What does the poem "Remember" by Joy Harjo mean?

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Vikash Lata eNotes educator| Certified Educator


The poem aims at instilling a sense of gratitude in us towards everything that constitutes our environment. It underscores the point how inextricably we are linked to one another and the natural environment. To achieve peace and harmony, it’s important that we do “remember” how we owe our existence to all that constitute the environment – from our parents to plants, trees and animals; from the sky to the earth; from the sun and the moon to the wind, and, finally, to the whole universe.

The poet might be afraid that man is growing too selfish and detached from its environment. So, she comes up with this poem to remind us how man is fundamentally associated with everything around him.

The title of the poem “Remember” has been repeated sixteen times in the poem. The refrain is used every time the poet introduces a new idea. It lends the poem the character of a chant or a hymn. This repetition helps in bringing home the central message of the poem - how man is related and attached to his environment.

The poem begins by reminding us about our association with the sky and the stars. Then, it tells us about the significance of the moon and the sun in our lives. It talks about the importance of the moments of sunrise and sunset. While one is the “strongest point of time” heralding a new day and filling us with newer energy and hope, the other "gives way to night," the time to take rest and fall asleep.

The poem, then, goes on to remind us of the immense pain our mothers took to give us life.

Remember your birth, how your mother struggled
to give you form and breath. You are evidence of
her life, and her mother's, and hers.

Then, it talks about fathers, without whom our lives wouldn’t have been possible. Certainly, the poet is trying to inculcate in us a sense of gratitude towards each of them. 

Joy Harjo, then, exhorts us to “remember the earth whose skin you are.” Irrespective of the colors of our skins, each of us has some part of the earth in us. In this way, the earth is the mother of all of us. Then, the poet talks about plants, trees and animals; reminding us that they are all alive.

Remember the plants, trees, animal life who all have their
tribes, their families, their histories, too. Talk to them,
listen to them. They are alive poems.  

Harjo tells us that the wind that blows "knows the origin of the universe."

Consider these lines:

Remember that you are all people and that all people are you.
Remember that you are this universe and that this universe is you

Here, the poet underscores the point that we are all connected and united. The whole of universe is a single entity. Harjo's argument rubbishes the existence of differences and discordance in the world.

So, we see that the meaning of the poem is quite clear. It talks about the inseparable connection of human beings with each other and with the natural world. It urges us to remember the importance of each of them in our lives. If we're able to acknowledge this, we’d be able to establish a state of blissful harmony in this world of diversities. 

epollock | Student

“Remember” relies on anaphora, or repetition. The speaker uses the word “remember” fifteen times in the poem, which might therefore be considered a poem or catechism of gratitude for life and all that it offers. The speaker is a person who connects present existence with past existence, even before those who are now alive were alive. The listener is a person, probably younger than the speaker, who is benefiting from the insights and wisdom of the speaker, who is, in effect, a seer with oracular powers. The implication of the ideas in this poem is that our perception of the universe is an endless continuum that began before our birth and will continue beyond our lives.