioners prefer. But doesn’t Vendler’s question still make sense for the anthology, a tastemaker’s project? We should remember whom we read.

But an anthology should do more than argue that certain poets will endure—it should argue for poetry’s value in general. A great anthology has the power to present a version of poetry that stands outside any one poem. When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through might go beyond what Vendler would select, but the meaningful whole of the book reminds us what poetry is for. The luxurious title of the collection, its vast and vivid table of contents (161 poets, from 90 tribal affiliations), and its generous accompanying prose all telegraph not simply inclusion but collaboration. So too does the collection’s editorial vision: Harjo shares credit with editors Jennifer Elise Foerster and LeAnne Howe on the cover, and several other contributing editors offer prose introductions to geographical regions.

In fact, When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through asks the reader to move counterclockwise around North America, rather than through a linear history—the sections of the book are geographical. Harjo writes of this arrangement, “This makes a circle, and we once again face East, which is the direction of beginning. And it will begin again, with the next generation of poets, the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of those poets speaking here within these pages.” I experienced this circle, as a reader, more than any parochial sense of regionalism. And remembering the collection, I found myself mapping out specific acts of heart and mind that recur across centuries and geographical regions, focusing on that, rather than naming names.

Moreover, Harjo’s introduction to the entire collection places Native poetry in the context of “the immensity of the American holocaust.” Yet the facts of history set a scene for poetry, rather than vice versa. “This is to say we continued,” begins (Monacan) poet Karenne Wood in “Chief Totopotamoi, 1654,” using the present tense to turn a past participle into the future.

The poems of Native poets make us grapple with history’s legacy in the present moment, asking us to feel it. Their strong images refresh the work of the senses as they remind the reader of history’s traumatic cost.

In (Diné) Orlando White’s “To See Letters,” the poet’s abusive stepfather teaches him to write letters, but those letters have a life of their own: “When David hit me in the head, I saw stars in the shape of the Alphabet. Years later, my fascination for letters resulted in poems.”

In (Anishinaabe–Turtle Mountain Band) Mark Turcotte’s “Burn,” a white girl’s come-on turns to fire, but not the way she planned it:

She slides low

against my hip to hiss, go go Geronimo.

I stop.

All silence he sits beside the fire

at the center of the floor, hands stirring

through the ashes, mouth moving in the shape

of my name. I turn to reach toward him,

take one step, feel my skin begin

to flame away.

Italics are not, as a matter of course, imposed on indigenous languages within the body of individual poems in this anthology. This editorial decision gives those languages more formal and sonic power on the page, even as those languages are drawn into close relation with English. An early song, “The Water Birds Will Alight,” printed in Ojibwe, appears next in a haiku-like translation, then in contemporary spelling, and, finally, as a single headlong sentence translated literally by Margaret Noodin: “It is certain they land on me the thunderbirds across my existence.”

This might be my single favorite page in the book. The versions of the poem considered together feel like a family telling stories about one another.

(Ojibwe) Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, writing in the first half of the 19th century, composed poems side by side in English and Ojibwe. The most striking of these describes how Michigan-based Schoolcraft felt leaving her children at a boarding school in the East. The Ojibwe poem’s unfinished longing comes through in a brutal literal translation by Noodin:

Nindaanisens e—My little daughter

Ningwizisens e—My little son

Izhi-nagadawaad—Oh I leave them

Waasawekamig—In a faraway place.

This is not—by a long stretch—the only poem in the anthology that describes a separation between parents and children. There are many more here, some of which detail the diaspora of Native children sent to assimilationist state schools determined to rid them of their culture.

Schoolcraft’s English version first projects fortitude. But it quickly discovers an eloquent anger in its Victorian couplets, which refuse to resolve even as they diligently rhyme: “But ah! My poor heart, what are schools to thy view, / While severed from children thou lovest so true!”

Translation in these early poems does not simply enact an unrecoverable loss of meaning. It enables meaning to be repeated, re-formed, and diversely remembered. In current parlance, the poem gets to have all of its feelings. And so, the old becomes new.

