Thursday, February 11, 2016

Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings by Joy Harjo

Joy Harjo
Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings

W. W. Norton & Company

ISBN: 978-0-393-24850-0

Review of Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings

by Joel W. Nelson

In an election year, such as this one, we are constantly bombarded with claims of what America is and what the country represents. We are reminded of how hard-working and resilient Americans are. Our country, we are told, is great because of something innate in our make-up, that we are special or, as some may believe, divinely appointed to be a beacon of light to the world. Often blinded by the myth of America, we justify or completely ignore the blemishes of our past. The ideal is all that matters. Entire populations are swept under the rug in order to keep the myth intact.

Joy Harjo’s latest release, Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings reminds us America is full of contradictions, that it--to borrow from Whitman--contains "multitudes." Harjo is a member of the Mvskoke Nation, a people once prominent in the Southeastern U.S. before being displaced, often forcefully, to Oklahoma reservations in the 1830s. Like other Native peoples, the Mvskoke were not afforded the rights America promised to some:
Where we lived, the settlers build their houses. Where
we drew fresh water, the oil companies sucked oil.
Where deer ran in countless numbers, we have a new
Mall. Where the healing plants thrived; the river is
Burning. Now, a fence cuts the road home. Next the sky
Will be tethered, and we will pay for air.
Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings alternates between standard titled poems and untitled poems and prose poems. The interplay between the titled and untitled pieces creates a dialog, or even a call and response, between more commonplace and human subjects and a more universal and timeless voice.

History weighs heavy on this volume, as does mythology. “Rabbit Is Up to Its Tricks” depicts the account of Rabbit creating a clay man to ward off loneliness. Being a trickster, Rabbit taught man how to steal chickens, corn, and even a man’s wife. Stealing leads to more stealing as man becomes more and more greedy:
Once he took that chicken he wanted all the chickens.
Once he took that corn he wanted all the corn.
And once he took that wife, he wanted all the wives.
He was insatiable.
Then he had a taste of gold and he wanted all the gold.
Then it was land and anything else he saw.
His wanting only made him want more.
Of course, this story is not just a myth but an allusion to the European occupation of America. But Harjo does not merely point the finger at one group of people. Even her own people and the Native American tribes of America are tainted:
We lost track of the purpose and reason for life.
We began to forget our songs. We forgot our stories.
We could no longer see or hear our ancestors,
Or talk with each other around the kitchen table.
Perhaps at its core, Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings is an attempt to reclaim the songs and stories of a people and to create new songs in the modern landscape.

References to jazz are prominent in this book. While the form initially arose from African and slave folk songs, Harjo appeals to it as a language that binds people together. Jazz has it's roots in suffering, but it is also transcendent. It represents the America Harjo feels comfortable being a part of.

Although music plays an important thematic role, Harjo’s use of the song as a poetic form is not always successful. Lines like “I didn’t want to make the same mistakes. / I had to find my midnight star” (“Falling, Falling”) and “If you’ve found love in the circle then hold onto it, not too tight / If you have to let love go then let it go” ("Goin’ Home") seem trite and forgettable when surrounded by more original and meaningful poems.

One of the more compelling poems in the collection is one that shares the book's title. In “Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings,” Harjo evokes multiple voices as she takes the poem through a five step process of conflict resolution. Whereas once it was Rabbit, now the U.S. government is playing the trickster, breaking promises and laying claim to a land that was never rightfully theirs. Reversing history is impossible. Finding a way forward is the only option:
We gave thanks for the story, for all parts of the story
because it was by the light of those challenges we knew
We asked for forgiveness.
We laid down our burdens next to each other.
It is astonishing Harjo finds any room for optimism, especially considering this nation's centuries-long history of subjection and abuse of Native Americans. Harjo does not shy away from the hard truth, but she conveys it in a way that makes resolution seem possible, perhaps even probable. Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings is political, but not obnoxious. It is a book of protest. It is both a reminder and a rallying cry. As America continues to confront--or many times, deny--its racial and institutional biases, we need voices like Harjo’s calling out, “Hello! We’re still here. We matter.”


Joel W. Nelson spent most of his childhood in the sub-Saharan countries of Burkina Faso and Cote d'Ivoire. He has an MFA in Poetry from Spalding University and lives with his wife and son in Louisville, KY. His poems may be found in the Bellevue Literary Review, the Found Poetry Review, The Louisville Review, and A Narrow Fellow.