November 18, 1998
She Had Some Horses
By Joy Harjo
New York: Thunder’s Press, 1983
Other Books Written by Joy Harjo:
Reinventing the Enemy’s Language:
Contemporary Native Women’s Writing of North America
In Mad Love and War (Wesleyan Poetry)
Secrets from the Center of the World (Sun Tracks, V17)
The Woman Who Fell from the Sky: Poems
The Last Song
What Moon Drove Me to Do This
My knowledge about the author, Joy Harjo, is not vast. What I do know is that she is about my age, she was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1951, and she attended high school at the Institute of American Indian Arts. She received her BA from the University of New Mexico and her M.F.A. from the Iowa Writers Workshop. She is a professor of Native American Literature and Creative Writing, and teaches at the Institute of American Indian Arts and Arizona State University. She is on the Board of Directors for the National Association of Third World Writers, and is on the Policy Panel of the National Endowment for the Arts. She is a prolific poet, and she is very talented. What Harjo and I have in common is love for language and communication, and love for people, especially people who are oppressed.
Harjo is currently (1998) working on a screenplay, and also on a new poetry collection. She writes as one who is deeply wounded about the history of her people, and their current plight as well, and she has something to say about it, and probably always will.
Joy Harjo’s book She Had Some Horses, is not really a story in the traditional sense, nor can it be neatly categorized as a metaphor of some abstract altruism. It is a poetry book, but it tells a story, it tells many stories that fit into a theme of sorrow that the Native American people have carried in their own bodies and souls. Thus, the stories she told to me carved images into my heart as deeply as the blood that throbs within it. The poems are thematic, and there are numerous themes, not particularly in any linear fashion, but randomly. She speaks through the poems as though she were having a cup of coffee with the reader. She remembers certain visions of her past with people she knew, loved, and lost, and then, tells the reader of the insight she gained from it all. She does not say this in exact words, but one knows that she has come to understand many things about life, by these experiences she has woven into poetic structure.
One of her themes is that of death, and it is prevalent in her work, perhaps because it is prevalent in her people, and she has firsthand knowledge of that fact. Thus, she speaks of sorrow. There is for some, sorrow that comes with life. For others, they may “think” they accomplish release from death. But, death defined as a way to deal with, or not deal with, the burden of being who one is, and to whom, and for whom one is responsible, is another kind of death. In addition, under overwhelming circumstances, making it hard to cope with such responsibility, it is hard to judge whether one is right or wrong within the context of one’s own personal situation. Two poems were especially poignant as to this theme.
In “The Woman Hanging From the Thirteenth Floor Window” Harjo speaks of a woman who, I believe, is about to commit suicide. She makes images that are contrastive, much like the choice the woman has between life and death, to which she is pointing our understanding. She creates a realistic image for us, of “a swirl of birds over the woman’s head. Then she gives us the two images of choice, saying, “They could be a halo, or a storm of glass waiting to crush her.” Therefore, she implies that the outcome could be good or bad.
It can be good, in that it “could be a halo,” or bad, in that it is “glass waiting to crush her.” Throughout the poem, she makes these contrastive images, along with her own insight, “She thinks she will be free.” She goes through the poem, talking about the woman’s life, her many children, her youth, her current living situation in “the Indian side of town.” She makes a point to let us know that the woman is in the middle of deciding one way or another. Even if it were not literal suicide, though it may very well be, it is a definite metaphor for suicide. She must choose to live in the white world hungry and poor, barely living and caring for her children, or just giving herself over to not caring anymore, thus, no longer living. She would give up the responsibilities, or she dies to end them. However, Harjo’s haunting words leave us thinking, “She thinks she will be free.” She may be talking about not so much her personal freedom, but a mistake of defining freedom in giving up.
In “Drowning Horses” the author takes us into her long distance conversation with a friend who seems to have given up literally. “She says she is going to kill herself. I am a thousand miles away. Listening.” The intensity of the silence of the author seemed to scream in accentuation, as she “listens” to the other person talking. Even the reader hears the woman’s voice. She begins to speak the “Indian” way, symbolizing phone wire sounds as “an ocean”, and talking of the weapons that are used, like “a restaurant that wouldn’t serve her, / the thinnest laughter, another drink.” Near the end of her poem she begins to identify with the woman on the telephone as she calls herself “another mirror, another running horse.” One can see the image of a beautiful wild animal desperately trying to run from those who would round it up, and domesticate it to what is properly their own. The end is chilling as she finishes the call, not by hanging up, but “I tell her, “Yes. Yes. / We ride out for breath over the distance. / Night air approaches, the galloping other-life. / No sound. No sound. The chilling silence in my head after reading the words created a deep sea of sorrow in me, for the woman I would never know. However, Joy Harjo knew, if only in a poem. More than likely, she knew many like her.