In a sense, in this anthology, “old” and “new” don’t matter that much. As noted above, it is not time that organizes these voices but geography. Harjo’s introduction primes us to give the land itself a kind of poetic authority. And a Native poet’s sense of American geography isn’t conditioned by state lines, or held together by national borders.

One of the most notable kinds of poem collected here, a meditation in the landscape, describes eyesight giving way to insight. This poem works to reestablish conditions of truth telling in relation to the land by using a kind of sense memory. (Mvskoke) Jennifer Elise Foerster’s “Leaving Tulsa” attends to the moment, but in the poem, the wounds of the past stay present:

Along the highway’s gravel pits

sunflowers stand in dense rows.

Telephone poles crook into the layered sky.

A crow’s beak broken by a windmill’s blade.

It is then I understand my grandmother:

When they see open land

they only know to take it.

The poet’s grandmother’s recollected words are as painful as they are simply stated. And they show how Foerster has prepared us, by describing the landscape, to understand more deeply what really happened here. And so, a poem like this one can invite us to remember what we do not personally remember.

Many poems in the anthology redirect our analysis of historical and social conditions into experiences only made available to us by individual people in the midst of human-scale psychological tasks. In so doing, they render “the immensity of the American holocaust” much easier to get close to. They use the poem’s momentary space to push the boundaries of our understanding, to ask us what kind of understanding we might be capable of.

The luxurious title of the collection, its vast and vivid table of contents, and its generous accompanying prose all telegraph not simply inclusion but collaboration.

Poets of the Pacific Northwest, Alaska, and the Pacific Islands, many collected here for the first time, put the fragility of human aliveness at the middle of their inquiry. But their work prioritizes rhythm over literal representations of human feeling, establishing a sonic current between self and landscape.

Writes (Iñupiaq) dg nanouk okpik in “The Fate of Inupiaq-like Kingfisher”:

On Clovis point a circular icy reef,


my existence becoming a flicker


like the orange scales of a kingfisher.


We pirouette, diving, diving,



These meditations in the landscape bring uncomfortable truths to the surface, not as literal facts, but as intuitive experiences.

It’s this experience of coming closer to what’s true that matters in (Iñupiaq) Joan Kane’s “Nunaqtigiit.” This title is a word that means “people related through common possession of territory.” Kane writes:

The sky of my mind against which self-

betrayal in its sudden burn

fails to describe the world.

We, who denied the landscape

and saw the light of it.


Leaning against the stone wall ragged

I began to accept my past and, as I accepted it,


I felt, and I didn’t understand:

I am bound to everyone.

Writes (Suquamish) Cedar Sigo in his introduction to this section, itself a prose poem, “The poet is being reborn and seemingly splintered back into the natural world.” His words ring true for poems from many regions.


Native Stories from Native Perspectives

By Cutcha Risling Baldy

Other kinds of poems in When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through do this same kind of truth telling. I’ll just mention a few.

Several writers here, like (Eastern Shawnee) Laura Da’ and (Cherokee) Santee Frazier, write tender poems about children and caretaking. They remind us that Native culture has a future in actual lives. Yet they also remind us that children are a great subject for poetry (I’m not always sure the dominant verse culture in America thinks so).

Love poems (especially those by Native women) describe how distances between people inspire durable self-understanding, even as they leave wounds. Consider (Duckwater Shoshone, Southern Ute, Pyramid Lake Paiute) Tanaya Winder:

Each night,

I open mouth sky-wide to swallow stars

and sing


to the moon a story about the light of two people

who continue to cross and uncross in their falling

no matter how unstable

in orbit.

Consider (Spokane) Gloria Bird:

Your absence has left me only fragments of a summer’s run

on a night like this, fanning in August heat, a seaweeded song.

Sweat glistens on my skin, wears me translucent, sharp as scales.

Consider (Koyongk’awi Maidu) Janice Gould:

That was what you wanted from me—

to be your other home,

your other country.

