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Love, Hunger, and grace: loss and belonging in the poetry of Lorna Dee Cervantes and Joy Harjo.

For women, for the dispossessed, for the colonized, for the survivors of genocide, the remembrance of history tends to be painful. One response to the loss of people and homeland has been to recreate, recover, and rewrite the history of that loss. While empowering, this re-vision of history is not entirely without problems. Chicano/a cultural nationalism's imagining of Aztlan and its attendant figure of the indigenous mother are key examples within Chicana/o cultural production, for instance, of structures that strive to reconstruct elements lost because of colonization. Both of these symbolic structures, Aztlan and the figure of the indigenous and earth-identified mother, combine histories of dispossession--Native American and Chicana--that are spatially interdependent; the territory Aztlan covers in the Southwest includes hundreds of distinct Native American culture and language groups. However, because of a nationalist impulse to claim and affirm distinct cultural and historical legitimacy, both Chicana/o and Native American (tribal and pan-tribal) nationalisms often obscure each other in their discursive formations, in effect ignoring each other's presence. These historiographic blind spots enable the mutual symbolic displacement of both peoples and perpetuate anxieties of authenticity and belonging in both communities. One alternative way of engaging that historical loss is to embrace it. Rather than creating or recovering a structure to stand in as an alternative historical presence, one might accept the very loss that leads to the historical absence.

The way we imagine our relationships to genocidal and cultural loss gives meaning to our readings of history and of culture. I pair Lorna Dee Cervantes, a Chicana poet, and Joy Harjo, a Native American poet, not only because both poets address similar thematic concerns, but also because both have been described as cultural nationalists. (1) Cervantes is known for her first book, Emplumada, which is widely taught and received an American Book Award in 1981. Critically acclaimed by Chicano and mainstream critics, Cervantes has been hailed as a major force in American poetry. While the publication of the forthcoming volume Drive has been postponed, she has made many of her new works available online. (2) Joy Harjo has also been hailed as a major force in American poetry. A book of interviews and an album recorded with her band "Poetic Justice" complements her eight books of poetry. Both poets have been widely acknowledged as influential in the broader scope of American culture and literature as well as within th eir own ethnic communities.

I argue that Cervantes and Harjo step away from nationalist impulses that try to restructure a presence in history creating an authentic sense of belonging. Instead, their work creates a poetics that embraces loss and the grief that comes from identifying with the survivors of genocide and the dispossessed. What is past is not merely past, but immanent in everyday experience. Loss itself becomes a presence that enables both poets to imagine a community that does not demand an authentic origin. The present cultural moment that both Cervantes and Harjo find themselves in makes it impossible to access a pristine, unbroken, authentic indigenous and national past. The markers of ethnic identification (whether Muscogee, Chumash, or Chicana) are always and already compromised by post-contact/post-conquest mixing of cultural traditions.

Cervantes's work uses the concepts of love and hunger to create a powerful engagement with loss. Love and hunger as epistemic strategies challenge our understanding of subjectivity by shifting our attention from the libido as a primary drive, to hunger as a means of establishing the subject. (3) Harjo develops a poetics of grace that creates a rich sense of historical and spatial interconnection across tribal and cultural lines. Grace enables the formation of both pan-tribal and third-world feminist alliances, but it is also an aesthetic point of reference--historical pain can produce art that sustains and feeds a people. These three conceptual nodes, love and hunger on the one hand, and grace on the other, function in similar ways: all are ways of engaging a loss and of surviving grief. Reading them against each other suggests alternative models of subjectivity that do not rely on authenticity.

The problem with authenticity as a means of determining legitimacy and selfhood lies in its replication of colonizing frameworks. Chicano literary critic Alfred Arteaga's discussion of colonial discourse is useful in understanding the importance of literary and discursive formations to lived experiences. Arteaga explains that

colonial discourse aspires toward a system of representation in which word is linked contiguously with reality, in which hegemonic story is true history...this is to say, the hegemony envisions so contiguous a discourse that the troping collapses from consciousness and the power of discursive representation is rewritten as the power of literal representation. It eschews the chaotic relativities of dialogue and the substitution of metaphors and aims, instead, at apodiectic reference to the world. (80)

As a category of meaning, the authentic repeats this need for apodiectic reference. However, because they can never fully achieve the breakdown of this discursive dialectic, attempts at authenticity are fraught with anxieties. Further, a subjectivity based on authenticity locates experience and resistance outside of discursive construction, and as a result, reifies agency and naturalizes difference. Such a construction ignores the liberatory possibilities of language. Because language depends on speakers, and because we as speakers can make language into metaphor, symbol, and dialogue, we can rename ourselves in the same discourse that tries to erase us.

