The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Summer Night” is a thirty-five-line poem visually arrayed so that alternating lines dominate either the right-or lefthand side of the page. The poem, written in free verse, describes the persona’s impressions of a balmy summer night spent waiting for a lover to come home. In an autobiographical piece, Joy Harjo wrote that she had wanted the poem to capture the feel of a humid Oklahoma night and the impressions of her family’s home.

The narrative opens with a description of the nearly full moon and flowers. In the night, children can be heard playing; their parents’ laughter and music can also be heard inside the house. The narrator observes this world, listening to its sounds and feeling its rhythms while she waits, once again, for someone to return home—something that apparently is a common occurrence.

Although the poem is not divided into stanzas, the beginning of line 17 marks a shift in perspective from the neighborhood and other people to focus on the emotions of the speaker. The narrator talks of loneliness and of what it feels like to be waiting in the dark on a humid, heavy summer night. Everyone else is sleeping, and it seems that they are all sleeping with someone: Even the night itself is cradled in the arms of day. The narrator sees herself as the only thing without a partner.

The poem’s final section is marked by the unseen intrusion of the person she has been waiting for, a return heralded by the scent of a honeysuckle brushed by the person, whom Harjo describes as blooming out of night’s darkness. The poem concludes, giving no indication of whether the reunion is pleasant or what problems cause this unnamed individual to be away so often—or even, precisely, who he or she is.

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The arrangement of the alternating lines that dominate either the right-or left-hand side of the page is an important device for several reasons. To capture the languid rhythms of a humid night, Harjo spreads the words across the page so that they almost lazily descend down the page with blank spaces joining succeeding lines. This wispy visual form also makes the poem seem drowsy and heightens the feeling of warm oppressiveness that can occur on a hot, sticky midsummer’s night. Harjo begins the poem by describing the “humid air sweet like melon,” a heaviness that dominates most of the first fifteen lines of the poem. The open, alternating visual array also adds a drifting, floating aspect to the poem and helps to portray the wandering, semifocused attention of someone sitting in the dark listening to the night sounds and waiting. Finally by alternatively pushing the lines right and left, Harjo builds tension, because this placement is unnatural or unfamiliar. The tension helps underscore the narrator’s own subtly expressed tension gained from waiting for someone’s return.

Not only does the poem’s visual sprawl embody the tensions and laziness of the summer night, but it also makes a powerful nonverbal statement about the speaker’s isolation. All lines in the poem—with the exception of one—follow the alternating pattern: After the narrator tells the reader that everyone has a partner with whom to sleep, the reader’s attention is turned to the...

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(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.