|Joy Harjo has worked as a painter, a dancer, a musician, a screenwriter, and a teacher, but it is as a poet that she has
reached her widest audience and has made the deepest impression beyond her immediate Native American culture. Of
the many Native American poets who have come to prominence in the past two decades, few have produced such
imaginative and provocative work as Harjo.
More than one critic has commented on Harjo's deep feeling for the myths and world view of her people, a feeling she
has translated into works that have found an increasingly appreciative audience. As Dan Bellm has noted in the Village
Voice Literary Supplement, Harjo is "now writing a visionary poetry that is among the very best we have." It is this strong
sense of ancient Native American values coupled with untraditional visions of our larger society that enables Harjo's
poetry to transcend a particular culture or a single period of time.
Harjo uses poetry to travel to internal landscapes and to return to the visible world. The poet not only employs visual
images to report on these journeys, she also uses the connected sounds she has heard in her mind since childhood.
"Often when I write poems," she told the Tucson Weekly in 1989, "I start not even with an image but a sound." This use of
sound as a starting point for her poetry is an important part of her artistic thinking, as important to her as her early
experience with painting.
In an interview in Pasatiempo in 1989, Harjo is quoted as saying that her approach to writing is similar to a painter's
technique, as "images overlap until they become one piece." Other influences on Harjo's work are even more specific.
For example, there was her experience at Indian boarding school in 1967, when a creative Native American atmosphere
immediately stimulated her artistic ambitions.
In addition, one of the first poetry readings she attended was given by Galway Kinnell, an event that helped turn her mind
in the direction of literature. In a 1993 Poets & Writers interview, Harjo indicated some of the other poets she admires,
among them Pablo Neruda, Okot p'Bitek (a writer from Uganda), Audre Lorde and Gwendolyn Brooks. Among prose
writers she admires, Harjo cites Leslie Marmon Silko and N. Scott Momaday; it is noteworthy that Harjo has often paid
tribute to Silko as the writer to whom she is most deeply indebted. Underscoring her ability to draw upon prose writers for
poetic inspiration, Harjo, in the Poets & Writers interview, characterized another important work, Momaday's House Made
of Dawn, as "a novel that was pretty much a poem."
Many of the poems in Harjo's first collection, a 1975 chapbook entitled The Last Song, are directly rooted in the writer's
own Southwest: such titles as "for a hopi silversmith" and "Watching Crows, Looking South Towards the Manzano
Mountains" give a local flavor to much of this earliest work. Her second collection appeared five years later as What
Moon Drove Me to This? and contains all of the material published in The Last Song, in addition to forty-eight new poems.
This second book gives a clear indication of the writer's desire to encompass wider themes and to work in the
atmosphere of the larger society: the book contains such new poems as "Chicago and Albuquerque," "Crossing the
Border into Canada," and, in "Blackbirds," a consideration of the destruction that can take place when the military comes
in contact with creatures from the wild. Despite the promise contained in this second volume, Harjo does not have
positive feelings about the book. "It should stay out of print," she told Poets & Writers magazine in 1993, "It was a very
young book.... You could see the beginnings of something, but it wasn't quite cooked."
What Moon Drove Me To This
One section of What Moon Drove Me to This? contains "Four Horse Songs" and represents an early use of that animal
as a symbol in her work. The motif of the horse finds its fullest expression in her 1983 volume She Had Some Horses.
Harjo has pointed out more than once that this is the one poem she is most often asked about and the one she least
wants to discuss.
Certainly the horse is one of the most recognizable Native American images, but in Harjo's poetry the animal achieves
what has been called "psychic dualism," a view of our human nature that allows us to see ourselves as a part of, and at
the same time apart from, the rest of nature. In the view of Dan Bellm, "The title poem is a long litany of the `horses'
inside a woman who is trying to become whole." The book contains several other poems in which the horse is used, in
varying degrees, as a symbol for the poet's meanings; these poems include "Call It Fear," "Night Out," "The Black Room,"
and "Kansas City," among others.
At least one other poem in this volume looks forward to a later autobiographical essay: "For Alva Benson, And For Those
Who Have Learned To Speak" directly prefigures the prose piece "Three Generations of Native American Women's Birth
Experience" that Harjo published in the July-August 1991 issue of Ms. magazine.
Other poems in She Had Some Horses take us to earlier and later expressions of ideas that are strongly connected to
each other. For example, "Nandia" and "Anchorage" are reminiscent of what we find in many parts of Secrets from the
Center of the World, while "Rain" is a seminal expression of at least two poems in In Mad Love and War, "A Hard Rain"
and "The Real Revolution is Love." It is also instructive to read "Your Phone Call at 8 AM" in connection with "Are You
Still There," a poem that appeared in her first collection, The Last Song.
Secrets from the Center of the World
Harjo used her first collaboration on a book-length effort to expand on several of her major ideas and concerns. The
1989 Secrets from the Center of the World combines poetic texts by Harjo with photographs by Stephen Strom; the
images are designed to expand the meanings of the printed words. The book not only provides an unusual view of the
American landscape, it also illustrates many of Harjo's Native American mythic beliefs and poetic visions. In her preface
to the book, the poet observes that Strom's photographs show that the world "is not static but inside a field that vibrates.
The whole earth vibrates." This echoes one of Harjo's long-held beliefs, that "in the real world all is in motion, in a state of
change." In this book, as in so much of her work, the poet uses language to represent what she sees as a constant flow
of landscape, history, and myth.
