Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 626
The imagery in this poem by Native American writer Joy Harjo, born Joy Foster, is particularly striking. From the beginning, while we as readers are unclear as to what the horses are really intended to convey—at this juncture, indeed, they might literally be animals—the poet's language recalls the desert landscape of the southwestern USA. The allusions in the poet's language to "maps drawn of blood" remind us that this land belonged first to the Native American peoples, from whom it was wrenched by invaders. The first stanza serves to set the context by reminding us how entrenched the protagonist's "horses" are in the land she comes from:
In particular, the "red cliff" and the "blue air of sky" create vivid mental images of New Mexican landscapes, wildernesses where once the horses of Native American tribes ran. This is the backdrop against which the descendants of these tribes, whose "blood" has flowed over their land, are living.She had horses who were bodies of sand.She had horses who were maps drawn of blood.She had horses who were skins of ocean water.She had horses who were the blue air of sky.She had horses who were fur and teeth.She had horses who were clay and would break.She had horses who were splintered red cliff.
It is not only Native Americans, of course, who suffer from the issues faced by the "horses" in this poem. Personification is used by the poet throughout, making it very evident that the horses, who "waltzed" and "laughed" and "cried," are not literally horses at all, but another group of people—or people's aspects and feelings, perhaps—who are all seen as similar to each other, whether or not they are. Semantic fields of truth and lies and quietude and silence permeate the poem: those who "told the truth" were "stripped bare of their tongues," while others "lied," "spit" and were "afraid." There is a clear connection drawn between the fear of expressing oneself, and the idea of what will happen if one does express oneself. The horses at this juncture are clearly female, as opposed to the "male queens" who make them ashamed of themselves. They feel repressed, constricted; they are not even able to properly name themselves, an issue shared by women and other oppressed classes alike.
What are the horses? The poet doesn't answer this question for us. Instead, she enumerates the many and varied qualities of the horses and the different ways in which they battle through life. The idea of naming, or explicitly stating, things is addressed:
She had horses who called themselves, "horse."
She had horses who called themselves, "spirit," and kept
their voices secret and to themselves.
She had horses who had no names.
She had horses who had books of names.
People address the issue of identity, then, in different ways. Some feel they must claim their identity, no matter what happens to them. They fear reprisals, or anticipate "destruction." Others reject the identities they feel have been placed upon them. All of these behaviors can be observed in the same people, as the poet seems to suggest at the close of the poem:
She had some horses she loved.
She had some horses she hated.
These were the same horses.
As a conclusion, this is powerful. The poet seems to be stating unequivocally that, whether or not we know who we are or where we are going, or understand the people around us, sometimes love and hate can coexist. We can hate and love ourselves at the same time. We can hate and love different qualities in other people, at the same time. Life is more complex than simply grouping people together under names we have placed upon them.