August 15, 2016
What makes a poem jump? In Joy Harjo’s poem ‘We Were There When Jazz Was Invented’ (from Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings) the poem jumps along with her saxophonist friend Jim Pepper at the stomp. It also jumps like “a woman who’s given up everything for the forbidden leap / To your arms as you lean over the railing to hear the music hopping at the jump / Pull of the line.”
Her poem jumps at least three times in those two and a half lines. The woman jumps, the music jumps, and the poem itself makes a ‘leap’ from the end of one line to the beginning of the next then makes a ‘jump’ again at the end of the second line on to the next. Line length – from a constant minimum of ten words to one line of twenty-five – is important. Harjo’s line breaks are indicative. As a result, three short lines stand out: “Up into the sky, holy.” “Take me back.” And the last line of the poem “How holy.” She earns her repeated use of that last word by making the poem an “exact …science of the holy.”
Poetry, like life, is also, in her words, “a holy / leap between forgetting and jazz”, “a bear” (a real salmon-catching ‘bear’, ‘a bear of a horn player’, the colloquial ‘hard to bear’, ‘bearing little resemblance’ and ‘the bare/ Perfect neck of a woman’), and “a holy mess”.
In this 38-line poem Harjo gets married to the music, gives birth to the blues, incubates broken dreams, and reconstructs songs ‘buried in the muscle of urgency’.
Her close attention to her craft and her open embrace of ‘the tangle of human failures’ (as she says in another poem – ‘Talking with the Sun’) make this poem worth reading and rereading. Her leaps, which have the joy of improvised jazz, come with the resonance of a prophetic voice.