In Mad Love and War
Harjo's 1990 book of poetry, In Mad Love and War, marks a very different direction for the writer. Although the setting
and symbols of the book's opening poem, "Deer Dancer," are clearly drawn from Native American mythology, much of the
book shows a wide variety of other concerns, ranging from the strictly autobiographical ("Rainy Dawn" is about her
daughter), to American music ("Bird" and "We Encounter Nat King Cole as We Invent the Future"), to an intense concern
with the power of love, often seen in a social and political context ("City of Fire" and "The Real Revolution is Love").
The quality of Joy Harjo's poetry has placed her in the first rank of Native American writers. Her work conveys her very
personal vision of reality, with images from her own culture illuminating the wider American landscape. In 1992 Harjo told
interviewers from Tamaqua magazine that her writing technique "is a fusion, much the way jazz is a fusion."
Harjo is a mystical poet who works from dreams, but many of her poems are firmly rooted in the landscapes of politics
and social justice and her work freely indulges in sensual images as an integral part of her meaning. Her further ability to
deal fluidly with the themes of past and present—in historic and even prehistoric terms—gives increased depth to her
Dan Bellm has given this succinct appreciation of the writer's output: "Harjo's work draws from the river of Native tradition,
but it also swims freely in the currents of Anglo-American verse—feminist poetry of personal/political resistance, deep-
image poetry of the unconscious,`new-narrative' explorations of story and rhythm in prose-poem form." Harjo also invites
comparison with poets of a wider tradition.
Brian Swann, in his introduction to Harper's Anthology of 20th Century Native American Poetry, quotes Richard Hugo's
1975 comment to the effect that Native American poets are similar to such writers as T.S. Eliot and William Butler Yeats.
As in the case of the Anglo-Irish Yeats, Harjo is able to thrive in the larger culture while still breathing deeply of her own
native air. Her poetry is permeated with the spirit and symbols of the Native American experience, but it also reverberates
with every dimension of the human experience.
At midcareer Joy Harjo continues to develop as a writer, having moved from the competent, though occasionally
predictable, language of the early poems ("I give you, my beautiful and terrible/fear") to work that resembles some of the
best poetry in American English since Whitman.
"Eagle Poem," a later work, for example, speaks of similarities between prayer and life in this way:
Were born, and die soon within a
True circle of motion,
Like eagle rounding out the morning
In interviews Harjo has identified herself with currents in modern American writing, particularly with the regional depth of
Meridel LeSueur and Flannery O'Connor and the strong voices of Audre Lorde and Alice Walker. As with LeSueur and
O'Connor, Harjo exploits the genius of landscapes (the wide open spaces of her native Oklahoma and the deserts and
mountains of the West) and cityscapes (Albuquerque, Cheyenne, Okemah, Gallup, Okmulgee) that are relatively
unfamiliar to the national literature. She also makes valuable use of and builds upon oral traditions that allow room for
suppressed memories, silences, dreams.
A Creek in background, Harjo often wonders aloud about her own survival and how it was accomplished, when most of
her people have disappeared and continue to disappear. In "Night Out" she talks about people who, like herself, "fought
to get out, fought to get in," fearful, even after paying "the cover charge thousands of times over with your lives" that they
"can never get out." In such poems Harjo speaks of herself and the Native Americans who people her poems—Navajo,
Shawnee, Cherokee, Kiowa—as survivors.
"Anchorage," from the same period, speaks about "the fantastic and terrible" stories of persistence among people whom
many regard as "those who were never meant/to survive." There, as in "For Alva Benson, And For Those Who Have
Learned To Speak," Harjo identifies herself with those who
ourselves die, over and over.
And the ground spinning beneath us
goes on talking.
Although forces have chipped away at her world, as "white soldiers" chipped away at Native American culture from the
beginning, Harjo remains determined "to turn the earth/around" in a cooperative effort to save memories, histories,
As her body of work unfolds, Harjo speaks with increasing confidence, more certain of the value of her own voice and the
authority of the voices she makes room for in her poems. That voice has become, in fact,
not just a name
but an intricate part
of this web of motion,
meaning: earth, sky
From the beginning Harjo not only has celebrated what was destroyed or lost but also has worked to reclaim it through
prayer ("One Cedar Tree"), active resistance ("The Black Room"), and imagination ("Vision"). Beginning with In Mad Love
and War, her work has suggested new strength, insight, and direction.
Although it continues to reflect anger, regret, and anguish over what she and the people she identifies with have
endured, it also carries a powerful sense—in "Transformations," for example—"that hatred can be turned into something
else, if you have the right words, the right meanings, buried in the tender place in your heart where the most precious
Writings by Joy Harjo
The Last Song (Las Cruces, N.Mex.: Puerto del Sol, 1975).
What Moon Drove Me to This? (New York: Reed Books, 1979).
She Had Some Horses, edited by Brenda Peterson (New York: Thunder's Mouth, 1983).
Secrets from the Center of the World, by Harjo and Stephen Strom (Tucson: Sun Tracks/University of Arizona Press,
In Mad Love and War (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1990).
Fishing (Browerville, Minn.: Ox Head, 1992).
The Woman Who Fell from the Sky (New York: Norton, 1994).
Reinventing the Enemy's Language: Contemporary Native Women's Writing of North America (New York: Norton, 1997).