Visiting Albuquerque at the University of New Mexico I went to hear Joy Harjo read poetry. A Creek Indian from Oklahoma, Harjo is one of the great contemporary poets. She had graduated from this campus with a B.A. where she was now reading. She read her famous poem “She Had Some Horses,” which is the title of her breakthrough book (1983). She explained her ex-husband Acoma Pueblo poet Simon Ortiz was writing horse songs that inspired her to write her horse song. She stunningly read this poem that described how her narrator had so many kinds of horses with great surrealistic metaphor. She also read a lovely piece about her daughter Rainy Dawn as well as played one of her songs from her work with a band. She has a dazzling original voice combining her Creek background, jazz, and European modernism.
After a short solo walk the next day by the Rio Grande, I went with my hosts Pat Smith and John Crawford as John drove 90 miles south on Highway 25 parallel to the Rio Grande River. On the way we passed South Valley near the Isleta Pueblo where poet Jimmy Santiago Baca lived. In an interview Baca, who identifies as part Indian part-European, talks up going up to the Isletas holy mountain to sit and talk with them but he also tries to combine his Indian background with his experiences growing up in the city. But now we were driving away from the city to Bosque del Apache, a huge national monument of marsh and birds. We saw thousands of white snow geese close together in the water, more thousands of sand hill cranes standing on their spindly little legs, hundreds of ducks, a couple mule deer, a pheasant and a juvenile bald eagle.
At dusk while we were looking at more thousands of cranes in the water ahead of us while hundreds more flew in overhead—it was breathtaking. The cranes flapped their wings hard for a few second and then glided on the wind. For the first time since Bush’s election I was utterly caught up in enchantment of looking at over masses of cranes in front of me in the water and seeing them soar ahead. New Mexico was so much like Los Angeles a hundred years ago, when there were still wetlands covered with birds.
Over breakfast Pat, John and I discussed Willa Cather’s book Death Comes for the Archbishop with Pat arguing that Cather got her history all mixed up in the novel. The archbishop that Cather glorifies is modeled on Bishop Lamy, a French clergymen in the 19th century who was patronizing to the Mexicans and Indians. Cather in her writing attacked Padre Antonio José Martinez, a New Mexican who fought for the poor; started the first seminary in the Southwest to train native clergy; started New Mexico’s first printing press, and was the true hero. Well, the visiting Anglo writer got it wrong.
The next day I took my third walk by the Rio Grande. New Mexico seemed a long thin strip of farms, towns and a city paralleling the river. My hosts lived in North Valley, about three blocks from the river that used to flood over its banks right up to the house, so a drainage ditch was dug behind the house to stop the flooding. As I walked to the river I saw this area had recently been a small Mexican-American farming village with irrigated fields. I walked besides the irrigation ditch, inspecting the metal gates that could either let in or hold the waters. I was only beginning to see how New Mexico's writers and artists were rooted in the land with it grand river, its marshes, irrigated fields, thousands of sand hill cranes, and colored soil used to make paints.