from We Were There When Jazz Was Invented

Joy Harjo

copyright ©2015 by Joy Harjo

I have lived 19,404 midnights, some of them in the quaver of
   fish dreams
And some without any memory at all, just the flash of the
 jump
From a night rainbow, to an island of fire and flowers – such
 a holy
Leap between forgetting and jazz. How long has it been
 since I called you back?
After Albuquerque with my baby in diapers on my hip; it
 was a difficult birth,
I was just past girlhood slammed into motherhood. What a
 bear.

Beyond the door of my tongue is a rail and I’m leaning over
 to watch bears
Catch salmon in their teeth. That realm isn’t anywhere near
 Los Angeles. If I dream
It all back then I reconstruct that song buried in the muscle
 of urgency. I’m bereft
In the lost nation of debtors. Wey yo hey, wey yo hey yah
 hey. Pepper jumped
And some of us went with him to the stomp. All night,
 beyond midnight, back
Up into the sky, holy.

Notes on the Poem

In the text just preceding the poem "We Were There When Jazz Was Invented" from the 2016 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted collection Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings, Joy Harjo declares "All the stories in the earth's mind are connected." In the opening two stanzas, Harjo weaves subtle connections illustrating this contention. The full text of that piece that perhaps introduces "We Were There When Jazz Was Invented", or perhaps is a thoughtful interlude between this and the previous poem in the collection, reads:
Each human is a complex, contradictory story. Some stories within us have been unfolding for years, others are trembling with fresh life as they peek above the horizon. Each is a zigzag of emotional design and ancestral architecture. All the stories in the earth's mind are connected.
Bearing in mind that "Some stories within us have been unfolding for years" it's interesting that the narrator of this poem measures out her life so far as "19,404 midnights" instead of 53 years. Even using such a granular unit of measurement, it's usually "days", not the intriguing "midnights" ... That echoes and connects to the reference in the second stanza ... "All night, beyond midnight, back Up into the sky, holy." Some of the narrator's living, however you mark it off, has been spent "in the quaver of fish dreams" ... connected hauntingly in the second stanza to "If I dream It all back then I reconstruct that song buried in the muscle of urgency." The "fish dreams" also reverberate again in the image of bears catching "salmon in their teeth". "What a bear" - what kind is she referring to in the first stanza? - connects to the fishing bears in the second stanza. The connections continue to flow - fascinatingly, musically, enigmatically - throughout the rest of the poem, which you can enjoy in either Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings or the 2016 Griffin Poetry Prize anthology.

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