I began a study of autobiography and memoir writing several years ago. Recently I discovered two poets who believe that recording one’s place in history is integral to their art. Carol Muske and Joy Harjo are renowned poets who explore the intricacies of self in regards to cultural and historical place. Muske specifically addresses the poetics of women poets, while Harjo addresses the poetics of minority, specifically Native American, writers. Both poets emphasize the autobiographical nature of poetry. Muske and Harjo regard the self as integral to their art. In this representation of self, Muske and Harjo discuss the importance of truth-telling testimony and history in their poetics. Muske says, “…testimony exists to confront a world beyond the self and the drama of the self, even the world of silence—or the unanswerable…” (Muske 16).
Muske asks, “The question of self, for a woman poet…is continually vexing…what is a woman’s self?” (Muske 3). Women have historically had their self created for them by the patriarchal society in which they live, which leaves contemporary women wondering how to define a woman’s self at all. Even if they, as women, can create a self, how accurate is it? Muske muses on what is a truth telling self since a woman’s perception of truth is colored always by what the patriarchal society is telling her is truth. Muske says in her poem “A Private Matter”, “…there are the words, dialogue of people you once became or not…”. It is in these words that a woman finds herself, a poem of all the selves in a self, but not without a cost. In “Epith”, Muske muses:
You forget yourself
with each glittering pin,
each chip off the old rock,
each sip of the long toast
to your famous independence,
negotiated at such cost—
and still refusing to fit.
“The inclination to bear witness seems aligned with the missing self” (Muske 4). Women create the ‘missing’ self by telling their stories, not the stories that have been told to them by a male dominated society, but those stories that define that missing self. In so doing, Muske reiterates the statement James Olney makes when he says, “... even as the autobiographer fixes limits in the past, a new experiment in living, a new experience in consciousness ... and a new projection or metaphor of a new self is under way” (Olney). Muske encourages contemporary women writers to produce a text that is “a model, a shape of poetic discourse based roughly on the act of testimony” (Muske 11). Harjo notes the many selves of a self who are fighting to be heard in her poem, “She Had Some Horses”:
She had horses who screamed out of fear of the silence, who carried knives to protect themselves from ghosts.
She had horses who waited for destruction.
She had horses who waited for resurrection.
She had some horses.
Harjo breaks the silence of the “missing” self by recording each self in this poem. She continues:
She had horses who tried to save her, who climbed in her bed at night and prayed as they raped her.
She had some horses.
She had some horses she loved.
She had some horses she hated.
The missing self is aligned with the self and made whole. . The poem concludes, “They were the same horses”. Harjo integrates through her poem all the selves into a whole.
Inherent in discovering the missing self is the act of testimony. Muske talks of Adrienne Rich and Sylvia Plath as women poets who have changed the face of female poetics with their own truth-telling testimonies. She quotes Rich as saying, “…testimony exists to confront a world beyond the self” (Muske 16). Telling the truth, for a woman, is a breaking of imposed silence. The world beyond the self is constantly reminding women of their ‘place’ and women poets need to move beyond the male gaze, they need to move outside and beyond the silence. Muske admonishes the woman poet to break the silence, to speak the forbidden. Muske notes that even this truth-telling testimony can have its problems. “…there is in the writerly imagination a deep ungovernable impulse to invent, fictionalize, to tell the truth, but (tell it) slant” (Muske 25). There are instances when perception of the truth can color the testimony, however, the larger truth is that each perception can carry the seeds of accuracy. As the self encounters changes, so do the truths of that self. A perception of one event can be perceived quite differently at a later time. In Notes from the Underground, Fydor Dostoyevsky says that “…a true autobiography is almost an impossibility, and that man is bound to lie about himself” (Dostoyevsky).
how we twisted into ourselves to live.
When the storm stopped, I sat still,
Here were the words of the Blind Poet--
crumpled like wash for the line, to be
dried, pressed flat. Upstairs, someone called
my name. What sense would it ever
make to them, the unread world, the getters and spenders,
if they could not hear what I heard,
not feel what I felt
nothing ruined poetry, a voice revived it,
“if they could not hear what I heard…” is a powerful testament to the interpretation of the self and to the poem itself. For Muske, the power of poetry lies in reviving the truth over and over again. The fact that the reader will ‘hear’ or not ‘hear’ the truth is irrelevant, it is the act of testifying that bears the power of “a new language”.
For Harjo, the act of truth-telling testimony is important for a different reason. “The poet is charged with the role of being the truth teller of the culture, of the times” (Harjo 141). Harjo’s poems tell the truth of the Indian Nations loss and their struggle to regain a sense of identity. For Harjo, truth-telling is a way of remembering and she believes that ‘remembering’ is alive and affects the future. “The sheer weight of memory coupled with imagery constructs poems” (Harjo 55), Harjo says. Her poetry certainly accomplishes this as she ‘remembers’ the lives of her ancestors and those who have fallen in their quest for identity. Harjo says, “…there is something about poetry that demands the truth…” (Harjo 141). Through the poetic discourse of testimony, Harjo presents the truth of her people.
Both poets feel that through this act of testimony, this breaking of silence, that a new language is emerging – a language of truth. Harjo says, “I truly feel there is a new language coming about…” (Harjo 63). By reconnecting with the past and having the courage to ‘speak’ the truth of that past, poets achieve a level of understanding of lost cultures – the culture of silenced women and the culture of silenced Native Americans.
Muske notes in her review of Talking to Strangers by Patricia Dobler that “In most assimilation stories, to succeed at being American is to fail to be one’s true (traditional) self” (Muske 119). This is certainly true of the Native Americans who were forcibly assimilated. Harjo offers her people a new voice to speak with, a voice that is allowed to speak of “one’s true self”.
Joy Harjo deeply feels the presence of those forgotten in her poetry. Harjo feels that it is very important for writers of all genders, races, and nationalities to have an understanding of their cultural and personal histories. “Sometimes I feel like specters of forgotten ones roam the literature of some of these American writers who don’t understand where they come from, who they are, where they are going…” (Harjo 70). Harjo discusses the importance of recording one’s roots and remembering, both of which are central to Native Americans. Harjo believes that memory is alive and affects the future. “I believe myth is an alive, interactive event that is present in the everyday” (Harjo 130).
The act of creating one’s own personal myth is rewarding and not only connects one with their heritage but serves to provide future generations with an accurate description of a life lived within time. “I feel that any writer serves many aspects of culture, including language, but you also serve history, you serve the mythic structure that you’re part of, the people, the earth, and so on—and none of these are separate” (Harjo 111). The recording of a life within history also creates us. It is through the telling of stories that we justify our emotions at any given time. “…the poem of witness must exist—because it is necessary to refresh moral life” (Muske 24). It is through the act of truth-telling testimony that we find our self, that we find our truths.
Harjo, Joy. The Spiral of Memory Interviews. Coltelli, Laura, Editor. University of Michigan Press. 1996
Muske, Carol. Women and Poetry: Truth, Autobiography, and the Shape of Self. University of Michigan Press. 1997
Olney, James. Metaphors of Self: The Meaning of Autobiography. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972
Segal, Robert A. Theorizing About Myth. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999.
K. Y. Hamilton, BA, MA - Copyright 2003, 2006
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