The Path to the Milky Way Leads Through Los Angeles Summary

Joy Foster


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

“The Path to the Milky Way Leads Through Los Angeles,” from A Map to the Next World: Poems and Tales, fuses images from Native American spirituality with those of modern life in urban Los Angeles. Borders between myth and contemporary life blur as the poet comments on the spiritual, cultural, and social poverty that afflicts modern city dwellers, especially Native Americans who are separated from their roots as they seek new opportunities in the urban environment.

Harjo opens the poem with “There are strangers above me, below me, and all around me . . . ” It is an ironic echo of the traditional Navajo poem that begins “With beauty before me I walk./ With beauty behind me I walk./ With beauty below me I walk./ With beauty above me I walk./ With beauty all around me I walk.” Thus, the first stanza succinctly conveys the psychological and emotional isolation of Native people living in a place “stripped of anything resembling . . . the songs of human voices on a summer night outside Okmulgee.” The capital of the Creek nation, Okmulgee’s rich spiritual and traditional heritage stands in stark contrast to the spiritually desolate “city of angels.”

Despite the city’s smog, traffic, commercialism, and crime, however, the poet is able to look beyond its deficiencies to perceive the luminous mythic reality that underlies wanton city life. Her spiritual sensibilities lead her to declare that “we matter to somebody,” a surprising statement of faith which seems to contradict the meaninglessness of the urban milieu.

Harjo’s theme of alienation is reinforced throughout the poem by the repeated use of “stranger.” In the last four stanzas, however, Harjo turns to a figure who is no stranger to her poetry or to Native American mythology—-the crow. The spirit animal acts as a link between the world of myth and the world of the twenty-first century. In response to the poet’s question, “What are we doing here?” the bird, who “finds gold in the trash of humans,” replies “Wait, wait and see.” The crow’s cryptic response allows the speaker to move beyond the impersonal, mechanistic, profit-driven values of modern Western culture and “collect the shine of anything beautiful I can find.”


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Adamson, Joni. “And the Ground Spoke: Joy Harjo and the Struggle for a Land-Based Language.” In American Indian Literature, Environmental Justice, and Ecocriticism: The Middle Place. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2001.

Bryson, J. Scott. “Finding the Way Back: Place and Space in the Ecological Poetry of Joy Harjo.” MELUS 27 (Fall, 2002): 169-196.

Keyes, Claire. “Between Ruin and Celebration: Joy Harjo’s In Mad Love and War.” Borderlines: Studies in American Culture 3, no. 4 (1996): 389-395.

Lobo, Susan, and Kurt Peters, eds. American Indians and the Urban Experience. Walnut Creek, Calif.: Altamira Press, 2001.

Riley, Jeannette, Kathleen Torrens, and Susan Krumholz. “Contemporary Feminist Writers: Envisioning a Just World.” Contemporary Justice Review 8 (March, 2005): 91-106.

Scarry, John. “Representing Real Worlds: The Evolving Poetry of Joy Harjo.” World Literature Today 66 (Spring, 1992): 286-291.