Joy Harjo Poetry

All by Joy Harjo, 2007 Featured Poet

Deer Dancer

Nearly everyone had left that bar in the middle of winter except the
hardcore. It was the coldest night of the year, every place shut down, but
not us. Of course we noticed when she came in. We were Indian ruins. She
was the end of beauty. No one knew her, the stranger whose tribe we
recognized, her family related to deer, if that’s who she was, a people
accustomed to hearing songs in pine trees, and making them hearts.

The woman inside the woman who was to dance naked in the bar of misfits
blew deer magic. Henry jack, who could not survive a sober day, thought she
was Buffalo Calf Woman come back, passed out, his head by the toilet. All
night he dreamed a dream he could not say. The next day he borrowed
money, went home, and sent back the money I lent. Now that’s a miracle.
Some people see vision in a burned tortilla, some in the face of a woman.

This is the bar of broken survivors, the club of the shotgun, knife wound, of
poison by culture. We who were taught not to stare drank our beer. The
players gossiped down their cues. Someone put a quarter in the jukebox to
relive despair. Richard’s wife dove to kill her. We had to keep her
still, while Richard secretly bought the beauty a drink.

How do I say it? In this language there are no words for how the real world
collapses. I could say it in my own and the sacred mounds would come into
focus, but I couldn’t take it in this dingy envelope. So I look at the stars in
this strange city, frozen to the back of the sky, the only promises that ever
make sense.

My brother-in-law hung out with white people, went to law school with a
perfect record, quit. Says you can keep your laws, your words. And
practiced law on the street with his hands. He jimmied to the proverbial
dream girl, the face of the moon, while the players racked a new game.
He bragged to us, he told her magic words and that when she broke,
became human.

But we all heard his voice crack:

What’s a girl like you doing in a place like this?

That’s what I’d like to know, what are we all doing in a place like this?

You would know she could hear only what she wanted to; don’t we all? Left
the drink of betrayal Richard bought her, at the bar. What was she on? We all
wanted some. Put a quarter in the juke. We all take risks stepping into thin
air. Our ceremonies didn’t predict this. or we expected more.

I had to tell you this, for the baby inside the girl sealed up with a lick of
hope and swimming into the praise of nations. This is not a rooming house, but
a dream of winter falls and the deer who portrayed the relatives of
strangers. The way back is deer breath on icy windows.

The next dance none of us predicted. She borrowed a chair for the stairway
to heaven and stood on a table of names. And danced in the room of children
without shoes.

You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille With four hungry children and a
crop in the field.

And then she took off her clothes. She shook loose memory, waltzed with the
empty lover we’d all become.
She was the myth slipped down through dreamtime. The promise of feast we
all knew was coming. The deer who crossed through knots of a curse to find
us. She was no slouch, and neither were we, watching.

The music ended. And so does the story. I wasn’t there. But I imagined her
like this, not a stained red dress with tape on her heels but the deer who
entered our dream in white dawn, breathed mist into pine trees, her fawn a
blessing of meat, the ancestors who never left.

Eagle Poem

To pray you open your whole self
To sky, to earth, to sun, to moon
To one whole voice that is you
And know there is more
That you can’t see, can’t hear
Can’t know except in moments
Steadly growing, and in languages
That aren’t always sound but other
Circles of motion.
Like eagle that Sunday morning
Over Salt River. Circled in blue sky
In wind, swept our hearts clean
With sacred wings.
We see you, see ourselves and know
That we must take the utmost care
And kindness in all things.
Breathe in, knowing we are made of
All this, and breathe, knowing
We are truly blessed because we
Were born, and die soon within a
True circle of motion,
Like eagle rounding out the morning
Inside us.
We pray that it will be done
In beauty.
In beauty.


I must keep from breaking into the story by force
for if I do I will find myself with a war club in my hand
and the smoke of grief staggering toward the sun,
your nation dead beside you.

I keep walking away though it has been an eternity
and from each drop of blood
springs up sons and daughters, trees,
a mountain of sorrows, of songs.

