Tag Archives: literature

Crazy Brave by Joy Harjo

I read this book almost entirely while lying in bed, while falling in love. Joy Harjo’s a fixture in poetry and literature. Before now, I’d only ever read a poem or two here and there, but I’d never really gotten into her work…that is until I read her memoir, Crazy Brave. It was one of those books that I started reading in a bookstore, and then read a chapter or two from the library, and then finally bought my own damn copy and finished it at home…while lying in bed. I love this book.

image from amazon.com

Harjo is mostly known for her poetry. I don’t enjoy reading a lot of poetry, and so that’s why I haven’t been very familiar with her work. After reading and loving Crazy Brave, I read She Had Some Horses, which is also beautiful, and I love it, and it’s poetry. It’s a collection I see myself returning to.

As for Crazy Brave, what I love about the book is how she captures a creative, feminine life experience that I (mostly) really relate to. It’s soulful. It captures pain, and specifically women’s pain, in a profound way. It shows us another way. It does so in poetic prose–she’s a poet after all.

This is from the back cover of She Had Some Horses, but I think it pertains to all Harjo’s work: “If you want to remember what you never listened to & what you didn’t know you knew, or wanted to know, open this sound & forget to fear. A woman is appearing in the horizon light.” ~ Meridel Le Sueur.

And then I saw her picture and remembered that maybe I met her. Or maybe I heard her read once. She is familiar to me. Her name. Her face. Her work. And yet I only really found her work now, when of course I needed it most.

I was captured throughout the entire book, but  by the end, I was a little lost: WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?! I wondered about the title: crazy brave. Now I think I can say that the larger message was, for me personally, a message to women to be brave, an admonition that it will be crazy, and you will be crazy, and you will be brave, and that is life.

Part of this is about surrendering to the flow of the river, instead of fighting against it, using the strength of the current to pursue yourself, but also acknowledge or accept that the river will be violent, and it will wound you deeply, and it might kill you, and it might lull you to sleep, and part of this we can control, and part of it we cannot control, and this is the wisdom we gain from being in the river. I am reminded of the time I went underwater in the Colorado River, the immense crushing noise turned warm and quiet and then I emerged. Part of this book is about acknowledging fear, working around it, using it, but not being controlled by it. I left the book thinking I should do what I must do before the river does it for me, even as the river does it for me.

Some of the words I loved:

“Yet everyone wanted the same thing: land, peace, a place to make a home, cook, fall in love, make children and music” (19).

“Because music is a language that live sin the spiritual realms, we can hear it, we can notate it and create it, but we cannot hold it in our hands” (19).

“In the end, we must each tend to our own gulfs of sadness, though others can assist us with kindness, food, good words, and music. Our human tendency is to fill these holes with distractions like shopping and fast romance, or with drugs and alcohol” (23).

“Water people can easily get lost. And they may not comprehend that they are lost. They succumb easily to the spirits of alcohol and drugs. They will always search for a vision that cannot be found on earth” (25).

“They continue to live as if the story never happened” (43).

“Our  heartbeats are numbered. We have only so many allotted. When we use them up, we die (52).

“All of these plant medicines, like whiskey, tequila, and tobacco, are potent healers. There’s a reason they’re called spirits. You must use them very carefully. They open you up. If you abuse them, they can tear holes in your protective, spiritual covering” (77).

“I noticed a marked change in the quality of light when we made it to New Mexico” (83).

“Each scar was evidence that we wanted to live” (90).

“I told Lupita I wanted to paint, to be an artist. She told me that what she wanted was someone to love her” (102).

“I was given the option of being sterilized” (121).

“I believe that if you do not answer the noise and urgency of your gifts, they will turn on you” (135).

“We were in that amazed state of awe at finding each other in all the millions and billions of people in the world” (143).

“Her intent made a fine unwavering line that connected my heart to hers” (146).

The Orgy by Muriel Rukeyser

It took me months to finish The Orgy: An Irish Journey of Passion and Transformation by Muriel Rukeyser, and I have to start by saying this: for a book with “orgy” in the title, there is actually very little sex. If you read the book, you’ll think that was funny because this is not a sexy book. This is capital “L” Literature. You know–a thinking piece.

image from books.google.com

A well-respected friend recommended it to me, and I tried and tried, and it never really took off, and that’s because it’s not a book that “takes off.” It’s poetry. I mean, it’s prose, but it’s basically poetry in terms of accessibility, sound, rhythm, and so forth. (Rukeyser explains here.)

