By Hiba Heba
A kitchen table is ornamented with the paragons of humanity. It is the beginning, as well as the end of the world. Joy Harjo and her pensiveness record history around a kitchen table in her spellbinding, homely poem Perhaps the world ends here (1994). This saxophone-playing artist is a poet, teacher and a vocalist. Among her many prestigious accolades, Harjo was recently appointed the U.S. poet laureate of 2019. She is a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation who has published several books including She had some horses (1983) and The woman who fell from the sky (1994). Her poems are imbued with Native American myths, cultural symbolism and autobiographical elements.
Perhaps the world ends here initiates its stance with a light-hearted tone. Harjo ventures to explain the prime purpose of a kitchen table which is simply to place the blessings and gifts of Earth over it and to feast upon them. She then declares the growth of humans around this table. Children frolic with each other at the same kitchen table where they are instructed, cultured and modified into mature men and women. However, this table is not just a dining table or a trifling place for kids to explore their playful dispositions; it witnesses the discourse between humanly voices. Rattling gossips and the remembrance of great enemies, the ghosts of lovers and fluctuating dreams are all members of a grand unison being held at a kitchen table.
The poet shifts her mood from buoyant and humorous to serious and somber in the second half of her poem. She claims that a kitchen table is a trajectory of life from its beginning till the end. People find solace and shelter from their torments at this table. It is a sanctuary for those who wish to celebrate their laudable victories. A mother gives birth at the same table where someone’s old parents are cadavers being prepared for burial. Nonetheless, this table poses as a symbol of joy and sorrow, a prayer of suffering and remorse where humans feel grateful. Harjo ultimately enforces the idea that “perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.”
Joy Harjo is known for inculcating universal and mutually admissible themes in her poems. In particular, this poem explores the theme of the circle of life. Kitchen table is a metaphor for an existing world where the process of life and death and everything in-between is systematic and chronological. If there is sorrow, there is joy too. The table is a regression-to-the-mean between two extremities. On the other hand, this kitchen table is also an entity which brings people closer through thick and thin times. The concept of family life, laughter, unity and solidarity is at the heart of human nature and what it truly means to be human. The poet is covertly convincing people that spending time with family is as important as any natural process which leads to a positive evolution. Throughout her poem, her voice seems serene and sanguinely hopeful. When the world as we knew it ended (How we become human: new and selected poems, 1975-2001) is another strong and intense poem written by the same poet. Even though this particular piece of art is cataclysmic as it pertains to the 9/11 tragedy, it still ends on a hopeful note:
picked up a guitar or ukulele from the rubble
and began to sing about the light flutter.
Harjo is cognizant of the dichotomy of life. 9/11 was indeed a tragic and apocalyptic event which caused immense suffering, loss and agony. But, to restore balance, recovery is mandatory. This brings home the primal idea of Harjo’s kitchen table where the world ends but ultimately begins too. Human beings are created to persevere and embrace the nascence of everything which is destined to end.
In both poems the concept of togetherness and solidarity is promoted by the poet. Among other colonized groups in the world, Native Americans were shunned as ‘others’ in their own motherland. They are neither immigrants nor the colonizers. They are the indigenous and the colonized, and in this regard, it is commendable that Harjo perpetuates the idea of unity and tolerance among all humans; even those who have been the source of suffering and distress to her people. It has become a mantra for the poet that life is a continuous cycle of variations and human beings are an equal part of nature. Conversely, in her other poems, Harjo defends and fights for the rights of her fellow Native Americans and has been an active contributor to the Native American Renaissance.
The poet complies with the contemporary genre of poetry by writing Perhaps the world ends here in free verse. Throughout the skein of poem, her tone is introspective and profound.
Our dreams drink coffee with us as they put their arms around our children. They laugh with us
at our poor falling-down selves and as we put ourselves back together once again at the table.
The most striking feature of her poem is the transition and development of thought from one idea to another in a smooth and natural manner. However, such transition of thought is best suited with the structure of enjambment where one idea coincides with another without a subtle pause. Harjo’s precise verses seem to be devoid of sublime imagery. They give the impression of declarative propositions with a dearth of mellifluous prosody.
The implicit message emanating from Joy Harjo’s poem surrounds cynical and dual aspects of a world humans live in. This world bears in its countenance the magnanimity of life and an equal poignancy brought by death. Perhaps for this reason the poet chooses to follow a rigid structure of verses comprising simple words so that the ulterior meaning is vividly conveyed to her audience. It can be believed that in a way the structure and form of the poem complement the rhetoric of Harjo’s engaging, insightful message that the world began at a kitchen table, so perhaps the world ends here.
Hiba Heba is a Pakistan-based poet and writer at Daily Times, Terror House Magazine (Budapest), Scarlet Leaf Review (Canada) and more. She was interviewed by the team of Fuzia (a renowned website focused on empowering women) regarding her poetry and future ventures in 2017.