She Had Some Horses

by Joy Foster

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The four sections of She Had Some Horses—“Survivors,” “What I Should Have Said,” “She Had Some Horses,” and “I Give You Back”—are arranged so that each succeeding one informs and evokes the others. This structure allows Harjo to build upon key words and phrases, central motifs, and visceral images whose individual power is amplified because of the resonances shared with other poems in the book. Harjo’s focus often revolves around wild nature, colors, animals, seasons, weather, a blighted urban landscape—the elements that provide the recurring images and controlling tone of these poems. Harjo uses these motifs to reflect the driving moods, needs, and sorrows of her self-identification as American Indian as well as of the displacement of those contemporary Indians painfully lost in urban landscapes or out of step with their own culture. These poems not only reflect Harjo’s personal battles with alienation, sorrow, loneliness, and betrayal but also explore these issues as they are reflected in the lives of others, people who have been victims in circumstances similar to those that have oppressed her, her people, and the cultures of all American Indians.

Noni Daylight is a typical Harjo persona, through whom Harjo can examine the disjuncture between the traditions of the persona’s tribal past, the unfulfilled rootedness implied by that past, and the impossible difficulties facing American Indians who move within the dominant Anglo culture of the American cityscape. Like the unnamed voices of poems such as “Anchorage,” “Remember,” and “Drowning Horses,” Noni Daylight struggles with her fears, isolated in an Anglo city. She watches trains rumble through town in “Kansas City” in ”Heartbeat,” she chooses self-destructive behavior and flight by frequenting Albuquerque bars, taking drugs, and finally driving all night waiting for a cleansing “fierce anger/ that will free her.” Finally, in “She Remembers the Future,” Noni addresses her “otherself,” evidently looking for an answer that will provide the connection to the world she has been tracking, an answer that will be more than the impulse to violence that apparently has been Noni’s frequent response. Noni wants “to know/ that we’re alive/ we are alive.”

In many of Harjo’s poems, the past of an American Indian culture—even the contemporary one left behind in the move to a big city—interweaves with the alienating landscapes of urban life. In such inhospitable settings as those of “What Music,” “Backwards,” or “For Alva Benson, and for Those Who Have Learned to Speak,” Harjo alludes to what has been left behind in her speaker’s attempt to assimilate into the white culture: life amid the wild landscapes of the Southwest, a region which contains the speaker’s roots in American Indian tradition and the tribal environment of the pueblo or reservation. This analogy is particularly strong in her repeated references to wild horses, to the power of the untamed, the emotional and ethnic mustang that she invokes in such poems as “Call It Fear,” “Ice Horses,” or “Vision.” Harjo enriches this primal identification with a sacred wild world that remains outside the Anglo urban wasteland by invoking other animal icons: the bears in “White Bear” and “Leaving” and the hawk in “Connection.”

Many of Harjo’s most powerful pieces situate themselves in the urban landscape, the locus of white culture and the void into which so many American Indians disappear. The alienation and anger expressed in this poetry circles back to the speakers’ homelands in an attempt to connect or reconnect with their roots. It is in this setting that Harjo exhorts the listener in “Remember,” saying, “Remember that you are all people and that all people/ are you.” These sentiments, expressed so often...

(This entire section contains 850 words.)

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in her poems, underscore the bitterness and alienation of the American Indian swallowed by the dominant Anglo culture in a world that apparently refuses to concern itself with learning about and respecting Indian history and traditions.

The book’s final poem, “I Give You Back,” deals directly with the fears Harjo explores in the book’s other poems. No longer seeing fear as embodying the most important part of herself, the poem’s persona disclaims any tie with her terror of white oppression, including rape, displacement, the murder of children, and the countless other ways that the dominant culture has brutalized the speaker and her people. As a capstone poem to this volume, “I Give You Back” claims ownership of such tyrannies as fears of joy, love, hatred, a mixed racial background, and one’s own anger. Claiming herself back from fear, the persona understands the crippling nature of her terror while simultaneously embracing it as an integral part of her self. As the final poem in this collection, “I Give You Back” addresses the issues that Harjo’s other poems have explored: the displacement, despair, and psychic immobility of the Indian people, whose stories her poems have brought to life. She Had Some Horses ends on a cathartic note, refusing to break under the tyranny of a culture that has done its best to obliterate all that is important to the people about whom Harjo writes.