Insomnia and the Seven Steps to Grace

Joy Harjo

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Insomnia and the Seven Steps to Grace 2017-08-29T18:30:43+00:00

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Insomnia and the Seven Steps to Grace

At dawn the panther of the heavens peers over the edge of the world.
She hears the stars gossip with the sun, sees the moon washing her lean
darkness with water electrified by prayers. All over the world there are those
who can’t sleep, those who never awaken.

My granddaughter sleeps on the breast of her mother with milk on
her mouth. A fly contemplates the sweetness of lactose.

Her father is wrapped in the blanket of nightmares. For safety he
approaches the red hills near Thoreau. They recognize him and sing for
him.

Her mother has business in the house of chaos. She is a prophet dis-
guised as a young mother who is looking for a job. She appears at the
door of my dreams and we put the house back together.

Panther watches as human and animal souls are lifted to the heavens by
rain clouds to partake of songs of beautiful thunder.

Others are led by deer and antelope in the wistful hours to the vil-
lages of their ancestors. There they eat cornmeal cooked with berries
that stain their lips with purple while the tree of life flickers in the sun.

It’s October, though the season before dawn is always winter. On the
city streets of this desert town lit by chemical yellow travelers
search for home.

Some have been drinking and intimate with strangers. Others are
escapees from the night shift, sip lukewarm coffee, shift gears to the
other side of darkness.

One woman stops at a red light, turns over a worn tape to the last
chorus of a whispery blues. She has decided to live another day.

The stars take notice, as do the half-asleep flowers, prickly pear and
chinaberry tree who drink exhaust into their roots, into the earth.

She guns the light to home where her children are asleep and may
never know she ever left. That their fate took a turn in the land of
nightmares toward the sun may be untouchable knowledge.

It is a sweet sound.

The panther relative yawns and puts her head between her paws.
She dreams of the house of panthers and the seven steps to grace.

Joy Harjo

Joy Harjo was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and is a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. She earned her BA from the University of New Mexico and MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Harjo draws on First Nation storytelling and histories, as well as feminist and social justice poetic traditions, and frequently incorporates indigenous myths, symbols, and values into her writing. Her poetry inhabits landscapes—the Southwest, Southeast, but also Alaska and Hawaii—and centers around the need for remembrance and transcendence.

She once commented, “I feel strongly that I have a responsibility to all the sources that I am: to all past and future ancestors, to my home country, to all places that I touch down on and that are myself, to all voices, all women, all of my tribe, all people, all earth, and beyond that to all beginnings and endings. In a strange kind of sense [writing] frees me to believe in myself, to be able to speak, to have voice, because I have to; it is my survival.” Her work is often autobiographical, informed by the natural world, and above all preoccupied with survival and the limitations of language.

A critically-acclaimed poet, Harjo’s many honors include the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writers Circle of the Americas, the Josephine Miles Poetry Award, the Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets, the William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America, and the American Indian Distinguished Achievement in the Arts Award. She has received fellowships from the Arizona Commission on the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rasmuson Foundation, and the Witter Bynner Foundation. In 2017 she was awarded the Ruth Lilly Prize in Poetry.

—Poem from The Woman Who Fell from the Sky, W. W. Norton & Company, 1994

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