Joy Harjo reads and discusses Jennifer Elise Foerster's "American Coma"

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

Rights & Access

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

Reprinted by permission of the author.


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 States and 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.

Commentator's Poem

A Map to the Next World

(for Desiray Kierra Chee)

In the last days of the fourth world I wished to make a map for those 
who would climb through the hole in the sky. My only tools were the desires of humans as they emerged from the
killing fields, from the bedrooms and the kitchens. For the soul is a wanderer with many hands and feet. The map must be of sand and can't be read by ordinary light. It must
carry fire to the next tribal town, for renewal of spirit. In the legend are instructions on the language of the land, how it was
we forgot to acknowledge the gift, as if we were not in it or of it. Take note of the proliferation of supermarkets and malls, the altars of
money. They best describe the detour from grace. Keep track of the errors of our forgetfulness; the fog steals our children
while we sleep. Flowers of rage spring Lip in the depression. Monsters are born there
of nuclear anger. Trees of ashes wave good-bye to good-bye and the map appears to
disappear. We no longer know the names of the birds here, how to speak to them
by their personal names. Once we knew everything in this lush promise. What I am telling you is real and is printed in a warning on the map. Our forgetfulness stalks us, walks the earth behind us, leaving a trail of paper
diapers, needles and wasted blood. An imperfect map will have to do, little one. The place of entry is the sea of your mother's blood, your father's small
death as he longs to know himself in another. There is no exit. The map can be interpreted through the wall of the intestine—a spiral
on the road of knowledge. You will travel through the membrane of death, smell cooking from the encampment where our relatives make a feast of fresh deer meat and
corn soup, in the Milky Way. They have never left us; we abandoned them for science. And when you take your next breath as we enter the fifth world there will
be no X, no guidebook with words you can carry. You will have to navigate by your mother's voice, renew the song she is
singing. Fresh courage glimmers from planets. And lights the map printed with the blood of history, a map you will have to know by your intention, by the language of suns. When you emerge note the tracks of the monster slayers where they
entered the cities of artificial light and killed what was killing us. You will see red cliffs. They are the heart, contain the ladder. A white deer will come to greet you when the last human climbs from the destruction. Remember the hole of shame marking the act of abandoning our tribal grounds. We were never perfect. Yet, the journey we make together is perfect on this earth who was once
a star and made the same mistakes as humans. We might make them again, she said. Crucial to finding the way is this: there is no beginning or end. You must make your own map.

—Joy Harjo

Rights & Access

"A Map to the Next World" Joy Harjo from A Map to the Next World. W.W. Norton & Company, 2000.

Reprinted by permission of the author.

  • Joy Harjo

    Joy Harjo (1951- ) is the 23rd U.S. Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry. She 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, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Tulsa Arts Fellowship. Her recent honors include the Jackson Prize from Poets & Writers (2019), the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize from the Poetry Foundation (2017) and the Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets (2015). In 2019, she was elected as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. Photo credit: Shawn Miller/Library of Congress.

  • 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 collections Bright Raft in the Afterweather (2018) and 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 teaches in the IAIA Low Residency MFA Creative Writing Program and at The Rainier Writing Workshop. Foerster lives in San Francisco. Photo credit: Richard Castaneda.