Another theme was that of love, or the desire to have love. It may be defined in some poems, as someone sleeping there tonight, or “ice horses, horses/ who entered through your head, / and then your heart, / your beaten heart.” Still, there are those poems that are apprised of both of these themes, interwoven, like pain and joy, as it comes in life. Love and death seem to be powerfully portrayed more than anything else. Joy Harjo is telling us something very deep. She is telling us of a pain many cannot understand. I do. It is not easy to live “beaten.” One thinks of a wolf that has lost a battle to a stronger, greater wolf. The loser must leave the pack and scrounge around for any kind of living it can find, but never with the pack, because it is the loser, and it is the outsider. It no longer has say for its mate or pups; they stay with the pack…they want to eat. This is the sense one gets in reading this book of poems. Yet, she writes beautifully. Structurally, they are of no special rhythm we might be accustomed to in the poetry of English Renaissance, or even early American poetry. There is rhythm nonetheless. The meter is unique, as a conversation is unique, with stops and movement just as one would be speaking. Therefore, she writes poetry, but it communicates to the reader much like that of an oral representation.
I had a difficult time with the woman who told the writer she was going to kill herself. My inclination would be to tell her no. The author tells her “yes. Yes.” That was the most difficult thing for me to accept. I decided from this poem that the author has a different view of death and afterlife than I have, thus, I cannot tell her she is wrong; but it would be wrong for me. Thus, our love may be defined in different ways, or at least, we may see different boundaries in loving and being loved, and we may have different perspectives of what is living. As in my own life, I have experienced some tragic things. I do not believe, as much as anyone may want to convince me, that the Native American Indian has suffered more than anyone else has in the world, including me. Pain is relative. One loses a child grotesquely, and begins a major organization in spite of the loss, to help others. Another loses a child, becomes an alcoholic, and gives up on life, or happiness, but dies in bitterness. I do believe that pain, sorrow is subjective, and all of us describe our experiences as to how we saw, or felt them, though they may be identical situations. Perhaps our experiences are not identical, but our pain and suffering may be, according to each one’s own subjective view. My pain has been great, to another one of my family members, they may say I’m exaggerating my sorrows, but its my level of sensitivity, and I must live with my own personality. Sometimes, it is hard to make people understand, but my love for others is greater than my need to give up, so I stick around. One never knows whose life may need one’s touch, without even sometimes knowing it. My view of the afterlife is somewhat different than the author’s, I think, but interestingly, she makes some statements that make me believe that the way of a “running horse” is not the right way. Thus, Harjo has reached heights in her own life, some Indians may think, that are unbelievable, and even perhaps impossible. However, she has done it, just as I am doing it. Just as many other people have gone on to live and achieve, even in their pain and sorrows, even in their handicaps. They go on even as a maimed or wounded horse, beautiful, but less graceful than when it was wild, free-spirited, and youthful. I plan to read all of her books. I like her poems, I am eager to understand her, and the feelings she carries for her people, as I carry for mine.
I would like to know what horses stand for to Harjo’s mind, and some of her symbols. In western culture, we have literary symbols, archetypes, and so forth. I would like to understand the Native American Indian’s symbols. I wanted to know what kind of qualities or characteristics an animal or the earth has, that Indians might claim as their own. How do they choose their name, for example, “Two Crows,” as one who is a scavenger, but doubly so, or “Sitting Bull,” as one who is stubborn but strong, and so forth. I know this to be true of Bible characters, for example “Paul”, from “Saul”, because “Paul” means “Little spirit,” or one who needs God’s spirit to guide him because he has a small spirit without God.
I do not know why so much as I just know that I love Native Americans. They are beautiful, creative, and rugged (my identity exactly!) I have been known to love many people, and much too much, though I do not believe you can ever love too much. Perhaps, if I would be an Indian woman, my name would be “Two Doves.”
Check out some of her newer books:
“Crazy Brave” (2012), and “Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings” (2015).