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Joy Harjo American Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 3,956 words.)