Posted by: jeannineatkins | June 1, 2016

Crazy Brave by Joy Harjo

The porch today gives me a view of bees and the first hummingbird of the year between star flowers and iris. Our black dog is dozing. I took a break from research to read Crazy Brave, a poetic memoir by Joy Harjo, and am inspired by the way facts and myth, the tangible and spirit, weave together. She writes of the pulls of her ancestors in the Creek Nation in Oklahoma and family struggles that shaped her as a poet. “I was entrusted with carrying voices, songs, and stories to grow and release into the world, to be of assistance and inspiration. These were my responsibility. I am not special. It is this way for everyone. We enter into a family story, and then other stories, based on tribal clans, on tribal towns and nations, lands, countries, planetary systems and universes. Yet we each have our individual soul story to tend.”


Joy Harjo moves chronologically, but divides the sections into east, west, north, south, with each direction having its own tone and spirit. In East, we learn of her years before school, full of a confident and creative connection to the earth and sky. Every day she spoke to the sun. She smelled each crayon before she used it “and felt each color as a friendly field of possibility.” “For me drawing was dreaming on paper.”

We go on to read about how her father’s rage and a pull toward other women that led to her parents’ divorce. She admired him and was afraid of him and found those places came together inside her. Elsewhere she discovered that “the most humble kindnesses made the brightest lights.” When she was eight, her mother gave her an anthology of verse, and found “Poetry was singing on paper.” Some words from William Blake and Emily Dickinson gave shape to her experience. “And to open that book was to disappear into many dream worlds, like the ones I had left behind after I started school …”

A stepfather brought more violence into their home. As a teenager she was glad to escape to the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, a place that felt like home and she suggests saved her life. The school had been begun by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and run like a military camp, but in 1967 it had been transformed to foster native arts. We read about how she developed as a visual artist and performer, and met the man who’d become her first husband. She gave birth to her first child at eighteen, and another child, fathered by another man, not too long later. He was also unfaithful, and they separated.


Panic increasingly became a part of her life until she had a dream of flying in an attempt to escape a monster. Afterward she wrote a poem reproduced here from her first collection She Had some Horses (1983) that begins: I release you, my beautiful and terrible fear.” She writes of the dream and a poem as a crucial door. “I wanted the intricate and metaphorical language of my ancestors to pass through to my language, my life.” The last pages echo the hope in the book’s first section, East. “the direction of beginnings. When beloved Sun rises, it is an entrance, a door to fresh knowledge.” The memoir’s last line is: “I followed poetry.”



  1. Such an interesting and inspiring post. I love the poem you included and am so glad to know that the Bureau of Indian Affairs actually had a positive impact on some lives.

    • Thanks, Pat. Marie Howe read that poem at the Mass. Poetry Festival, which was what nudged me to find more of her work. The Bureau of Indian Affairs started that school, but I’m not sure that it was under their auspices when it so totally transformed in the late 1960s.

  2. Thank you, Jeannine. The irises are luscious and I love the final poem with her determination to get out of jail.

    • I miss the fragrance of lilacs, but the irises are so strange and elegant. And I love the rhododendron that began 20 some years ago as not much more than waist high and now is twice my height.

  3. Thank you for sharing this, Jeannine…it’s now on my summer reading list.

    • What a list that must be. I like to imagine you reading, looking over the covers to those pretty hills.

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