Joy Harjo is usually classified as a American Indian poet. A member of the Muskogee tribe, she uses American Indian imagery, folktales, symbolism, mythology, and technique in her work. She writes about women and women’s issues and takes political stands against oppression and the government as well. Landscape and environment play an important part in her work. Many poems have a sense of location or place. Sometimes those places are specific, such as Kansas City or Anchorage. At other times, they are dreamscapes or psychic spaces the poet visits. Many of Harjo’s poems detail journeys and finding a sense of place. This fits with both her personal history and the history of the indigenous Americans, such as the Muskogee, one of the tribes forced to relocate along the Trail of Tears. Connected with landscape and place is memory. Harjo writes from personal and tribal memories, often connecting them with the places she has lived or visited. Another recurring theme is her anger at being half Caucasian and fluent only in English, the language of the “enemies.” Many of her poems articulate this anger.
What Moon Drove Me to This?
Harjo’s first book-length collection of poetry, What Moon Drove Me to This? contained the ten poems from the chapbook The Last Song, as well as many other poems. The book is divided into two sections, “Summer” and “Winter.” The poems contain images and themes that Harjo would develop more in her later works.
One of the characteristics of Harjo’s poetry is the use of imagery from American Indian mythology. Both coyotes and crows appear in this collection. Both animals are trickster figures, and Harjo uses them as such. “Kansas City Coyote” introduces a character who appears in two of the poems. The name later emerges in “Old Lines Which Sometimes Work, and Sometimes Don’t.” In this second poem, Kansas City Coyote is an unreliable male figure.
“I’ll be back in ten minutes. Just going to get cigarettes.” That was the last time I saw him, two years ago.
A more general male coyote reference appears in the poem “Lame Dear.” Crows, or blackbirds, appear in several poems as well, though not always as gender specific as Harjo’s coyote references.
The persona of Noni Daylight also appears for the first time in this collection. Some critics see the Noni Daylight persona as an alter ego of the poet. Also evident in this collection is an awareness of the problem of alcoholism among Native Americans, particularly men. For example, in “Conversations Between Here and Home,” she writes:
Emma Lee’s husband beat her up this weekend. His government check was held up, and he borrowed the money to drink on.
Other poems such as “The Lost Weekend Bar” and “Chicago or Albuquerque” show similar imagery.
She Had Some Horses
Harjo’s second full-length volume, She Had Some Horses, is divided into four uneven parts. Many of the poems in this collection use rhythms and beats influenced by American Indian chants. The first section, “Survivors,” contains twenty-five poems detailing survivors of a variety of things, such as Henry, who survived “being shot at/ eight times outside a liquor store in L.A.” and “The Woman Hanging from the Thirteenth Floor Window,” who may or may not survive—Harjo deliberately leaves the poem open-ended, not completing the story, which could be told about many women.
The second section, “What I Should Have Said,” contains eleven poems. Since the last line of her previous collection was “That’s what she said,” this section of her second book could be considered a follow-up. This section of the book contains poems about the difficulties of connecting in a long-distance relationship.
In the third section, “She Had Some Horses,” Harjo uses the horse as a symbol, as she does in many other poems as well. The horse is a powerful American Indian symbol signifying strength, grace, and freedom, among other characteristics. The title poem begins this section. It repeats the phrase “She had horses” throughout the poem. The horses are varied and vivid: “She had horses who threw rocks at glass houses./ She had horses who licked razor blades.” Later in the poem, Harjo states, “She had some horses she loved./ She had some horses she hated./ They were the same horses.” The other four poems in this section continue to use and build on the imagery and symbolism of horses....
(The entire section is 2001 words.)