For several months, both The Orgy and Thich Nhất Hanh’s How to Love* lie prone in my living room . I’d forget about them, and visitors would come over and raise their eyebrows at the display. Now I find it amusing, but at the time, I remember feeling embarrassed. The titles convey two really different messages. And, in hindsight, not entirely unrelated to my summer. (There were no orgies! Sheesh!)

As for Rukeyser, the book was meaningful in the sentences, but not so much the big picture. The book is about the author’s (semi-autobiographical) journey to the Puck Fair for one of the last pagan festivals of it’s kind. That kind of premise holds so much intrigue for me. I was hopeful for deep description and weird plot points and characters. But nope. It’s not really that kind of book.

Instead, we are gifted with subtle sentence level gems and an overall sense, but nothing concrete, as is the way of good capital “L” Literature, and that’s fine. It’s fine. IT’S JUST THAT I THINK WE WERE ALL EXPECTING A BIT MORE IN THE ORGY DEPARTMENT.

Here are a few lines for continued consideration:

On walking through shit: “I thought, joy and release is it! and put my foot down slowly, gained an inch, and slipped” (69).

“[T]he book compared peace with monogamy” (91).

On the infant cry: “It is the most profound and powerful force in nature” (102).

“Though they may kill, killing is not their aim…” (103).

“verbal arabesques” (114).

“Nicholas began to relax; it was as if he remembered his whole life, and unwound” (115).

I’ll just end by saying that it really gives there toward the end. Stay with it, if only for the poem entitled “The Balls of the Goat.”

*Thich Nhất Hanh’s critically acclaimed, and I really liked his Be Free Where You Are, and wrote about it here, but he’s phoning it in on How to Love, so there will be no blog post on that one.

The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin

Let me start this way: it’s been a very, very long time since I read a book like Amanda Coplin’s The Orchardist. This kind of plot-driven book felt like a throwback to my junior high and high school days when I picked through the slim reading selection in my small town library in rural Eastern Oregon. The Orchardist is such a great title too! However, as a reader, I was hoping to learn more about the workings of an orchard.

book cover from NPR

In addition to the landscape, The Orchardist is driven by characters too, though. Like in the reading forays of my youth, Coplin’s characters are often completely transparent, irrational, and occasionally infuriating. I wonder if Coplin was ever irritated with her Talmadge character like the reader would be at times.

The following could be considered somewhat of a ******spoiler******:

Much of Talmadge’s behavior can be forgiven because of his traumatic upbringing and the loss of his sister. What cannot be forgiven of Talmadge, nor of Coplin, is the violence enacted upon Jane as she is giving birth. Jane is a woman who has endured incredible abuse. In her deepest moment of vulnerability, when she is in labor, the midwife, Caroline Middey, and Talmadge are both complacent in her violation as they ignore her desire to be left to labor alone. Instead, they struggle with her even as she is on the brink of exhaustion. Talmadge violently grips and presses her thighs until the child is born. Jane indicates over and over that she wants to be left alone physically, but the well-meaning Talmadge and the trustworthy midwife do not abide. When Jane takes irreversible action soon after, the reader knows she wasn’t kidding about wanting to be left alone.

Each character in the novel possessed a combined inability to reach out, communicate, and move beyond the confines of their past and their current circumstances. There is no real character transformation in this book. The product of the story is Angelene, and this character’s welfare is completely unknown by the end of the book. As a reader, I was left wondering what became of Angelene.

In her debut novel, Coplin is a master of creating a gripping plot. However, the first page of the book is a long physical description of the main character that will make you want to put the book down. Those descriptions continue throughout without the book, without adding much if anything to the reader’s understanding of the plot or the characters. That said, Coplin will, no doubt, have a long career as a novelist, and hopefully she’ll learn to rein in those long descriptions.

Even with the long descriptive flourishes, the book will hold your attention and curiosity after the first few pages. In fact, I couldn’t put it down. Beyond her long-winded descriptions, her writing is effortless and entertaining. Some of the character’s insights are truly enlightening. If she writes a sequel about her character Angelene, I will read it. In fact, I’m quite curious to see what Amanda Coplin will write next.