The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Joy Harjo’s “She Had Some Horses” consists of eight stanzas punctuated by a common refrain with a coda at the end of the work. The poem, written in the form of an American Indian chant, explores a woman’s struggle to shape her identity as a modern Native American living in the alien environment of Euro-American culture. The mythic image of the horse, repeated at the beginning of and between every stanza, is juxtaposed with paradoxical images and events from the speaker’s life in twentieth century America. These juxtapositions not only sharply define the psychological, spiritual, and cultural conflicts at war in the woman’s conscious and subconscious minds, but also build toward the speaker’s self-recognition. At the end of the poem, the speaker achieves psychological and spiritual unity by accepting the contradictory sides of her psyche, thereby giving birth to a new and complete being.

The speaker’s search for wholeness is rooted in the physical world of contemporary life as well as in the mystical realm of Native American myth and legend. The first line of the poem, “She had some horses,” calls upon one of the most powerful and enduring symbols in Native American culture. Every line in the succeeding stanzas begins with, “She had horses . . .,” reinforcing the speaker’s American Indian identity. The poem explores all facets of the woman’s existence, from the elements that make up her physical being to the components of her...

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Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

As a Native American writer, Harjo follows a different aesthetic from her Western counterparts. The oral traditions of her Muscogee Creek heritage are central to her poetic vision and expression. Although she is acquainted with classic European forms, she chooses not to use them. Her use of the chant form in “She Had Some Horses” is an example of her commitment to her Native American heritage, as well as her defiance of the dominant Anglo culture and its traditions.

The horse was an important spiritual icon to the Plains Indians and symbolizes power, strength, and survival. The speaker views the horse in these culture-specific terms but appropriates the horse as her own personal spirit animal who breaches the boundaries between American Indian myth and tradition and mainstream Anglo society. The refrain and the rhythmic repetition of “She had some horses” and “She had horses” act as a mystical incantation invoking healing and wholeness. The syntactical linkage connects each line to the next, leading the reader through the work and providing an underlying continuity that unites the disparate images of violence, fear, and anger that permeate the poem.

The horse is especially significant as a symbol of survival. The speaker’s mind is a spiritual and psychological battleground where conflicting points of view threaten to overcome and extinguish the woman’s spirit. The various horses in the poem represent the fractured spiritual...

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Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

She Had Some Horses springs directly from Joy Harjo’s experience as an American Indian and as a woman. The joining of these two perspectives moves her poetry from the present in which her personae speak to a temporal space that, at times, seems to span millennia and to articulate experiences in a universal voice. In particular, Harjo conjoins the deep losses suffered by contemporary American Indians—who essentially have been removed from their cultural roots and lands—with those reductions and infringements that women, whether American Indian or of other origins, experience in their daily lives. Thus the equation of gender and ethnicity serves as an underpinning to the powerful statement that the poems in this book combine to make. Harjo’s writing is intensely personal: A persona’s voice will often speak simultaneously to itself—working through a loss, a disappointment, or a terror—and to the reader, as if such sharing of intimacy somehow has the power to touch, sensitize, and change any who might chance to overhear.

Harjo’s writing articulates sorrow, alienation, and anger, emotions that infuse and shape a poem’s tone and style as well as provide insight into the writer’s sense of self, racial identity, and outsider status. Although the poems’ visual and emotional landscapes are often bleak, they also offer hope, particularly at the conclusion of the book’s final poem, “I Give You Back.”

The form of the poems also contributes to the sometimes angry, sometimes lonely, but always intense quality of the collection. Written with open lines and free and varied structure, a poem’s arrangement on the page echoes the fragmentation, the angry punctuation of emotion in the face of loss and alienation, and the confusion evident in the words and rhythms. Harjo believes that poetry is meant to be heard, not read; however, the incantatory nature of a piece such as the title poem, “She Has Some Horses,” takes on both an auditory and a visual chanting rhythm because the lines are arranged so densely on the page.


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Harjo has said that she particularly identifies herself and her writing with the female, with the pains, sorrows, and victories of women. “The Woman Hanging from the Thirteenth Floor Window” provides the most passionate and disturbing example of her commitment to examining painful subjects explicitly through a woman’s eyes: suicide, fear, and detachment in an East Chicago slum. This woman also serves as an emblem for the American Indian trapped in the white city and forced to a brink, perhaps pushed out onto that sill by an uncaring Anglo culture—ironically, in a high rise built by American Indian construction workers. Harjo has said that this poem is informed by her experience at the Chicago Indian Center. Mirroring contemporary American Indian alienation in Anglo culture, this poem ends inconclusively. Harjo does not show the woman jumping or retreating inside: Both possibilities remain, leaving the unnamed woman alone, isolated and immobilized in a city that is not her own. Although this and many of Harjo’s poems speak expressly to the pain of women, they also reflect a larger suffering, that of the dispossessed American Indian of either gender, as in “Night Out” or “The Friday Before the Long Weekend.”

Joy Harjo’s contribution to American women’s literature is particularly important because of the explicit focus of her work on the point of view of American Indian women. Almost any of her poems can be read as commentary on the...

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Ballassi, William, John F. Crawford, and Annie O. Eysturoy, eds. This Is About Vision: Interviews with Southwestern Writers. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1990. Contains an interview with Harjo that examines her treatment of diversity; her role as a teacher, a feminist, and a challenger of the literary canon; and the importance of music in her life and to her writing.

Bruchac, Joseph. “The Arms of Another Sky: Joy Harjo.” In The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions, edited by Paula Gunn Allen. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986. An extensive treatment of the style, structure, and subject matter of Harjo’s poetry.

Harjo, Joy. Interview by Stephanie Izarek Smith. Poets and Writers Magazine 21, no. 4 (1993): 22-27. Examines Harjo’s background, her role as a poet, her feminism, and her work.

Harjo, Joy. “A MELUS Interview with Joy Harjo.” Interview by Helen Jaskoski. MELUS: The Journal of the Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States 16, no. 1 (1989-1990): 5-13. Harjo discusses poets who have had an influence on her own work, her vision of what her poetry is meant to accomplish, and the concept of the woman warrior.

Harjo, Joy. “Ordinary Spirit.” In I Tell You Now: Autobiographical Essays by Native American Writers, edited by Brian Swann and Arnold Krupat. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987. Harjo’s essay is a useful introduction to her life.

Harjo,Joy. “The Story of All Our Survival: An Interview with Joy Harjo.” Interview by Joseph Bruchac. In Survival This Way: Interviews with American Indian Poets, edited by Bruchac. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1987. Harjo discusses She Had Some Horses, her roots, and her role as a female American Indian writer.

Pearlman, Mickey, ed. Listen to Their Voices: Twenty Interviews with Women Who Write. New York: W. W. Norton, 1992. The interview with Harjo explores her role as a teacher of creative writing, her own writing, and its sources in her life’s experience.