I tell you this from the dusk of a small city in the north
not far from the birthplace of cars and industry.
Geese are returning to mate and crocuses have
broken through the frozen earth.

Soon they will come for me and I will make my stand
before the jury of destiny. Yes, I will answer in the clatter
of the new world, I have broken my addiction to war
and desire. Yes, I will reply, I have buried the dead
and made songs of the blood, the marrow.

She Had Some Horses

She had some horses.

She had horses who were bodies of sand.
She had horses who were maps drawn of blood.
She had horses who were skins of ocean water.
She had horses who were the blue air of sky.
She had horses who were fur and teeth.
She had horses who were clay and would break.
She had horses who were splintered red cliff.

She had some horses.

She had horses with long, pointed breasts.
She had horses with full, brown thighs.
She had horses who laughed too much.
She had horses who threw rocks at glass houses.
She had horses who licked razor blades.

She had some horses.

She had horses who danced in their mothers’ arms.
She had horses who thought they were the sun and their bodies shone and burned like stars.
She had horses who waltzed nightly on the moon.
She had horses who were much too shy, and kept quiet in stalls of their own making.

She had some horses.

She had horses who liked Creek Stomp Dance songs.
She had horses who cried in their beer.
She had horses who spit at male queens who made them afraid of themselves.
She had horses who said they weren’t afraid.
She had horses who lied.
She had horses who told the truth, who were stripped bare of their tongues.

She had some horses.

She had horses who called themselves, “horse.”
She had horses who called themselves, “spirit.” and kept their voices secret and to themselves.
She had horses who had no names.
She had horses who had books of names.

She had some horses.

She had horses who whispered in the dark, who were afraid to speak.
She had horses who screamed out of fear of the silence, who carried knives to protect themselves from ghosts.
She had horses who waited for destruction.
She had horses who waited for resurrection.

She had some horses.

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.

She had some horses.

She had some horses she loved.
She had some horses she hated.

These were the same horses.

September Moon

Last night she called and told me
about the moon over San Francisco Bay.
Here in Albuquerque it is mirrored
in a cool, dark Sandia sky.
The reflection is within all of us.
Orange, and almost the harvest
moon. Wind and the chill of the colder
months coming on. The children and I
watched it, crossing San Pedro and Central
coming up from the state fair.
Wind blowing my hair was caught
in my face. I was fearful of traffic,
trying to keep my steps and the moon was east,
out of any skin that was covering her. Naked.
Such beauty.


We are alive. The woman of the moon looking
at us, and we looking at her, acknowledging
each other.


Yes that was me you saw shaking with bravery, with a government issued
rifle on my back. I’m sorry I could not greet you as you deserved, my

They were not my tears. I have a resevoir inside. They will be cried
by my sons, my daughters if I can’t learn how to turn tears to stone.

Yes, that was me standing in the back door of the house in the alley,
with fresh corn and bread for the neighbors.

I did not forsee the flood of blood. How they would forget our
friendship, would return to kill me and the babies.

Yes, that was me whirling on the dance floor. We made such a racket
with all that joy. I loved the whole world in that silly music.

I did not realize the terrible dance in the staccato of bullets.

Yes. I smelled the burning grease of corpses. And like a fool I
expected our words might rise up and jam the artillery in the hands of

We had to keep going. We sang our grief to clean the air of turbulent

Yes, I did see the terrible black clouds as I cooked dinner. And the
messages of the dying spelled there in the ashy sunset. Every one
addressed: “mother”.

There was nothing about it in the news. Everything was the same.
Unemployment was up. Another queen crowned with flowers. Then there
were the sports scores.

Yes, the distance was great between your country and mine. Yet our
children played in the path between our houses.

No. We had no quarrel with each other.

