Native American Poet Joy Harjo & the Major Themes in Her Poetry

The poet Joy Harjo is currently on faculty in the English Department at the University of Arizona (Velie 287).

A creative powerhouse, Harjo has published 12 books of poetry and two children’s books (Velie 287). She is also an accomplished saxophone player, dancer, painter and screenwriter (Scarry 1). Of Cherokee descent, Harjo graduated from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa and is a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation of Oklahoma (Scarry 1). Harjo’s early influences include time spent at an all Indian boarding school in 1967, during which the environment devoted to Native American creativity directly inspired her poetic leanings. Harjo also cites a Galway Kinnell poetry reading, the first poetry reading she ever attended, as an event that made literature appear viable and correct as a vocation when she was a fledgling poet (Scarry 1). Best known as a poet, Harjo’s thematic use of animals appears regularly in her poetic works, particularly the horse. Harjo’s most well received book of poetry to date, She Had Some Horses, was published in 1983 by Thunder’s Mouth Press. This paper details Harjo’s use of animal imagery and its thematic resonance in her most powerful poems.

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For Harjo the horse represents Harjo’s dualistic view of the human condition, at once urban and simultaneously of nature. The classic example of this “psychic dualism” occurs in the title poems of Harjo’s She Had Some Horses (Scarry 1). Critic Dan Bellm characterized She Had Some Horses as “a long litany of the `horses’ inside a woman who is trying to become whole” (Scarry 1). However, the poem transcends the physical manifestation of woman and encompasses a larger view of humanity. In this poem, Harjo’s perspective on the fundamental dualism of human nature shines as she personifies a slew of horses engaged in decidedly urban and human pursuits. The poems speaks of “horses who cried in their beer,” a haunting image of addiction, as well as “horses who were much too shy, and kept quiet in stalls of their own making” (Harjo 6). Lines like these show the reader Harjo’s dualistic themes of freedom and captivity, both imposed and self generated.

In the same poem the reader witnesses “horses who spit at male queens who made them afraid of themselves” and “horses who called themselves, “spirit” and kept their voices secret and to themselves” (Harjo 6). Herein the reader feels the urban experience of hate, racism and homophobia, juxtaposed with the spiritual element, the propensity of humans to simultaneously aspire to higher realms while mired in hatred, conformity and separation. Harjo’s brilliant use of metaphor explodes in such passages as “She had horses who got down on their knees for any savior.

She had horses who thought their high price had saved them. She had horses who tried to save her, who climbed in her bed at night and prayed as they raped her” (Harjo 6).The poem is as disturbing as it is beautiful, which speaks to Harjo’s overall point – no human being is prefect, and we are all a work in progress. Harjo’s horses also appear regularly in lyrical studies of addiction, such as in the poem Night Out.

“I have seen you in the palms of my hands, late nights in the bar, just before the lights are about to be turned on. You are powerful horses by then, not the wrinkled sacks of thin, mewing spirit that lay about the bar early in the day, waiting for minds and bellies” (Velie 287). In Night Out we see Harjo’s dualism once again, this time through the freeing effect of intoxication.

The men and women of the bar begin as “wrinkled sacks of thin, mewing spirit,” but regain their natural state – as horses – via alcohol, wherein they transform into “powerful horses” (Velie 287). Harjo paints a dark portrait of addiction in Night Out, as a means to regain lost power, albeit ephemerally – “Your voice screamed out from somewhere in the darkness, another shot, anything to celebrate this deadly thing called living” (Velie 287). However Harjo’s poem remains an honest appraisal of the appeal of alcohol and other addictive substances to those of living in the urban environment, simply because these inebriants offer a way back to self esteem and freedom. The thematic use of horse imagery in the poem What I Should Have Said also illustrates Harjo’s theme of escape – escape back to the halcyon days of Native American freedom, as well as escape to the internal “safe” fantasies of the mind designed to make urban life bearable. The lines in What I Should Have Said that best illustrate this idea include “We are horses knocked out with tranquilizers, sucked into a deep deep sleeping for the comfort and anesthesia death. We are caught between clouds and wet earth, and there is no motion either way” (Velie 288). What I Should Have Said demonstrates the horse’s thematic resonance as the creature that exists between two worlds.

Joy Harjo’s poetry also employs the horse as a metaphor for the creative process. We witness this usage of the horse most clearly in Harjo’s poem Explosion from her 1983 collection She Had Some Horses. “But maybe the explosion was horses, bursting out of the crazy earth near Okemah.

They were a violent birth, flew from the ground into trees, to wait for evening night mares to come after them: then into the dank wet fields of Oklahoma, then their birth cords tied into the molten heart (Harjo 26). In Explosion, the horse comes to symbolize the act of creation itself. Joy Harjo employs poetic images of the horse and effectively employs the theme of the horse as a live conduit between the urban world and the natural world. Harjo’s poems traverse rich interior landscapes that echo the visible world while simultaneously showing its flaws and ugliness. Joy Harjo’s poetic prowess has ranked her firmly in the upper echelon of Native American writers. Her poems divulge a “very personal vision of reality, with images from her own culture illuminating the wider American landscape” (Scarry 1). Harjo’s work does not shy away from the controversial settings of addiction, pain, loss and its impact on Native American culture, however her poems are of such high quality that they transcend social justice poetry and become rather a means to communicate the universal human condition.

Harjo’s expansive use of the horse to “deal fluidly with the themes of past and present—in historic and even prehistoric terms” as well as the personification of urban strife through the dualistic nature of the horse, deepens her work and speaks to a larger audience (Scarry 1).

Works Cited

Harjo, Joy. She Had Some Horses.

New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1983. Print. Scarry, John.

“Joy Harjo: Overview.” Reference Guide to American Literature. Ed. Jim Kamp. 3rd ed. Detroit: St.

James Press, 1994. Web. Velie, Alan R. American Indian literature: An Anthology. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991. Print.


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