Charged Light 

The Map to the Next World, by Joy Harjo. W.W. Norton, $22.

STARVED FOR A book that will jar your soul? A book electric and poignant as a first kiss? Pick up Joy Harjo's new collection of poems, The Map to the Next World. Not only could it change the course of postmodern confessional poetry, it could change your life.

Acutely personal, explosively sensual, these poems are charged by a fierce vision as expansive as Whitman's or Emerson's. No stranger to risks, Harjo has written, "We must turn slaughter into food." This book feeds us from the dishes of myth and time as it explores the psyche, the spirit, politics and everyday experience. Juxtaposing poems with short prose, The Map to the Next World is an intense score.

Poet Theodore Roethke wrote, "The self persists like a dying star." Sifting through the ashes of separation, Harjo seeks integration, tolerance and love:

I walked through the house we had built together from scraps of earth and

tenderness, through the aftermath of loving too hard ...

Each particle of event stutters with electricity, binds itself to coherence. Like

the trees turning their heads

to watch the human participants in these tough winds turning to go, as they

continue to send roots for water making a language for beauty.

For me, the most powerful poem is "Returning from the Enemy." This odyssey wrestles with issues of racial abuses mirrored by the physical and psychological abuse Harjo suffered at the hands of her philandering, self-destructive and charismatic father.

My father did not beat us because he hated us. He beat us because he hated

himself ... As an Indian man who still lived in lands that had been assigned to his

tribe, then reassigned to those who stole them he was belittled ... I thought his

name was Chief because that's what strangers and some of his friends called him.

I remember sitting on his lap as my mother drove him from jail. He was still a little

drunk and anger ricocheted back and forth between my mother and him.

In "The Path to the Milky Way Leads through Los Angeles," she squares off against the seductive enemy "overculture" (our market-economy mentality):

We can buy a map here of the stars' homes, dial a tone for dangerous love,

choose from several brands of water, or a hiss of oxygen for gentle rejuvenation.

Everyone knows you can't buy love but you can still sell your soul for less than a

song, to a stranger who will sell it to someone else for a profit until you're

owned by a company of strangers ...

I'd rather understand how to sing from a crow who was never good at singing or

much of anything but finding gold in the trash of humans.

Firmly centered in a deep reverence for the natural world, Harjo finds solace in her own Creek/Cherokee heritage and mythology. "A Map to the Next World" addresses her granddaughter.

You will travel through the membrane of death, smell cooking from the

encampment where our relatives make a feast of fresh deer meat and corn soup,

in the Milky Way.

They have never left us; we abandoned them for science ...

A white deer will come to greet you when the last human climbs from the


Whether exploring family or the funeral of Cambodia's monstrous Pol Pot, poverty in the streets of Cairo or love, Harjo's masterly poems retain humility and awe at the nimbic pattern of existence.

Buy this book. Be ready to be shaken.

More by Pamela Uschuk


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