Renaming and reclaiming are only one aspect of discursive intervention. Intervention in language and discourse also allows for the disruption of larger ontological and epistemic frameworks of selfhood. If we understand subjectivity as discursively contingent, then its requirements are contingent and shifting as well. I am not arguing for a radically post-structuralist subjectivity with no point of meaning, nor do I mean to engage in what Susan Bordo has called the "postmodern intoxication with possibility" that she compares to the Cartesian fantasy of transcending the body (39). Instead I suggest that subjectivity can come from loss as well as presence. While psychoanalytic constructions of subjectivity center around loss, they locate it within a libidinal economy in which the fulfillment of loss is the primary requirement for selfhood. My reading of Cervantes and Harjo, located primarily in a historical materialist context, argues that loss does not have to be fulfilled in order for an individual to attain f ull subjecthood; to argue otherwise places colonized peoples in an impossible position. Genocidal loss in the Americas cannot be compensated--discursively or otherwise. This alternative subjectivity demands not only a refusal of Cartesian dualism, but also a sense of relation between mind and body, myth and history, as well as between the disparate concepts of love, hunger, and grace. We can imagine communities based on common historical experiences, and ultimately revitalize nationalist projects that are important to social, cultural, and political struggles. Cultural nationalisms, for all their limitations, are still very powerful. Describing the relationship between nationalism and feminism in the formation of Aztlan, Laura Perez states, "[W] e occupy a nation that does and doesn't exist. We practice a nationalism that we do and don't believe in. El desorden is disordering, profoundly disturbing ways with respect to dominant social and cultural, spatial and ideological topographies" (20). This disordering depends on the discursive nature of those topographies and the subjects that occupy them.

Cervantes's second book, From the Cables of Genocide, is very different from her well-known Emplumada because there is very little of the bilingual voice in it. It is a volume of very dense, lyrical poems that assume genocide as an underlying fact. Throughout the three sections of the volume, the loss occasioned by genocide imagistically shapes and links poems thematically and formally; hunger is also a recurrent theme. The second section of the book, "On Love and Hunger," is prefaced by an epigraph that quotes Billie Holiday:
People tell me I sing the words
"love" and "hunger" like no one else.
well, everything I know is wrapped
up in those two words. You've got
to have something to eat and a little
love in your life before you can
hold still for anybody's damned sermon. (25)

Choosing to start the section with this particular articulation of love and hunger as physical experience is no small thing. Love and hunger are primarily basic human needs, yet Cervantes frames them aesthetically: love and hunger are sung in this statement, and the power of Holiday's singing, she says, comes from "everything I know [being] wrapped / up in those two words." Not only are love and hunger human needs, they are also a means of understanding the world--an epistemic framework. Cervantes embeds the title thematically throughout the collection--the full title is From the Cables of Genocide: Poems on Love and Hunger. Love and hunger are intensely personal feelings: they are physical and primal, and they are usually considered ahistorical and apolitical. Cervantes complicates this understanding by juxtaposing them with genocide. (4) The first half of the title, From the Cables of Genocide, significantly echoes Audre Lorde's Cables to Rage. That she pairs this reference in the second half of the title w ith elements from Billie Holiday's assessment of love and hunger shifts the reader's understanding of where Chicana poetry locates itself. These are references and alliances with African American women that are not overtly expressed in the poems, yet they shape Cervantes's poetic sensibility as surely as the fact of genocide. In this collection and in her later work, Cervantes extends a Chicana/o poetic tradition across cultural lines to connect very explicitly with Third World feminist concerns.

