Because the poem is long, it won’t be quoted extensively here, but it is attached at the end of the paper for ease of reference. Instead, the paper will analyze the poetic elements in the work, stanza by stanza. First, because the poem is being read on-line, it’s not possible to say for certain that each stanza is a particular number of lines long. Each of several versions looks different on the screen; that is, there is no pattern to the number of lines in each stanza. However, the stanzas are more like paragraphs in a letter than they are poetic constructions. This is the first stanza, which is quoted in full to give a sense of the entire poem:
You leave before daybreak to prepare your husband’s body for burial at dawn. It is one of countless dawns since the first crack of consciousness, each buried in molecular memory, each as distinct as your face in the stew of human faces, your eyes blinking back force in the vortex of loss and heartbreak (Harjo).
This is blank verse at its most abstract. There is no rhyme here, nor is there any attempt to conform to the usual visual pattern of a poem. It is a series of these paragraphs, each building on the previous one until the reader can form a picture of what has happened. Harjo based the poem on an actual occurrence: she went to visit a friend only to find that the friend’s husband had died unexpectedly (Harjo). He had been looking forward to seeing his daughter in the Butterfly Dance, so rather than cancel it, they went ahead, assuming he would want them to do so, and also assuming he would see her dance (Harjo). This is the kernel from which the entire poem grew. The first line is a shock: it informs the reader of the husband’s death in the starkest of terms; the wife has to go and claim his body. But then Harjo unexpectedly opens out the poem to include the entire universe, saying that the day is only one of thousands that the woman has seen since she was born, and that she retains memories of each day, just as she retains memories of everyone she knew.
But then Harjo returns to the bitter present, and the fact that the woman is fighting back tears. The second stanza describes the woman’s friend waiting for her to return from Flagstaff with the body. Presumably they live on a reservation without much more than a clinic, so if he needed extensive care he would have been hospitalized in “Flag.” Her friend puts on the coffee, watches her leave, and follows her journey mentally, “through rocks that recall the scarlet promises of gods, their interminable journeys, and pine. Until I can no longer see, but continue to believe in the sun’s promise to return” (Harjo). The literary device here is imagery, and it’s very striking, but also puzzling. The “scarlet promises of gods” is particularly difficult, but could refer to the masks worn in various Native American ceremonies, where personifiers dance in the name of their gods. The long journeys of the gods are part of the native mythology, and pine refers to the forests of the high desert. Taken all together, it seems to signify faith in the gods, that he was taken for a reason, perhaps to join them on their journeys. At any rate, the last line is hopeful: the sun (life, happiness, peace, even the ability to love again) will return.
The next stanza assures the widow that the sun will indeed rise tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that (Harjo). But the next stanza is perhaps the most incredible of all. At this point the poem turns from grief and moves toward acceptance, and even joy. As she was coming home from the hospital, her grief was “the dark outlining the stars” (Harjo). But then, at her deepest point of despair, a star fell, and she knew it was her husband, tossing the stars around to let her know he was all right (Harjo). The stanza is full of metaphors (words that identify something without using connectives like “as,” “since” or “like”); in this case her grief is not literally the “dark outlining the stars” but it’s a very powerful image, and a moving one. The next stanza begins with possibly the most wonderful line in the poem, which speaks to personal survival, joy, and the continuation of life: “You laughed with the spirit of your husband who would toss stars!” (Harjo). Here Harjo uses the metaphor again, this time to compare the widow’s tears to a butterfly, which is both beautiful and fragile. But here, because of the Butterfly Dance, it takes on a special meaning, bringing their daughter into the circle of death and rebirth.
The next stanza says there is “no tear in the pattern. It is perfect, as our gradual return to the maker of butterflies…” (Harjo). This says that the young man’s death was not meaningless but was part of God’s plan, which is always perfect; furthermore, we all return to him. In the next lines, we learn that the widow wants to bury him in a shirt she bought for him, but which he always hated; the argument, now continuing after death, makes everyone smile (Harjo). The next stanza concerns singing, which has a power of its own. But this singer respects “the power of the place without words” (Harjo). This is another rather curious construction, and it sets up the rest of the poem. There is a power in the idea of place; it’s possible to feel it in places like Stonehenge and the Grand Canyon. There is something there that makes human life seem trivial, and it must be respected. The singer bears that respect to place, “which is as butterflies, returning to the sun, our star in the scheme of stars, of revolving worlds” (Harjo).
Again, Harjo has taken the reader from the kitchen of a new widow out into the stars to show us our place in the cosmos. It is a humbling moment. The next stanza brings us back to earth and shows life in a hunting camp, where the spirits “camp out with their dogs” (Harjo). This must be their idea of heaven: returning to the simple earthly pleasures they once knew, of hunting and camping, and washing dishes; making coffee and watching the crows return (Harjo). Then we find out that “[T]he sun always returns and butterflies are a memory of one loved like no other” (Harjo). Life goes on, even after the trauma of losing a loved one, because it is a part of human existence to die; it is, in fact, an ordinary thing: “All events in the universe are ordinary. Even miracles occur ordinarily as spirits travel to the moon, visit distant relatives, as always” (Harjo). The next stanza finds us still with the spirits who sit and think about everything that’s happened.
The spirits become us, and we share their memories of everything that has ever happened in the world (Harjo). This is a powerful explanation of eternity, and the next stanza builds on the idea, saying that at this point in life, when the woman has to say the hardest good-bye of all, “everything is a prayer for this journey” (Harjo). That is, everything will be all right. The last five lines of the poem are a progression from light to dark to light again, and the promise of a new dawn: “Wings of dusk / Wings of night sky / Wings of dawn / Wings of morning light // It is sunrise now’ (Harjo). Folwell notes that Harjo balances the sense of loss and despair by the “deep sense of connection with the whole universe and an acceptance of the inevitability of death for us all.” The butterflies that arrive with the dawn are a symbol of the triumph of light over darkness (Folwell). Conclusion
This short analysis simply cannot do justice to this poem. It is packed with imagery, which is the literary device Harjo uses most frequently. From the butterflies to the stars to the camping, singing and spirits, she takes readers on a trip to another world, and in so doing, assures them of the continuation of this one. The widow will grieve, and then one day she will find that she is done grieving, and she’ll move on. The poem itself seems much the same: it starts off with a bald statement about death, moves through the darkness, then to the stars and ends with the sunrise. It tells, really, of the never-ending cycle of life and our part in it, and it tells it in a lovely and moving way.
Courtney from Study Moose
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