Study Guide

Joy Harjo

Joy Harjo Essay - Critical Essays

Joy Harjo American Literature Analysis

Joy Harjo’s American Indian heritage is an important part of her writing. In her poetry, she often uses Creek myths and symbols. By setting these within the larger context of American life, she illustrates the fears that lie below the surface of actions and events. Many of her poems tell about the lives of people, especially women, in which the natural order of things has been violated. Her images and musical poetic techniques emphasize the emotions present in these situations, and her themes point out a desire for harmony and order. To Harjo, realizing these fears is the first step to the self-knowledge needed to be free and empowered.

Using traditional Native American images juxtaposed with images of modern America enables Harjo to emphasize the clash of values. In her first collection, The Last Song, the poem “3am” describes two Indians in the Albuquerque airport standing amid the chrome and lights surrounding an airline ticket counter. They want to find their way back, “and the attendant doesn’t know that third mesa is part of the center of the world.” The Indians are at odds with the rest of the world, unable to find direction anywhere. Mainstream culture does not recognize ways other than its own. In “White Bear,” a later poem from the 1980 work She Had Some Horses, Harjo uses the same theme, describing a woman ready to board her flight in Albuquerque who stops in the tunnel leading to the plane. She sees her whole life as a state in between staying and leaving, forever existing in the gray area of not knowing who she is. Life becomes a continual balancing act.

For many Indians, this ambiguous existence leads to lives in which they cannot realize their dreams. In “The Woman Hanging from the Thirteenth Floor Window” from She Had Some Horses, Harjo describes the Indian woman’s precarious position as representing “all the women of the apartment/ building who stand watching her.” The section of the book in which the poem appears is called “Survivors” because the people described are victims. Only those who can conquer the victim mentality and the fears and the ambiguities that accompany it will survive the clash of values and the disruption of nature and order. In Mad Love and War details the lives and deaths of people whose heroic deeds live on to infuse the living with the spirit of conquest.

To deal with this subject matter, Harjo uses several recurring images throughout the body of her work. In her second book, she introduced the figure of Noni Daylight, a mystical personage who can move within all spheres, real and mythical, throughout time and place. Because Noni can go anywhere, she can see things from any perspective. Harjo continued to use this figure in her 1980 collection, as in “Kansas City,” in which Noni is a “dishrag wrung out over bones watching trains come and go.” The moon, another of Harjo’s favorite images, takes many guises: lover, spirit, guide, and woman. In an early poem, “Going Toward Pojoaque, a December Full Moon/ 72,” the moon is a spirit, a “winter ghost . . . so bright I could see the bones in my hand.” In a later poem, “Moonlight,” from the 1980 book, the moon is a cruel lover; “the last time I saw her was in the arms of another sky.”

Perhaps the image Harjo is best known for is the horse, which she used for her most popular work, “She Had Some Horses.” Harjo uses the horse in many poems, working with all the qualities associated with the animal: strength, freedom, grace, fury, stubbornness. Horses represent these different aspects of life and also of individual people. The symbol is as ancient as the Native American culture, harking back to humanity’s prehistoric beginnings.

Harjo uses these images to focus on several themes, all of which are related to the central one of survival. Throughout her collections of poetry, she sees nature as disrupted and people as needing order and balance to restore their lives to wholeness. This wholeness includes a connectedness with the past, so she mingles the past and the present, as well as the mythic and the ordinary, in the same poems. Looking at things from this vantage of wholeness enables people to see more clearly and to articulate fears. Naming fears, in turn, allows people to deal with them positively. In “I Give You Back,” the final poem in She Had Some Horses, Harjo writes, “I release you. . . ./ I am not afraid.” Losing the fear is the first step toward empowerment.

Harjo’s 1990 work became more strident. The poems still use Native American landscapes and symbols, but they reach beyond these references. The narrators tell stories of those survivors who have failed because of political violence. They are being eradicated by modern society, but their voices remain as an inspiration for those who live on. They will be heard, like Alva and the others in “For Alva Benson, and for Those Who Have Learned to Speak,” who, despite hardships, raised their voices and found identities. This preoccupation with social concerns led some critics to object that Harjo was becoming too “politically correct” in dealing with the causes. Her main theme, however, remained the same: survival. In the 1990’s, she simply began using different terms.

At the brink of the twenty-first century, Harjo’s work became both more personal and more universal. In Map to the Next World: Poems and Tales, published in 2000, she continued to explore political and cultural themes. Her poetic vision broadened, however, to include references to native Hawaiian myth in her work, which reflected her move to Honolulu. She also attempted to resolve long-standing psychological issues now that she had reached midlife. In “Returning from the Enemy,” for example, she revisits the painful relationship she had with her abusive, alcoholic father in order to make peace with her past. The thirteen new poems that appear in How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems also mirror her more mature perspective. Surveying her whole experience thus far, she laments the loss of youthful idealism in poems such as “Morning Prayers” and faces the future with hard-won confidence in works such as “I’m Not Ready to Die.” As Harjo crossed the threshold of a new millennium, it was evident that her quest for self-definition, justice, and transcendence was becoming even more expansive as she grew as an artist and as a human being.

“She Had Some Horses”

First published: 1983 (collected in She Had Some Horses, 1983)

Type of work: Poem

Using the horse as a many-faceted symbol, Harjo celebrates truths about the human spirit.

“She Had Some Horses,” Harjo’s most frequently anthologized work, is the title poem from the 1983 collection of the same name. In it, she achieves a beautiful, chantlike quality by repeating the three words “She had horses” at the beginning of each line. She also uses the phrase “she had some horses” as a one-line refrain following each stanza. These poetic techniques not only unify the poem but also add emotional impact to its theme, a celebration of human nature in all of its aspects. The many characteristics attributed to the horses represent the many complicated facets of the human spirit.

In the first stanza, the horses are described as things that can be broken, ephemeral things that are hard to pin down: “bodies of sand,” “splintered red cliff,” and “skins of ocean water.” These are natural elements that can be damaged but will reemerge in some form. This is the cycle of nature, and the human spirit, too, follows this pattern.

In the next section, Harjo juxtaposes these images to human characteristics that are aggressive, protruding, and sharp: “horses with long, pointed breasts,” and “horses who licked razor blades.” These images, in contrast with those in the first stanza, reveal the threatening nature of humanity’s intrusion on the delicate balance of the natural order.

Harjo continues to symbolize human traits in the next two stanzas, which cover a wide range of human activity. “She had horses” who “danced in their mothers’ arms,” “waltzed nightly on the moon,” “liked Creek Stomp Dance songs,” and “told the truth, who were stripped/ bare of their tongues.” These phrases refer to Native American myths and images, but as actions they also apply to any human being.

In the next stanza, Harjo refers to names, “horses who called themselves ’horse’” and “horses who had no names.” A name identifies a unique being. As people experience life, their identities go through changes. In one period of life, one name may apply; in another period, perhaps another is more suitable. Changing names points up the complex ways in which people see themselves. Like the changing images of nature in the first stanza, human nature is difficult to pin down.

In the next two stanzas, Harjo’s images become darker. She speaks of destruction and fear: “Horses who screamed out of fear of the silence” and “who/ carried knives to protect themselves from ghosts.” Their fear is intense, but they are powerless; they “waited for destruction” and “waited for resurrection.” In the last stanza, Harjo becomes more bitter. She speaks of the horses “who got down on their knees for any saviour” and who “climbed in her/ bed at night and prayed as they raped her.” This is the climax of the poem, as the complex images of the human spirit tumble in upon one another.

The poem ends in a direct two-line statement followed...

(The entire section is 3956 words.)