This section "On Love and Hunger" is, in part, an exploration of what those words mean. Food and sex are written close to each other. The first few poems in this section thematize food and the end of a relationship. The collection moves away from eating into another kind of hunger, to a longing that begins between individuals and then extends across generations. This longing is grief. These love and hunger poems are poems of mourning. According to Freud, mourning is the process by which the self detaches the libido from the lost loved one/thing in order to attach it to a new object; the absence is filled by a new presence (126). Here, Cervantes presents us with that loss, but rather than attaching to a new object, Cervantes dwells in the space of loss. Hunger becomes the primary drive that does not demand an object-choice. It does not require a new object to exist; the libido, on the other hand, does. It has to attach to a new thing in order to function. Moreover, hunger is cyclical--it can never be permanent ly sated. To be hungry and to eat, knowing that hunger will eventually return, is to participate fully in the cycle that Cervantes explores.

Reading two poems in this section, we see a shift in tone that develops the meaning of these two words, love and hunger. The first, "My Dinner with Your Memory," is a short description of a feast. It begins with a denial of the similarity between women's bodies and food, but then reverses it. Cervantes writes,
a woman's scent is nothing
like bread, although sometimes I steam
when the moon slivers my heart
into poverty's portions. This one's
for you, though you lie. Though you deserve
none of this butter. (27)

She serves herself to someone undeserving, a part of herself that is small, painful--"poverty's portions." The lover is undeserving, but she serves him anyway. She reproaches him for refusing the food, asking, "who would hunger at the brink of this / feast? Who would go, uninvited / but you and your ghost of a dog?" (27). Nonetheless, he leaves, and not only that but takes his dog. Rather than reproaching the lover for coming uninvited, he is reproached for going uninvited. Since he is a memory, his dog is one too, a dead one, a ghost.

"On Love and Hunger," the second poem in this pairing, begins with an epigram about leek soup and suicide by Marguerite Duras; wanting to make leek soup because of hunger is living, and the alternative--nothing--is suicide. It is a short poem, made up of five stanzas; three of the stanzas have only five lines, and the remaining two are couplets. The lines look and feel very modernist in their sparseness of expression. The poem opens with a paradox:
I feed you
As you hunger.
I hunger
As you feed
And refuse
The food I give. (32)

Syntactically the structure sets up a mirroring between feeding and hunger. Logically, the meaning of the words refuses this relationship. The you of the poem feeds not on the food offered by the speaker, but on something else. Her hunger might be sated if the lover were to accept it. She hungers as he feeds and refuses the food she gives. Another's eating the offered food could sate hunger. The next stanza complicates what hunger can mean:
Hunger is the first sense.
Imagination is the last.
You are my sixth sense,
Imaginary lover
Missed meal. (32)

Senses are not only sensory, but also reasoning. A sixth sense is extrasensory; hence she uses the adjective "imaginary" to describe the lover. He exists outside of the realm of the senses. Imagination is the last sort of reasoning. A missed meal means hunger. But hunger in the next stanza means something like original sin:
Food is first choice
First flaw, fatal
In its accessibility
Fearless on the tongue of mean denial. (32)

The first sense is hunger; food is its first choice. It is the first thing to happen between people; a first choice is basic and necessary. Trying to fill that hunger with food is the first thing to go wrong m a relationship; it is the first flaw, fatal--the first choice that can kill. While not a fully formed reference, the story of Eden plays in the background; Eve's offering of the apple and Adam's acceptance of it proves fatal to their time in paradise. Tongue here is not something to taste food, but rather something to deny it. It is "mean," ungenerous, lacking. Tongue is speaking, not tasting, denying, not eating. It might also be lying.

The last four lines are written in two short couplets. Their finality is startling:
First word.
First sight
Food is love
In trust. (32)

The final couplet gives us a definition that complicates our understanding of food as deadly. Food is love in trust. Therefore, if I give you love in trust, and you refuse it, then my giving you that food is part of something that I want, that I desire, something for which I hunger. If I feed you it is because my hunger can be sated with your eating. It is an outward logic: I offer you food (love), you don't eat it, it leaves me hungry (grieving).

