On 'Story Tree' by Joy Harjo and Ali Cobby Eckermann
Poet Ali Cobby Eckermann and US Poet Laureate Joy Harjo reflect on their poem 'Story Tree', commissioned for Fair Trade as part of Poetry Month 2021
Our memories are wound through blood, bones, rocks, earth, waters and each other. There’s a spectrum of weight of memories. Some are dense, weighted by violent history of genocide and separation. Others keep walking in the middle, to survive, to tell stories, to sing. And still others are lighter than air, than any storm. They sing and wind through it all.
When I met Ali, first a few years in person, and before that in her words, I knew she was my sister. We shared memory, though we lived continents away, she in Australia and me here in the middle of the northern part of the western hemisphere.
We have stayed in touch through emails, rare calls, and once a visit for a week when my husband Owen and I were living on a bluff in Tennessee. My grandfather six generations back and his warrior friends stood there and looked down into the town to check out the best horses to steal. They weren’t stealing. The town was on tribal lands. That visit that week was like having family and I have missed her since.
This collaboration was a chance to catch up, to speak about where we were, we earthly beings who are in the middle of profound changes, initiated by our human forgetfulness of our connection with earth and all the beings that are Earth or Ekvnvjakv.
~ Joy Harjo January 26, 2021 Muscogee Creek Nation Reservation
It was the spring of 2017 when I first met Joy and her husband Owen when they travelled to Australia for the Queensland Poetry Festival. Joy was the international Poet In Residence and I had been selected to represent Australia.
I remember our first meal was in a restaurant serving Himalayan food in Fortitude Valley. I was so excited to meet her I expected to cry with overwhelm. I didn't. When I first held Joy Harjo's hands in greeting my Spirit was calmed. This was confirmed during our residency on the traditional land of the Quandamooka people, on Minjerribah (Stradbroke Island) set in the tropical waters of Moreton Bay off the coast of Brisbane. During those days of sunshine I realised I had been blessed to meet a guide; an older sister, a mentor who understood my journey, sharing her wisdom with deep consideration and a cultural love. Together we laughed, watching a pod of nearly fifty dolphins ride the enormous swell of waves along Lookout Point.
We've met several times. I flew out from New York to Knoxville in Tennessee to stay with Joy and Owen. My cousin-brother had recently died and I remember the kindness shown me, how this big sister shared her healing strength with me. We spent a day exploring the Smoky Mountains before I left, shopping for presents for each other in the hill-billy houses selling antiques and curios along the way. So much more laughter shared. Laughter is a good medicine.
The biggest world festival in 2020 was Adelaide Writers Festival, held just before the covid-19 pandemic shut down the world. Again Joy and her husband Own flew to Australia. I was so excited to host Joy in my home state, having been born on the traditional land of the Kaurna people. Joy and Owen met with Kaurna dance group Yellaka for a discussion and night around the campfire, eating kangaroo and damper, and poetry. I introduced them to my brother and some of his family, sharing a wonderful seafood meal and sunset overlooking the waters of local Henley Beach.
When I was asked to write this poem with Joy I felt elated. Our words can sit together as we have done. I hope it is still possible to travel to see her traditional lands. I would like to stand in that place with her. She is my sister, my kangaru.
~ Ali Cobby Eckermann