Poetry

Poetry Sunday: “Perhaps the World Ends Here,” by Joy Harjo

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

In a few days many of us will be in the kitchen paring, chopping, slicing, buttering, carving: all the tasks needed to prepare a Thanksgiving meal. Some of us will eat in the dining room or even outside, but others will sit down to dinner at the kitchen table, a homely and archetypal piece of furniture celebrated by poet Joy Harjo in this week’s poem, “Perhaps the World Ends Here.”

I looked hard to find a poem for Thanksgiving that could honor a long-cherished American tradition without glossing over the darker elements of the colonial relationship between our pilgrim ancestors and Native Americans, the indigenous people we first befriended, then nearly eradicated. As with Columbus Day, people are sharply divided over the celebration of this holiday; I have heard it called “Thanks-taking” and understand why. But, I loved Thanksgiving as a child and still do, treasuring its excuse to gather family and to remember to experience and express gratitude for all that is good in our lives. How refreshing to have a holiday that does not, except for the food, involve presents and fevered shopping!

I think this poem opening with a shared meal around a kitchen table and written by a member of the Creek Nation strikes a good balance. The first thing to notice about “Perhaps the World Ends Here” is its form: a prose poem in long lines driven by the breath and the momentum of the sentence rather than broken to conform to a metrical or other imposed pattern.  The poem appears to be organized into eleven stanzas, each consisting of one, two, or three declarative sentences. Because of the way lines are indented, I wonder if they have been cut off by the limits of the page and were intended to be even longer than they appear here. When I see poems like this, I am reminded of Whitman, whose own long lines are said to have been inspired by the Bible, especially Ecclesiastes. As with those two sources, Harjo relies on anaphora and repetition to bind the lines into a poem.

We see several kinds of repetition here. Some are in the form of alliteration, as in “make men” (stanza 4), “dreams drink” (6), “prepared our parents” (9), and the many “s” sounds found in stanza 10. Perhaps the most important repetition is of the phrase “at a kitchen table” that appears, with variations reminiscent of a jazz improv motif, no fewer than nine times; every stanza but the second and third includes a version of it. Sometimes the reference to the table is anaphoric, that is, it comes at the beginnings of lines (stanzas 5, 7, and 10); sometimes it is in the middle (2, 8, 9, 11); and once it is found at the end of the line (6). I encourage you to listen to the recording (linked above) of Harjo reading her poem, because it makes clear the role played by “at the table” in knitting and grounding the poem.

Other repeated phrases take the form of parallel construction, a kind of syntactical repetition. Examples are “we make men . . .we make women” (stanza 4), “a house in the rain, an umbrella in the sun” (7), “a place to hide . . .a place to celebrate” (8), and finally, the beautiful “with joy, with sorrow” (10). In the same way, each sentence in stanza 10 adopts the same we + a verb construction: “we sing,” “we pray,” and “we give.” The most dramatic example of variation-on-a theme repetition, though, comes in the phrases that open and close the poem: “The world begins at a kitchen table” and “Perhaps the world will end at a kitchen table.” The title of the poem itself offers another variation on the theme: “Perhaps the World Ends Here.”

What is the effect of these quiet but insistent repetitions embedded in the expansive lines? One interviewer puts it this way:

Harjo’s distinct and brilliant style of prosaic poetry is what inspired me to talk to her. Her poetry is rhythmic in a way that I have never known poetry to be. She consistently employs a subtle level of repetition in her poetry, which, depending, can make her poems sound political, forlorn, or exhilarating.” [From “The Rumpus interview with Joy Harjo,” by Julie Morse]

A comment by Harjo from the same interview is instructive: “I believe that we always return to the root, in some manner or other—there’s a kind of spiral looping back to keep integrity of form.” In another interview, she expresses it a little differently: “One kind of earth time is cyclical by way of direction, though all time is cyclical.” [As/Us journal interview by Tanaya Winder found here.]

These comments remind me that one paradoxical effect of long lines in poetry is to create a narrative that feels less forward-driven, less sequential and linear. As such, the form of today’s poem seems to embody the poet’s belief about the nature of time and human existence, the notion, perhaps influenced by Muscogee Creek philosophy, that time is simultaneous and circular, an ouroboros or snake eating its own tail or never-ending waves of experience like the concentric circles made by a pebble dropped into a pond. Another way structure enacts this concept is the poem’s ring construction. It begins where it ends, at the kitchen table, and more specifically, with eating at that table. Not only does it open and close in the same place with the same action, but the poem’s central image also explicitly incorporates the idea of the arc and circle of life: “We have given birth on this table, and have prepared our parents for burial there.” Finally, even the language at the beginning and ending of the poem specifically mentions how the “world begins” and “will end” there. This cycle-within-cycle-within-cycle structure feels infinitely regressive and also generative, reflecting larger cycles of birth and death and the generations specifically mentioned in the poem.

With one significant exception at the end of the poem—“eating of the last / sweet bite”—there is almost no rhyming at the ends of lines. Internal rhyme occasionally occurs, as in the chiming of “rain” with “sun” in line 7, but is not a pronounced feature. Diction is vernacular—everyday speech expressed in straightforward syntax. On its surface, the poem could be a story told by a friend, a recitation of events that actually took place.

One interview I read interrogated Harjo about how she structures her collections, and her response included the idea of thinking in generational rather than strictly sequential, chronological terms. In the same way, this poem seems to seek intergenerational bonds, and we see babies, children, adult men and women, parents, and even ghosts seated at the kitchen table. As is said of many of Harjo’s poems, this one endows everyday experience with a transformative meaning, here, a creation myth: first we see vegetal life (the gifts of earth), then animals (chickens and dogs), then human beings, all entering in this order: “babies,” then “children,” then “men” and “women,” and finally, “ghosts.”

Above all, what we see is community and family, seated around a table set with “gifts of the earth” and engaging in everyday communion and fellowship: shooing away animals, teaching children, gossiping, calling up memories, fighting, taking solace and shelter. May all our kitchen tables be like this, and in these troubled times, may we all have a thoughtful and happy Thanksgiving Day.

 

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  • Dave Holt November 19, 2017 at 4:04 pm

    This poem has sustained me, fed my soul, through many hard passages.

    Reply
  • bev November 19, 2017 at 7:23 am

    A beautiful poem that carries a massive slice of reality. Around the table there can be joy, there can be sowing the seeds of the future, healing the past… many things that nourish and thatt’s even before we start eating. Thank you for this 🙂

    Reply