The Woman Hanging from the Thirteenth Floor Window Analysis

Joy Foster

The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Joy Harjo’s “The Woman Hanging from the Thirteenth Floor Window,”with its reference point in the contemporary urban environment, mourns the sense of desolation, marginalization, and individual loneliness that arises when women are displaced from their spiritual home. At the same time, the poem encourages readers to acknowledge the lives of those individuals living in poverty in a racist culture who somehow survive despite incredible odds. The poem begins with a description of a woman’s hands pressed to the concrete window moulding of the tenement high-rise where she lives in Chicago with her three children, Carlos, the baby; Margaret; and Jimmy, the oldest. Birds fly overhead like a halo or a “storm of glass waiting to crush her.” With this startling introduction, the poem compels the reader to hear the story that has brought this woman to a devastating point in her life.

The second stanza, merely one short line, attempts to explain her reason for wanting to jump—“She thinks she will be set free”—and thus deftly leads the reader to the woman’s memories about family and home recollected in the third stanza. She thinks of herself first as a mother, but also as a child, “her mother’s daughter and her father’s son.” She has been a wife, with two marriages in the past, and, significantly, has an inextricable and strong connection to all the women in the building who watch her at this crucial juncture in her life. Moving from a...

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Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

For Muscogee Creek writer Harjo, poetry is not so much visual or descriptive as it is evocative. Her gift lies in the transformative expression of feeling and thought, and while at times she cleverly creates a series of complex and conflicting metaphors, she wants her poetry to be clear and alive, to not add to what she calls the confusion of life. Even when writing about painful subjects, Harjo carefully and consciously presents language in a beautiful way, making frequent use of repetition, like a chant, so that ideas enter the reader like a song: “She thinks of all the women she has been, of all/ the men. She thinks of the color of her skin, and/ of Chicago streets, and of waterfalls and pines.” Repetition, with its time-honored place in Native American life and literature, is used most often in storytelling as a way for listeners to enter the spiral of meaning and emerge changed. It is a way too for the narrator, the woman hanging from the thirteenth floor window, to revive the memory of herself as she was before the urban destruction of her life.

In the tenth stanza Harjo repeats the refrain “she thinks of” on six occasions, each time ending the phrase with a concrete image of important people and places: her children, Carlos, Margaret, and Jimmy; her father and mother; and “moonlight nights” and “cool spring storms.” As the woman visualizes the beloved faces and enriching landscape as she re-creates them, the reader believes she will...

(The entire section is 476 words.)


(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.