The one emotion that someone can never seem to be separated from is fear. Yet, in order to move past from it, exposing ourselves to our personal demons is our best chance. The conflict between the Native people and the whites is a never ending story. Ever since the arrival of the white Europeans and up until now, Native Americans have had countless encounters with fear. They have had enough share of it to know how to overcome it. The trick to winning lies in admitting it, fighting it, and not letting it takes themselves away. Joy Harjo, a Native American poet and a member of Muskogee tribe, born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, addresses such viewpoint in her poems. Harjo’s collections of poetry and prose record the search for freedom and self-actualization and are often centered around nature. When reading her poetry, it is as if readers are listening to the voice of the earth, being put in the landscape of time and timelessness, and witnessing the people struggling to understand, to know themselves, and to survive. Her “Fear Poem,” or also known as “I Give You Back,” depicts the act of relieving one’s fear. Harjo reveals what fear has done to her, how she conquers the darkness in her, and how she embraces her fearless self through the use of powerful enjambment, constant repetition, and revealing paradox. Instead of giving in to fear, she declares that fear has taught her how to be brave and that whenever it comes, she will not accept it to let it takes control. She will be its master and conquer it.
Harjo’s frequently used enjambment allows us to understand the connection and the intended meaning of the lines in each stanza. In the first stanza, the enjambment creates a complexity in the narrator’s feeling as it introduces the contradictory characters of fear, “beloved/ and hated twin.” It is separated because the narrator wants to point out that fear is a mirror of herself and that it accompanies her as if it were her twin, yet its presence is unwanted. In the next line where “the death of/ my children” is cut, it is meant to describe the pain the narrator has to endure when releasing her fear. She is making comparison to death, but it refers to not just any deaths. Her effort in letting go of fear reminds her of the feeling when parting with her child, someone who is blood related to her. She feels like losing a part of herself. It is not easy for her, and it creates grieve. In the third stanza, the enjambment “white soldiers/ who” is used as a mean to give an addition to the identification of the white soldiers. The narrator wants to specify which white soldiers she is referring to and reveal the immoral behavior of them that ruins her live and her beloved. This enjambment is a shout out to those whom she claims to have set her house on fire, executed her children, abused her siblings, and let her family starve. All in all, these series of enjambments provide a connecting chain of reasons that encourage the narrator to put an end to her fear.
While Harjo uses enjambment to surface the importance of connectedness in relieving fear, she also takes advantage of repetition to emphasize the importance of self-determination and process in letting go of fear. In the first stanza, the narrator relays her intention of wanting to be relieved from fear by saying “I release you” three times. This shows how certain she is and that her decision is final. In the third stanza, she uses the repetition “I give you back” twice to convey that she is going to return fear to its source, the “white soldiers,” who have done unspeakable things to the Native Americans. In the fifth stanza, the narrator continuously repeats “I release you” four times to demonstrate that to defeat her fear is not an easy task and takes a long period of time of constant attempt. This is because all along she has lived with fear as her comfort zone. In the next stanza that follows, again, the narrator displays a repetitive “I am not afraid to be.” She is showing her self-assurance that she no longer wants to succumb to fear, and she is trying to convince her own self that fear is no longer a part of her. Moreover, Harjo also uses antithesis to support the repetition. The narrator admittedly and emotionally declares she is strong enough to deal with whatever it is that comes her way, whether it is a good thing or a bad one. She allows herself to “be angry,” to “rejoice,” to “be black,” to “be white,” to “be hungry,” to “be full,” to “be hated,” and to “be loved.” However, here, the repetition of the phrase “to be loved” three times has its own significance. It indicates that the narrator will not cower if fear decides to comeback to crush her. In other words, she feels safe and that there is nothing to be afraid of, not when she has managed to release her fear. The eighth stanza contains a series of repetition of the phrase “you have…but I…” This repetition signifies the narrator’s repeated mistake and her attempt to reflect on what she had done. It is her fault that every time she gave in and permitted fear to be in charge of herself, it only means she nourished her fear to root deeper in her. The repetition also enables the narrator to see the consequences of allowing herself being consumed by fear. Similarly to the phrase “to be loved,” in the last stanza, the phrase “my heart” is repeatedly mentioned to affirm that fear can neither stay with her nor live and rule her heart. In conclusion, the point of these repetitions is to unfold the narrator’s journey from when she only has her desire to quell her fear until she succeeds in accomplishing it.
To further describe her means to free herself from fear in addition to using enjambment and repetition, Harjo portrays the narrator’s mistakes and realization through the presence of paradox in the poem. In the eighth stanza, she bravely concedes that fear has done everything it pleases because she does not resist nor prevent it from happening. The line “you have choked me, but I gave you the leash” informs that when fear tried to threaten her, she did not confront it but held herself back long enough for it to endanger her life. Meanwhile, the line “you have gutted me but I gave you the knife” implies that she let herself being stabbed and betrayed by her own fear because she gave it the chance to do so. It is also the same as “you have devoured me, but I laid myself across the fire,” which expresses that she was willing to surrender herself to fear. All these three lines fill the narrator with anger and regret in response to her own confession. She confesses that she is the one who brings misery to herself. She is also upset that she has let fear hurt her until it costs her a broken heart to realize it. Now that she has come to realization, she regrets her cowardice. In brief, the paradox has served a purpose of exposing the truth behind the narrator’s contradictory confession. The truth is that it is her fault for giving permission to fear to have a triumph and most importantly she reflects her failure.
Ultimately, Joy Harjo’s “Fear Poem” or “I Give You Back” confirms that fear is not going anywhere unless we find a way to deal with it. As the narrator constantly associates herself with fear in the face of brutality, violence, hunger, and other kinds of suffering Native Americans have experienced, she finds a way to be able to cope with it and be fearless. Harjo’s strong enjambment enables us to see the narrator’s mindset towards fear, the horrifying things the whites have committed to her and her people, the ache she feels, the trauma she experiences, and how she breaks free from it. Also, her use of declarative repetition shows us the narrator’s commitment in letting go of her captor, fear. This is projected through the details of her attempts at redemption starting from her revelation of her mistake for having surrendered to fear, her hope to release her fear, her struggle she has to pass, until her success at freeing completely her soul and body from fear. Lastly, her truthful paradox gives us perspective on how the narrator comes to better understand the concept of fear. That is fear can only be gone if she is courageous enough to confront it. Fear is a replica of ourselves built from the things that we are afraid of. The important thing is to fearlessly face our fear just like what the narrator in the poem does. We have to strike first and fight hard so that it will not turn on us.
Arini & Habib