Rushing the Pali

There’s not enough time,
no puka to squeeze through
the head, then the shoulder
then the rest of it
a perfect creation
with hands, feet and
a mystical heart.
It’s too late.
I’ve promised a ride
to Hula, and then
I am to paddle
to Kewalo
and back in sprint time
that is after the cleaners
and a few phone
calls to figure out how
to remove
mildew from synthetics.
There is holy woven
through all life
if that is so then even in the rush
can be found
mythic roots for example how
this island was formed
from desire and fire
from the bottom of the sea
and how we came to be
here, next to the flowers
teased by winds
who travel freely back and forth
from the other side.
I am attracted
by the songs of the holy
curling indigo,
sea turtles alongside the canoe
or a mist of elegant consciousness
floating above the clatter
of annoyance.
There was dawn and the color
of ashes just before the sun
when the spirits of dancers before us
joined and the earth moved
lightly because she was
Singing is behind it.
We can sing ourselves
to the store or eternity as surely
as we were born into
this world naked and smeared
with blood and fight.
No time to keep putting it off
these thoughts of the holy
first one petal, and then
another, like sunrise
over the Pacific
until there is a perfect human.
And then rain over the Pali
as we slow for a stop,
and then the traffic starts
all over again.

I Am Not Ready To Die Yet

My death peers at the world through a plumeria tree
And the tree looks out over the neighbor’s house to the Pacific
And the blue water god commands this part of the world
Without question, rules from the kingdom of secrets
and tremendous fishes. I was once given to the water.
My ashes will return there,
but I am not ready to die yet
Nor am I ready to leave the room
In which we made love last night.

This morning I carry the desire to live, inside my thigh
It pulses there: a banyan, a mynah bird or young impatient wind
Until I am ready to fly again, over the pungent flowers
Over the sawing and drilling workmen making a mess
In the yard next door, over water
And the memory of your shoulders
In candlelight.

It is endless, this map of eternity, like a watermonster
Who swallows everything whole including the bones
And all the terrible words and how it blooms
With delectable mangoes, bananas
With the most faithful of planets,
But I am not ready to die yet.

And when it happens, as it certainly will, the lights
Will go on in the city and the city will go on shining
at the edge of the water—it is endless, this map
And the waves of longing from the kingdom of suffering
Will linger in the room in which we made love last night—
When I am ready to die I will know it,
As surely as I know your gaze
As we undressed close to the gods in that room.

There will be flowers, there are always flowers,
And a fine blessing rain will fall through the net of the clouds
Bearing offerings to the stones, to all who linger
Here— It will be a day like any other.
Someone will be hammering
someone frying fish
The workmen will go home
to eat poi, pork and rice.

It’s Raining in Honolulu

There is a small mist at the brow of the mountain,
each leaf of flower, of taro, tree and bush shivers with ecstasy.

And the rain songs of all the flowering ones who have called for the rain

can be found there, flourishing
beneath the currents of singing.

Rain opens us, like flowers, or earth that has been thirsty for more
than a season.
We stop all of our talking, quit writing or blowing sax to drink the
mystery invoked
by the night rain.

We listen to the breathing beneath our breathing.

This is how we became rain.

Translated, this means a white flower behind your ear is saturated with
faith after the second overthrow.

We will plant taro where there were curses.

In Honor of Mo Who Is Our Cat, and We Are Hers

First we heard her heart,
a motor larger than her small mew self;
it filled her up, then us
when we touched.
And then the room
and everything in the room:
the couch, the windows, the door
and eventually every room in the house
and the yard
and beyond the yard to many years
of our lives—
This Mo
revealed herself a hunter:
of mouse
of roaches and any crawling thing
of birds
(most she could not catch and we
—the birds and us—were grateful)
of sunlight,
dog and plant leaf,
feet under blankets,
cords, wires
and laps and even computers—
This Mo became the first to answer every door
and greet every visitor from beyond
especially those who dislike cats—
(those she greets most heartily
she has a sense of humor).
This Mo of catdom
in the winter grows
a stunning Siamese stole
she cleans daily to a shine
and gleam
and in the summer sheds it all
and stalks the house and yard
dressed ratty
in a jacket she still cleans
with fruitless effort—
This catward, forward Mo has weathered
the come and go of houses, dogs
and humans, the dragging her
and chasing her, and the
stealing of birds from the dominion of her
crying into her fur with her—
We know her as Mo: short for motor,
more better, more cat soul
per square or round inch—
most appreciative we are, and more.