Hunger and love are connected to each other through this offering, a movement outside of the self toward a connection with an other. This movement outward is driven by desire. Understanding desire, however, requires a move inward, a development of interiority. These inward and outward moves are not only simultaneous; their meanings are dependent on each other. Hunger cannot be sated, and the only way we can explore its interior meaning is to move outside of the self. Thus far, hunger sounds very close to Freud's libido. The difference is that for Freud, if the ego cannot be transferred to a new love object, then mourning becomes melancholia, a state marked primarily by a loss of self-worth and the incapacity to love (Freud 125). Cervantes does not follow this pattern. She cannot replace the lost object; those attempts only point to the constant impossibility. She cannot create an alternative presence that would stand in, that would satisfy the hunger she describes. Instead, she develops love and hunger in tan dem; each defines the other.

Further, Cervantes refuses to control her hunger. Feminist critics have identified hunger as a form of ideological control. Susan Bordo argues that "the restriction and denial of female hunger" are "central features in the constructions of femininity.... Such restrictions on appetite are not merely about food intake. Rather the social control of female hunger operates as a practical 'discipline' (to use Foucault's term) that trains female bodies in the knowledge of their limits and possibilities" (130). Women are supposed to feed others, not themselves. Desires for self-nurturance and self-feeding are construed as greedy and excessive. Therefore, women in western cultures have had to develop a primarily other-oriented emotional economy. By developing hunger as a primary drive and linking it to love, Cervantes refuses this control, while still acknowledging this other-oriented emotional economy. That she links love and hunger crystallizes this relationship. Women traditionally express their love for others by feeding them, whether that love is for a lover, a child, or a family. Further, love and hunger feed one another. Love is a kind of hunger. Both are forms of desire, appetite, and need. Both must be controlled in women, especially if we understand love as a form of taking as well as giving. This dialectic between hunger and love drives the poems in the center of the collection forward. There is resolution to the grief, and that is to live with it, not cover it up, not forget it, but to acknowledge it as part of memory.

Joy Harjo's concept of grace is as tied up in memory and history as are love and hunger. The poem "Grace" begins,

I think of Wind and her wild ways the year we had nothing to lose and lost it anyway....I could say grace was a woman with time on her hands, or a white buffalo escaped from memory. But in that dingy light it was a promise of balance. We once again understood the talk of animals, and spring was lean and hungry with the hope of children and corn.

I would like to say, with grace, we picked ourselves up and walked into the spring thaw. We didn't; the next season was worse. (In Mad Love and war1)

However much we would like to forget the pain of history, it never leaves us alone. We are reminded of it every day. Memory stands as a counterpoint to history; memory is collective and personal. Myth is another way of embracing and inflecting historical narratives of erasure. Equally important is the role that place has in understanding one's relationship to the world and one's past. Grace emerges in Harjo's work as an organizing relationship between memory, myth, and place. It is that capacity human beings have for imagining the possibility of living with the grief of history, and not only surviving, but also living with beauty and sometimes joy. It is a relationship that is at once spiritual, material, and historically specific.

Grace is a concept most associated with Christianity, one of the major forces in the conquest and colonization of the western hemisphere. Nonetheless, I use it to frame Joy Harjo's poetry because it provides possibilities of negotiating the conflicted histories and relationships that result from five hundred years of colonization and genocide. I do not mean to impose a Western hermeneutics on her work; rather, I explore points of contact that Harjo introduces throughout her poetry. Not only is grace a spiritual engagement with the world, but it is also a means of experiencing and creating beauty and joy. As traditionally defined, grace concerns salvation, but also the favor found in beauty or charm. This aspect is not lost in Harjo's reclamation of this concept. In Harjo's work grace does not concern reconciliation with a Judeo-Christian God but rather the ability to continue living in the face of historical and cultural genocide and, more important, to flourish creatively and culturally. We must constantly m ove between levels of identification and understanding when reading poems and narratives that trace this process of survival and continuity. When I say "we," I mean to indicate a reader who may not necessarily be Native American, but who has some understanding of the stakes involved--one aware of the sexist, white supremacist, materialist underpinnings of a "universal" reading stance. We should respect the specificity of a historically and culturally marked narrative and understand that one of the projects of poetry is often to simultaneously include and exclude its audience.

