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American Coma

I believe in the burned field,
the sailboat on the sill 
of a desert farmhouse.

That stars on the undersides of our skulls 
can spell the way home 
even when the lights have gone out, 
the maps again erased. 

The fray of a rope. Chafe of my hands. 
Black horses broken loose 
over a trampled dawn—your body 
beneath the tin of a bent truck grating. 
Footprints at the edge of the earth 
where they found you. Magdalena

I believe you became the clouds, 
the Sangre de Cristos’ pink rim of morning, 
the musk of your blood on my t-shirt as I drive away, 
all smoke and sooty desert in my rearview.

It’s not the fantasy of a land that survives 
but its rocks, redwoods, ghosts, 
armadillos crushed in roadside gutters through Texas— 

I believe their blood can stay with you 
six hundred miles to the Mexican gulf,
that you can use their remains 
to bind bear claws, cowrie shells, 
something to dance with.
That when you awake you will not remember 
any of this: the sirens, sticky 
tubes they cocooned around you

the way you looked at me from behind the in-patient door, 
eyes empty boats dozing on the edge
and I on the rocks peering into waves
piecing together fins out of crushed armadillos
picked up from the roadsides I traveled to find you 
where Chevy appendages, cigarette-butts, 
the birdfood of petrified Wonderbread crusts 
are the songs of detached, mechanical wings. 

I believe
when America awakes
she will not remember any of this:
you smashed over the precipice—
a pipe dream hinged upon a dead saguaro root.

Your pages flapping, tar-stained, 
blown into shadows of buttes.

I gather you like kindling,
set you on fire, the fugue of black 
horses drowning in the surf.

—Jennifer Elise Foerster

Joy Harjo reads Jennifer Elise Foerster’s “American Coma”

Transcription of Commentary

This poem, “American Coma”, is from a book by young, Muskogee Creek poet Jennifer Elise Foerster called Leaving Tulsa. It’s a beautiful book, a new book of poems, and they really remind me of the urgent vision fueling Kerouac’s On the Road and, for Muskogee people, we’ve been on the road for quite a while, from the Southeastern part of the United Statesand a long walk from there to Oklahoma. And the book is … and this poem is … I feel like this poem, it’s … the whole book is embedded in this poem, is a young Muskogee woman carrying that walk in her and leaving for other places in America, like the Southwest, like the Bay Area, and the road is demanding, you know, the road to becoming a human being, the road to acknowledging the story or the historical trauma that marks everyone in this country, every American, every American has to deal with the effects of colonization. And the outcome here of this, you know, is the damage inflicted, inflicted by America—America the person, America the being, America the hungry beast.

She begins with “I believe in the burned field,” and that last stanza is startling: “I gather you like kindling,/ set you on fire, the fugue of black/ horses drowning in the surf.” Fire is the transformer. Fire makes ashes. Fire is spirit and it takes every … it transforms us to the most basic part of ourselves. And then, of course, the appearance of these black horses—these horses that represent, in so many of our poems, in indigenous writers and American writers, too, I believe, they represent, in a sense, that spirit, the spirit of the free America, the America of multicultural ideas and energy. So in this poem, she’s putting the story of a broken people back together; she’s making a road home, maybe even cleaning the road home for the people, for the person in this story who’s been broken, and for her own brokenness and the brokenness of a whole country.

A coma suggests that the body is here, and the spirit is out roaming around and is unsettled and doesn’t really feel ready to come back and take on this particular life. But the poem is hopeful because, as Foerster says, “I believe/ when America awakes/ she will not remember any of this:/ you smashed over the precipice—/ a pipe dream hinged upon a dead saguaro root.” So Foerster in this poem and this book of poems is really … exemplifies the next generation of young indigenous poets who are overlapping my generation—a generation that came up through indigenous movements, indigenous rights movements. And I know, I’d been looking, many of us had been looking, to see who was out there and who was coming up, and here they are, and here is Jennifer with this very powerful voice.

"American Coma" Jennifer Elise Foerster from Leaving Tulsa. University of Arizona Press, 2013.

Reprinted by permission of the author.

Joy Harjo

Joy Harjo

Read “A Map to the Next World” by Joy Harjo

Joy Harjo (1951- ) was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and is a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. A graduate of the University of New Mexico and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she is the author of numerous poetry collections, children’s books, and a memoir. Her many honors include The American Indian Distinguished Achievement in the Arts Award, the Josephine Miles Poetry Award, the William Carlos Williams Award, and fellowships from the Witter Bynner Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. In 2016, Harjo was appointed to the Chair of Excellence in the Department of English at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

Learn more about Joy Harjo at The Poetry Foundation

Jennifer Elise Foerster

Jennifer Elise Foerster

Jennifer Elise Foerster (1979- ) was born in Colorado and educated at the Institute of Fine Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She is the author of the poetry collection Leaving Tulsa (2013). A member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of Oklahoma and the daughter of a diplomat, Foerster grew up internationally but spent summers with her grandparents in Jenks, Oklahoma. A former Wallace Stegner Fellow, Foerster has received fellowships from Soul Mountain Retreat, the Naropa Summer Writing Program, the Idyllwild Summer Poetry Program, Dorland Mountain Arts Colony, and the Vermont Studio Center. She lives in San Francisco. Photo credit: Richard Castaneda.

Learn more about Jennifer Elise Foerster at The Poetry Foundation