When the light of the world was subdued, our songs came through: a Norton anthology of native nations poetry, Joy Harjo, executive editor; LeAnne Howe, executive associate editor; Jennifer Elise Foerster, associate editor, W.W. Norton & Company, 2020

During an interview with Michel Martin of Northwest Public Broadcasting about When the light of the world, US poet laureate, Joy Harjo, spoke of how, “. . . we [the editors] decided to read the whole manuscript aloud [ . . . [W]e took it into our mouths and took it to our bodies.” (Interview, Martin, Northwest Public Broadcasting1)

Harjo argues that “A poem opens up time, it opens up memory, it opens up place, the meaning of place, the meaning of … our place in history,” (Interview, Martin, Northwest Public Broadcasting)

Therefore, it’s logical that, as Lew Whittington suggests in his review for the New York Journal of Books, “[t]he poets in this anthology are artists, historians, and keepers of the truths of their heritage, their people, and their lands. These poems are testament to their personal journeys and this collection is transcendent in its authority and eternal power.”

Spanning a period of over 400 years, from ancient oral traditions to current spoken word poets, Harjo and company not only provide an incredible variety of poetic voice; each geographic section begins with a history of the peoples of that area.

Harjo speaks of how “We talk about needing food, clothing and shelter, but … that’s bodily. But we also need to feed our spirits, and we need to feed our souls, and maybe we even feed history and grow it one way or the other.” (Interview, Martin, Northwest Public Broadcasting)

Exerpts from When the light of the world: (amazon kindle online/university of arizona’s poetry center)

A Blessing by N. Scott Momaday

Native Americans have always been deeply invested in language. The songs, spells, and prayers of the Native oral tradition are among the world’s richest examples of verbal art.


My voice restore for me.


Here is the wind bending the reeds westward,

The patchwork of morning on gray moraine:

Had I words I could tell of origin

Of God’s hands bloody with birth at first light,

Of my thin squeals in the heat of his breath,

Of the taste of being, the bitterness,

And scents of camas root and chokecherries.

And, God, if my mute heart expresses me,

I am the rolling thunder and the bursts

of torrents upon rock the whispering

Of old leaves, the silence of deep canyons.

I am the rattle of mortality.

I could tell of the splintered sun. I could

Articulate the night sky, had I words.

N Scott Momaday

“Several of the poets are writing both in their ancestral languages juxtaposed next to the English translations, an opportunity to experience the intended full artistry—the rhythms, sounds, and preservation of the tribal storytelling traditions. Their verse, from classical forms to modernist expression, is the antithesis of Euro-centric sensibilities pedagogy.” (Whitington, Review)

An example of this is the poetry of Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, (BAMEWAWAGEZHIKAQUAY) 1800-1842. She lived in a bilingual household, speaking Ojibwemowin and English. She began writing poetry in both languages at age 15. Her poems appeared in a magazine she edited with her husband. She is considered the first know native woman writer.

“The English version takes on the characteristic rhyme and meter of poetry published during her era, which is distinctly different from her writing of Ojibwemowin verse.” (When the light, Harjo, et al)

These two excerpts of her work, included in the anthology, are from Dale Parker’s The Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky: The Writings of Jane Johnston Schoolcraft

See the source image
tom thompson, “the jack pine”

To the Pine Tree

on first seeing it

on returning from Europe

Zhingwaak! Zhingwaak! Igii-ikid, — Pine! Pine! I said,

Weshki waabamag Zhingwaak – the one I see, the pine

Dagoshinaan neyab, endanakiiyaan. – I return back, to my homeland

(translation: Margaret Noodin)

The pine! The pine! I eager cried,

The pine, my father! See it stand,

As first that cherished tree I spied,

Returning to my native land.


Nii’aa nindinendam – Oh I am thinking

Mikawiyanin – I am found by you

Endanakiiyaan – My place of origin

Waasawagamig – A faraway place

Endanakiiyann – My place of origin

Nindaanisesn e – My little daughter

Ningwizisens e – My little son

Izhi-nagadawaad – Oh I leave them

Waasawekamig – In a faraway place

(translation: Margaret Noodin)

. . . My home and my friends are inviting me there;

When they beckon me onward, my heart is still here,

With my sweet lovely daughter, and bonny boy dear;

And oh! What’s the joy that a home can impart

Removed from the dear ones who cling to my heart.

The juxtaposition of native and European cultures, colonialism, colonizing and the Eurocentric gaze and vision can be found within the diverse and distinct voices in this anthology.

From Whittington’s review:

“Deborah A. Miranda, born in Los Angeles (from the Oblone/Costanoan-Esselen/Chumash people) writes the essay introducing the U.S. Southwest poets, ‘As we journey through this poetic space, languages ripple like mountain ranges: Dine, Western Apache, Yaqui, Spanish seeps in, legacy of early colonization left behind like a worn scar; English gets pulled and stretched into Indigenous syntax and rhythms, as older languages like Keres, Cahuilla, Esselen, Mojave, Kumeyaay, Yurok, Chumash, Yuman, and Koyongk’awi push up against English like submerged rivers, slowly and relentlessly indigenizing the footprint of another colonial invader.'”

Harjo writes in the introduction to When the light of the world:

We begin with the land. We emerge from the earth of our mother, and our bodies will be returned to earth. . . . We are literally the land . . . [o]ur spirits inhabit this place. . . . We mark our existence with our creations. It is poetry that holds the songs of becoming, of change, of dreaming, and it is poetry we turn to when we travel those places of transformation, like birth, coming of age, marriage, accomplishments and death. We sing our children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren; our human experience in time, into and through existence.”

The anthology then is a way to pass on the poetry that has emerged from rich traditions of the very diverse cultures of indigenous peoples from these indigenous lands, to share it.

Joy Harjo, introduction, When the light of the world was subdued

Magic City Books welcomed Joy Marjo, LeAnne Howe, and Jennifer Foerster who discuss When the light of the world was subdued, our songs came through, on August 26, 2020 as part of their virtual author program. They were joined in conversation by Christina Burke, Curator of Native American Art at Philbrook Museum.


1 Will Jarvis and Tinbete Emyas produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the web.

see/listen also to Joy Harjo’s interview with Brian Lehr, WNYC, National Public Radio

feature image: Time  magazine