Grace begins with the possibility of living with grief. Yet as a shaping poetics, grace is not the transcendence or erasure of pain, but, rather, what enables a culture to survive over time. Harjo writes of grace within the making of history and of memory, speaking to and from a specifically Muscogee history and culture. The poem "Grace" serves as a kind of opening prayer for Harjo's fifth volume of poetry, In Mad Love and War. It describes a terrible winter, when "the cold froze imaginary buffalo" and "the haunting voices of the starved and mutilated broke fences, crashed our thermostat dreams" (1). Winter is not only the time when life is frozen, but it is also the time when, in many Indian cultures, trickster stories are allowed to be told. In Muscogee traditions, Rabbit has mythic power. It is in this context that the desperation leads the "we" of the poem to invoke trickster strategies for survival: "Like Coyote, like Rabbit, we could not contain our terror and downed / our way through a season of false midnights. We had to swallow / that town with laughter, so it would go down easy as honey" (1). Harjo's invocation of tricksters and clowning is rooted in cultural and religious specificity; her use of laughter is not merely comic relief. Sacred clowns, who often combine aspects of terror in their clowning, are an important part of many Native American religions. Part of the clown's spiritual function is to clear worry and idle thoughts from people's minds so that they may heal and pray. Moreover, the act of clowning makes people identify their own faults and foolishness with the follies of others (Tedlock). If we, the readers, identify with the "we" of the poem, then we might be "Like Coyote, like Rabbit" and thus perhaps take some courage, or at least continue in the face of historical terror (1).

Nonetheless, the people clowning in the poem are not religious clowns, nor are they mythic tricksters. The "epic search for grace" ends, as the speaker says, when "our dreams had found us I with coffee and pancakes in a truck stop along Highway 80" (1). The immense possibilities that one imagines grace would bring are quietly undercut by the lines that immediately follow: "I could say grace was a woman with time on her hands, or a white I buffalo escaped from memory. But in that dingy light it was a promise / of balance" (1). The imagery of mythic buffalo, while tempting to the poet, does not adequately explain the contingencies of grace. It is not balance itself, it is instead its promise. Grace exists as human possibility, not as an absolute symbolic certainty--not even in mythopoetic terms within a poem that is a prayer. As the poem ends, grace is elusive and embedded in the cycles of living and suffering. The final stanza expresses this kind of repetition:

I would like to say, with grace, we picked ourselves up and walked into the spring thaw. We didn't; the next season was worse. You went home to Leech Lake to work with the tribe and I went south. And, Wind, I am still crazy. I know there is something larger than the memory of a dispossessed people. We have seen it. (1)

Again, grace is not a final salvation. Once grace is found, it can be lost again; here, "the next season was worse" and she is "still crazy." Nothing is resolved once and for all. Instead, what remains is the knowledge that grace contains "the memory of a dispossessed people" and that it can balance it with "the hope of children and corn (1). The pain of dispossession is an important part of a people's collective memory, but it is not the only thing that shapes it. Grace, like love, is what keeps a people going through times of doubt and terror.

Cervantes develops love and hunger in a similar fashion: they animate and drive the poetry forward, even in the face of unresolved grief. Love, hunger, and grace shape both thematic and aesthetic questions in Harjo's and Cervantes's poetic practices. I could describe my reading of Cervantes as shaped by a hermeneutics of grace, but that would not fully explain why I find this pairing so fruitful. Reading Chicana and Native American writers together not only points to gaps in the historical imaginary, but also to its anxieties of authenticity and legitimacy. In the phrase, "the historical imaginary," I refer to Emma Perez's discussion of the decolonial imaginary as a theoretical tool encompassing both that which is imagined (the content of history) and its symbolic system (its framework) (5). This understanding of the imaginary illustrates how discursive structures have the capacity to either limit or expand readings of history and memory. Both Cervantes and Harjo create community out of loss. Cervantes's poem "Pleaides from the Cables of Genocide" (the last poem in the section "On Love and Hunger") imagines urban young Chicanas as the seven sisters of Chumash creation myth and sets them against a memory of the speaker's Chumash grandmother. The poem ends in "the haven of the never to get," a syntactical maneuver that foregrounds the impossibility of historical fulfillment; genocide did happen, and it will never go away (46).