List poems, meanwhile, capture the mind in the midst of trying to make sense. They’re everywhere here, and full of variety. There is Harjo’s own lushly musical “She Had Some Horses”; (Seminole) Moses Jumper Jr.’s “Simplicity,” a catalog that’s also a rhyme-charged sonnet; and (Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs) Elizabeth Woody’s “Translation of Blood Quantum,” which plays with the legal idea of who gets to be counted for tribal membership:

31/32 Warm Springs—Wasco—Yakama—Pit River—Navajo

1/32 Other       Tribal Roll number 1553





Catalog poems reorganize what matters to us—re-creation myths. Their lists give order to chaos, using the slight restraint of repetition to retool memory toward humanizing ends, discovering new ways to articulate the manner in which we organize our own understandings.

There’s another striking kind of poem here, the human-scale poem of the oral tradition. (Mescalero and Lipan Apache) Julian Talamantez Brolaski’s “Stonewall to Standing Rock” was commissioned to celebrate the Stonewall National Monument in New York City. But the poem, written in the shadow of more recent struggles for environmental justice, imagines a range of interlocutors, celebrating the ways human voices pass down knowledge without institutional support or permission:

lapidum a stone or rock ariana once described cd wright’s style

as lapidary

I loved this as a description of writing like the hieroglyphics are

literally lapidary and I told my grandmother about it as we

were driving from mescalero to albuquerque she knew all about the

plants and the names for all the rockforms mesas or buttes or

ziggurats and I said how do

you know all these she said by long observation and

I used to study geology in college I wanted to major in it

but they wouldn’t allow women

to major in the hard scienes then so she

began to study religion

tho she already had medicine.

This dreamy interaction, with its searching, intimate style also feels like a text message occasioned by a Google search. Brolaski and their grandmother are knowledge partners, collaborators in speaking and knowing, ranging across poetry, geology, religion, medicine.

I remember so many voices of makers from this book—makers of stories, like the old man in (Mohawk) Peter Blue Cloud’s “The Old Man’s Lazy,” and makers of crafts, in (Kanaka Maoli) Imaikalani Kalahele’s “Make Rope” and (Awkwesasne Mohawk) Salli M. Kawennotakie Benedict’s “Sweetgrass Is Around Her.” There’s even a poem that’s a recipe for barbequed salmon by a Tlingit poet. These intergenerational poems often feature a listener in a state of loss, confusion, or transition.

Poetic lines remind us how fragile knowledge can feel, how hard it can be to hold on to for longer than a thought or a breath. This kinetic connection—between the survival of the human person and the linguistic possession of a truth difficult to hold on to in the world—seems to me the soul of what poetry is. And so, we value poems because they realign us with what matters, not because they give us a stable version of any one truth.

Sigo writes of the Native poets of the Northwest, “I have come to think of Native Poets as warrior/prophets that can move (almost routinely) beyond our own bodies. We are hovering, scribing entities, free to drop back into our trenches as needed.”

Poetry also reminds us why the truth likes to hide, and how it manages to do so. Editor (Choctaw) LeAnne Howe’s “Outroduction” begins with a family story that’s also a kind of ars poetica:

My grandmother lost her husband and their farm in the 1918 pandemic. She and her two-year-old daughter, Izola, moved from Stonewall to Ada, where she worked as a housekeeper for fifty cents a week, plus board. Her poetic voice comes from all those losses. She usually wrote poems about dying flowers, faded rose gardens in late summer, and wilting bluebells. She never wrote about love, or her children, or all the death and dying she’d witnessed as a young woman.

Howe’s grandmother’s poems truthfully document “the American holocaust,” even by not talking about it; her talking arrives in-between the losses even as the losses pile up. Though Howe’s grandmother “was also a storyteller” who preserved the oral tradition in the stories she told, she chose, as well, to write these poems.

This form of being truthful has its own work to do. If we can’t tell the truth literally, or don’t want to, if we are tired of that directness, or if we ourselves cannot bear it, we can prepare ourselves for truth telling. We can reshape the language toward a relationship with the truth, even with what we can’t say.

When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through has a monumental vision: to give Native writing an unshakable place in our American literary world and verse culture. The anthology belongs on syllabi, and it should be required reading.

The book does something else worth doing—it refreshes our understanding of poetry’s place in the world, its value to us and our future. Poetry convinces by moments, not monuments.


This article was commissioned by Rowan Ricardo Phillipsicon

Featured-image photograph by Cristofer Jeschke / Unsplash