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She Had Some Horses (Joy Harjo)

March 7, 2010

I read this collection for the first time last spring for one of my classes. When we read it, we also had to listen to a recording of Harjo delivering some of the poems from this book, and I found that the second time around (having heard Harjo speak her work) I had her voice and her rhythms in my mind as I read. Both times, I found Harjo’s poetry to be beautiful, if somewhat elusive (not an unusual reaction of mine when it comes to poetry, which you know if you’ve read any of my posts about poetry collections). Like many, I found myself wondering what the horses meant…but I didn’t get caught up on that because I was interested in some other things that were happening in the poems.

First, I was intrigued by the way Harjo chose to break up her collection into 4 different parts: Survivors, What I Should Have Said, She Had Some Horses, and I Give You Back. This makes me think of the significance of the number 4 to most Native American cultures — 4 is a sacred number, often used in ceremonies, tied to the 4 directions (for one thing). Aside from that, the first section is the only one not named after one of the poems (or in the case of I Give You Back, the only poem) it contains. At first, I tried to force all the poems in this section to somehow fit under the theme of survival, but obviously that was far too simplistic a technique and I abandoned it quickly. Instead, I read the poems as stories of different eras, different people, and (perhaps most importantly) an enduring spirit that is rising up against the hand that attempts to squash it.

Many of Harjo’s poems are somewhat cryptic, and while I struggle to realize the deeper meanings of each poem, I often feel inadequate upon leaving one poem for the next. Even though I sometimes doubt the depth of my understanding of these poems, the playfulness inherent in many of Harjo’s poems comes through loud and clear. One of my favorite poems in the collection, and also one of the most cryptic (possibly because of just how very short it is), exemplifies many of the aspects of her poetry that I’ve just discussed:

The Poem I Just Wrote
The poem I just wrote is not real.
And neither is the black horse
who is grazing on my belly.
And neither are the ghosts
of old lovers who smile at me
from the jukebox.

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