Harjo's poem "Anchorage" links a homeless woman, "someone's Athabascan grandmother," to African American men in jail, talking about their experiences in Los Angeles. This poem ends echoing Audre Lorde's "Litany for Survival," describing "the incredible story of all of us who were never meant to survive (Lorde 255-56). Ultimately, these connections are possible only through a quality of perception that emerges in moments of grace. Creek literary critic Craig Womack describes grace in Harjo's work as those "moments of vision which allow us to see these connections (258). These connections across differences of culture and history are not an attempt to flatten them out to a state of colonized sameness. Neither are they gestures to reclaim an authentic indigenous past that connects Chicana and Indian peoples. Instead, these gestures of connection intervene into historical and cultural formations of resistance that maintain cultural specificity.

Cervantes and Harjo develop poetic practices that gauge the effects of history on the poetic and political imagination. Reading them together, we can glimpse an alternative model of subjectivity, one that does not depend on authenticity, yet actively engages with histories of loss and dispossession. What is true of these works is also true of the best poetry: it changes our perceptions of what is possible, and to paraphrase Audre Lorde, puts into words what had been felt, but not yet thought.


(1.) Craig Womack claims Harjo is fundamentally a Greek nationalist, and Cordelia Candelaria and Raul Villa have commented on nationalist strains in Cervantes's poetry.

(2.) See <>.

(3.) Psychoanalytic theory, grounded in the works of Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan, for example, locates the process of subject formation squarely within a libidinal economy.

(4.) The term genocide is important because of both its historical and political uses. Initially coined in 1943 by Raphael Lemke, a Polish-Jewish emigre and legal scholar, its definition included the coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves. The objectives of such a plan would be the disintegration of the political and social institutions of culture, language, national feeling, religion, economic existence of the national group and the destruction of personal security; liberty, health and even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups. (Totten xxiii).

In 1948 the U.N. Convention on Genocide expanded the definition to include not only the killing of members of the group, but also "imposing means intended to prevent births and forcibly transferring children to other groups" (Totten xxix).


Arteaga, Alfred. Chicano Poetics: Heterotexts and Hybridities. New York: Cambridge UP, 1997.

Bordo, Susan. Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture and the Body. Berkeley: U of California P, 1993.

Candelaria, Cordelia. Chicano Poetry: A Critical Introduction. Westport: Greenwood, 1986.

Cervantes, Lorna Dee. From the Cables of Genocide: Poems on Love and Hunger. Houston: Arte Publico, 1991.

Freud, Sigmund. "Mourning and Melancholia." Trans. Joan Riviere. A General Selection from the Works of Sigmund Freud. Ed. John Rickman. New York: Liveright, 1957.124-40.

Harjo, Joy. "Anchorage." She Had Some Horses. New York: Thundersmouth, 1983.14-15.

-----. In Mad Love and War. Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 1990.

Lorde, Audre. "A Litany for Survival." Collected Poems. New York: Norton, 1997.255-56.

Perez, Emma. The Decolonial Imaginary: Writing Chicanas Into History. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1999.

Perez, Laura Elisa. "El Desorden." Between Woman and Nation: Nationalism, Transnational Feminism and the State. Ed. Caren Kaplan, Norma Alarcon, and Minoo Moallem. Durham: Duke UP, 1999.24-39.

Tedlock, Barbara. "The Clown's Way." Teachings from the American Earth: Indian Religion and Philosophy. Ed. Dennis Tedlock and Barbara Tedlock. New York: Liveright, 1975.

Totten, Samuel, ed. A Century of Genocide: Eyewitness Accounts and Critical Views. New York: Garland, 1997.

Villa, Raul Homero. Barrio-Logos: Space and Place in Urban Chicano Literature and Culture. Austin: U of Texas P, 2000.

Womack, Craig. Red on Red: Native American Literary Separatism. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1999.
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Author:Y Gibson, Eliza Rodriguez
Publication:Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers
Article Type:Critical Essay
Date:Jan 1, 2002
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