Joy Harjo won a big victory over Donald Hall as her “A Postcolonial Tale” edged his “To A Waterfowl,” progressive politics writ large finally proving too much for biting, clever, personal cynicism.

Harjo’s poem, by all rights, should have been vanquished for its reach, its political vulnerability.  It succeeds, however, and we still are not sure why.

A Postcolonial Tale

Everyday is a reenactment of the creation story. We emerge from dense unspeakable material, through the shimmering power of dreaming stuff.

* * *

This is the first world, and the last.

* * *

Once we abandoned ourselves for television, the box that separates the dreamer from the dreaming. It was as if we were stolen, put into a bag carried on the back of a whiteman who pretends to own the earth and the sky. In the sack were all the people of the world. We fought until there was a hole in the bag.

* * *

When we fell we were not aware of falling. We were driving to work, or to the mall. The children were in school learning subtraction with guns, although they appeared to be in classes.

* * *

We found ourselves somewhere near the diminishing point of civilization, not far from the trickster’s bag of tricks.

* * *

Everything was as we imagined it. The earth and stars, every creature and leaf imagined with us.

* * *

The imagining needs praise as does any living thing. Stories and songs are evidence of this praise.

* * *

The imagination conversely illumines us, speaks with us, sings with us.

* * *

Stories and songs are like humans who when they laugh are indestructible.

* * *

No story or song will translate the full impact of falling, or the inverse power of rising up.

* * *

Of rising up.

MARLA MUSE: It’s pretty simple. No “T.S. Eliot difficulty,” and yet this, for instance, is a strangely wonderful passage: “We fought until there was a hole in the bag. When we fell we were not aware of falling. We were driving to work, or to the mall.”

Yea, there’s something very primitive, yet worldly, ancient, yet modern, humble yet cosmic, plain yet epic about Harjo’s poem.  You like ths poem a lot, don’t you, Marla?

MARLA: Are you kidding.  It makes we want to stand up and cheer!

Harjo’s poem is a March Madness monster, definitely.

But what of the Stephen Dunn poem?

MARLA MUSE: I like it, too.  Here it is, arriving on the court:

What They Wanted

They wanted me to tell the truth,
so I said I’d lived among them,
for years, a spy,
but all that I wanted was love.
They said they couldn’t love a spy.
Couldn’t I tell them other truths?
I said I was emotionally bankrupt,
would turn any of them in for a kiss.
I told them how a kiss feels
when it’s especially undeserved;
I thought they’d understand.
They wanted me to say I was sorry,
so I told them I was sorry.
They didn’t like it that I laughed.
They asked what I’d seen them do,
and what I do with what I know.
I told them: find out who you are
before you die.
Tell us, they insisted, what you saw.
I saw the hawk kill a smaller bird.
I said life is one long leavetaking.
They wanted me to speak
like a journalist. I’ll try, I said.
I told them I could depict the end
of the world, and my hand wouldn’t tremble.
I said nothing’s serious except destruction.
They wanted to help me then.
They wanted me to share with them,
that was the word they used, share.
I said it’s bad taste
to want to agree with many people.
I told them I’ve tried to give
as often as I’ve betrayed.
They wanted to know my superiors,
to whom did I report?
I told them I accounted to no one,
that each of us is his own punishment.
If I love you, one of them cried out,
what would you give up?
There were others before you,
I wanted to say, and you’d be the one
before someone else. Everything, I said.

MARLA MUSE: The key word in the poem is ‘they.’  It’s ‘I’ versus ‘they.’

It almost makes the Harjo poem seem shallow by comparison. The Harjo poem is about many people.  Dunn’s poem is about all people.

MARLA MUSE: I have to agree.  This Stephen Dunn poem is amazing.

“What They Wanted” is going to the Elite Eight as it knocks off “A Postcolonial Tale” by a score of 71-50.

So here’s the Elite Eight matchups for the Final Four:

East: Conoley’s “Beckon” v. Creedon’s “Litany”

North: Larkin “Aubade” v. Stanton’s “The Veiled Lady”

South: Dobyns’ “Allegorical Matters” v. Myles’ “Eileen’s Vision”

West: Dunn’s “What They Wanted” v. Muske’s “A Former Love, a Lover of Form”



  1. Nooch said,

    May 24, 2011 at 9:08 am

    TV and the nuclear bomb,
    Born ’round the same time—
    Which has done the most harm?
    Which the greater crime?

  2. Poem support said,

    May 24, 2011 at 12:10 pm


    (Hope delivers the eulogy)

    He was always so interestingly wrong.
    I loved him, in fact for years couldn’t live
    without him, he who helped crystallize
    what I thought by being so opposed to it.
    But it’s time to rejoice.
    Some of the invisible roads
    that run parallel to the great boulevards
    can be seen now; the era of darkness-
    as-illumination has passed. It was useful
    while it lasted, but how nice to discover
    that so few of us count on negatives
    these days to preserve what we hold dear.
    My friends, if you can think of me
    as such, take heart. Meaninglessness
    has ended its long run at the Palace.
    Already, a few of us mere specks
    in the universe have begun
    to insist on our importance.
    May the odors of lilac and laurel waft
    across the river, and float over his grave.
    The great nihilist is dead. He’ll rise again
    when needed. He always has.
    But those of you standing now,
    having turned your backs to me in protest,
    how right that you honor him so.
    It’s the kind of negation that he, I suspect,
    would have thought might lead somewhere,
    might even have thought was hopeful.

    Stephen Dunn

  3. noochinator said,

    March 8, 2018 at 2:14 pm

    “The children were in school learning subtraction with guns, although they appeared to be in classes.”

    This piece by David Cole on guns and schools has haunted me for weeks:

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