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The Colors of the Earth: Nature and Landscape in the Poetry of Joy Harjo and Humberto Ak' Abal
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The Colors of the Earth: Nature and Landscape in the Poetry of Joy Harjo and Humberto Ak’ Abal Emanuela Jossa Native poetry, in both North and Central America, is characterized by the use of a trope that issues from a generally shared worldview—namely, the earth’s colors as a metaphor for the relationship between humans and nature. To illustrate this literary and cultural phenomenon, I have chosen to analyze the works of two poets of the same generation but of different genders and cultural heritages: Joy H (Tulsa, Oklahoma, born in 1951) and Humberto Ak’ Abal (Totonicapán, Guatemala, born in 1952), of the Creek and Mayan K’iché ethnic groups, respectively. As geographically and linguistically distant as the two poets are, they both display a consistent and highly significant use of this trope. Initially, the colors of the earth, intended as a representation of the metaphoric and metamorphic passage from the human to the telluric essence of being, activate a process of identification that is shared by both poets. Subsequently, however, a linguistic analysis of a number of their poems provides clues as to the poet’s perception of his or her inner self, and this trope brings to the fore profound emotional and cultural differences between the two writers. In the case of Ak’ Abal, harmony is achieved. In the case of Harjo, conflict and separation prevail. I will begin by quoting a few lines from “Remember,” a poem included in She Had Some Horses, Joy Harjo’s collection on which this study is focused; then I will quote, in its entirety, an unpublished poem by Humberto Ak’ Abal. Remember the earth whose skin you are: Red earth, black earth, yellow earth, white earth, brown earth, we are the earth. Emanuela Jossa teaches Latin American literature at the University of Calabria. Journal of the Southwest 49, 4 (Winter 2007) : 585–602 586  ✜  Journal of the Southwest Remember the plants, trees, animal life who all have their tribes, their families, their histories, too. Talk to them, listen to them. They are alive poems. Remember the wind. Remember her voice. She knows the origin of this universe. (“Remember,” 11–18) Embarazada “Cuando yo estaba embarazada, esperándote, sentía muchas ganas de comer tierra, arrancaba pedacitos de adobes y me los comía . . .” Esta confesión de mi madre me desgarró el corazón. Mamé leche de barro. Por eso mi piel es de color de tierra. Pregnant “When I was pregnant, expecting you, I was desperately hungry for earth. I tore pieces of adobes and ate them.” My mother’s confession broke my heart. I have sucked clay milk. That’s why my skin is the color of earth.1 The Colors of the Earth  ✜  587 A process of identification with the earth and, in specifically poetic terms, with the earth’s colors is central in the two poems—an unequivocal indication that both Harjo and Ak’ Abal (indeed, like most native poets) participate in the profound, intimate relationship with nature that all native communities of the American continent share at the everyday as well as cosmogonic levels. In fact, as distant as these levels may appear to be, the natives’ existence represents the realization of their cosmic vision in their daily life. For the poets, nature frequently not only provides the initial inspiration but also constitutes the starting point of their search for identity, both individual and collective. This is a signally peculiar trait of native literature. It is intrinsically related to the marginalization that natives experience throughout most of the continent, and it is linked to loneliness, violence, and even the denial of life. The search for identity issues directly from this marginalization and, ultimately, exclusion. In native poetry, the individual’s relationship with nature is represented as a dialogue between beings that are part of the same universe. Without this intimate relationship, the individual’s body, mind, and spirit would be fragmented and incomplete. Accordingly, in both Joy Harjo’s and Humberto Ak’ Abal’s poems, nature is not merely a backdrop or an object of contemplation but an interlocutor, a witness, and a source of consolation. It is precisely this common nexus with nature...