Calling the Spirit Back

         Joy Harjo

One of the many joys I find in reading poetry is the sudden realization that this poem – the one I’m reading at this very moment – has many possibilities. Reading it slowly more than once for pleasure is the first gift from the poet.  A second gift is discovering some of my own thoughts, concerns and feelings in the poet’s words.

Similar to how a poetry therapist will offer a poem to a client, I like to pare down a poem to the essential words that inspire in me new metaphors, ideas, arguments and conclusions that I’ve been seeking whether or not I’m aware that has been my quest.

Personal writing inspired by fragments of a published poem may be life-changing if the new message-to-self coincides with the reader’s intention or brings together previously unrecognized potentialities.

Contemporary poetry offers the best source for this harvest of new material for personal writing. The language feels familiar as the poets’ expressions create mental images for the reader that highlight universal thoughts and concerns that the reader may have been avoiding or never consciously known before.

A couple of weeks ago I came across Native American poet Joy Harjo’s poem, “For Calling the Spirit Back from Wandering the Earth in its Human Feet,” a commanding poem laying out a detailed list of activities the reader must do.  It’s just such a poem a poetry therapist might choose – one that offers possibilities for personal reflection and positive change.

My first step was to shorten Joy Harjo’s title and select from her poem twelve of her short action phrases that I hoped would provide interesting prompts for my personal reflective writing.  Here is my pared down version.

“Calling the Spirit Back” 

  1. Turn off the cellphone, computer, and remote control.
  2. Take a breath
  3. Be respectful of the small
  4. Don’t worry
  5. Watch your mind
  6. Do not hold regrets
  7. Cut the ties you have to failure and shame
  8. Ask for forgiveness
  9. Welcome your spirit back
  10. Invite everyone
  11. Remember
  12. Help the next person

After rereading this list of statements, my first thought was to use it as my 2019 New Year’s Resolutions.  There is such wisdom in each of these twelve active statements that could have a positive influence every time I recall or recite one of these short lines throughout next year.

Or I could let one of these affirmations be the Resolution of the Month during each of the twelve months ahead in 2019.

But another idea seemed even more compelling – that I could write my immediate thoughts about each of the twelve lines and see where it would take me.

Here is the three-part process that I created to allow Harjo’s poem to lead me to my own discoveries through reflective writing.

I began writing to see what I might discover from each line in that moment.  I wrote twelve separate brief paragraphs responding to every topic before I stopped to reread what I had written.

After I reread and reflected on my own thoughts and feelings over two pages, I used a yellow highlighting marker to capture the most significant points I had made to each of the twelve statements from Harjo’s poem.

As a final step, I wrote a simple poem using only the yellow-marked words.  With just a few edits for clarity, I finished my new “found poem” that was distilled from my own ramblings.

Joy Harjo is quoted online: “I am a member of the Muskogee people….  a poet, a musician, a dreamer of sorts, a questioner.  Like everyone else, I’m looking for answers of some sort or the other… The creative act amazes me.  Whether it’s poetry, whether it’s music, it’s an amazing process, and it has something to do with bringing forth the old out into the world to create and to bring forth that which will rejuvenate.”

Read her complete 490-word poem, “For Calling the Spirit Back from Wandering the Earth in its Human Feet”(From: “Conflict Resolution for Holy Being”):

Hear Joy Harjo read her poem by scrolling down to the poem’s title:

Susan is an instructor for The Writing Institute online and leads personal writing groups and workshops approved for Continuing Education Credits by the SC Social Work Examiners Board.   All of her previous Columbia Star Newspaper columns can be found at:

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