Say I chew desire and water is an explosion
of sugar wings in my mouth.

Say it tastes of you.

Say I could drown because you left
for the time it takes a blackbird to understand
a pine tree.

Say we enter the pine woods at dawn.

We never slept and the only opium we smoked
was what became of our mingled breath

Say the stars have never learned to say goodbye. (One is a jewel
of blue magic in your perfect ear.)

Say all of this is true and more

Then there are blackbirds
in a heaven of blackbirds.


June, I don’t have to use magic burned into roots
of antelope words
to tell you what I mean, when I say I met myself in
the Egyptian Room

just a few days before my thirty-sixth birthday. It wasn’t
vertigo, though
vertigo is common in the bowels of the concrete monster.
Crossing Fifth

Avenue was a trick of the imagination. It wasn’t that. By
the time I had
forgiven the stolen pyramidal gateway my heart had
become a phoenix of

swallowed myths. They appeared as angry angels stalking
the streets, who
prophesize resurrection of flowers as they tether skeleton
horses, stake out

the warmest corners. I have seen them write poetry in your
poetry. They’ll
tell you there is no heaven or hell; it’s all the same

I have seen heaven in a woman’s eyes the color of burnt
I have seen hell, in those same eyes, and I have jumped.
It’s all the same.

I entered that room naked except for the dream of carrying
a water jar to
the river. And within that dream a crocodile cruised the
grasses, watched

me dip it, then drove me down. I remembered none of it
as the spin of
-broken sky replaced my meager human memory. And woke
up, five

years old in a sweaty army blanket on a cot in Oklahoma,
to see the false
fronts of sepulchres painted with the masks of rulers, the

underlined with kohl, my child’s eyelash a leap in time. I
once again
offered my rebel spirit up to the living. And awoke,
startled to cradle

my ribs of water years later in an Egyptian Room that is
merely fractile of
Egypt, to take on this torture of language to describe once
more what can’t

be born on paper. It goes something like this: when the
mythic spiral of time
turned its beaded head and understood what was going
on, it snapped. All

these years I had been sleeping in the mind of the snake,
June. I have to tell
this to someone.

Song Lyrics / Song Poems Written in Collaboration

Fear Poem (Joy Harjo, John L. Williams & Susan M. Williams)

I release you, my beautiful and terrible
fear. I release you. You were my beloved
and hated twin, but now, I don’t know you
as myself. I release you with all the
pain I would know at the death of
my children.

You are not my blood anymore.

I give you back to the white soldiers
who burned down my home, beheaded my children,
raped and sodomized my brothers and sisters.
I give you back to those who stole the
food from our plates when we were starving.

I release you, fear, because you hold
these scenes in front of me and I was born
with eyes that can never close.

I release you
I release you
I release you
I release you

I am not afraid to be angry.
I am not afraid to rejoice.
I am not afraid to be black.
I am not afraid to be white.
I am not afraid to be hungry.
I am not afraid to be full.
I am not afraid to be hated.
I am not afraid to be loved,

to be loved, to be loved, fear.

Oh, you have choked me, but I gave you the leash.
You have gutted me but I gave you the knife.
You have devoured me, but I laid myself across the fire.

I take myself back, fear.
You are not my shadow any longer.
I won’t take you in my hands.
You can’t live in my eye, my ears, my voice
my belly, or in my heart my heart
my heart my heart
But come here, fear
I am alive and you are so afraid
of dying.

For Anna Mae Pictou Aquash (Joy Harjo, John L. Williams & Susan M. Williams)

Beneath a sky blurred with mist and wind,

I am amazed as I watch the violet
heads of crocuses erupt from the stiff earth
after dying for a season,
as I have watched my own dark head
appear each morning after entering
the next world
to come back to this one,
It is the way in the natural world to understand the place
the ghost dancers named after the heart breaking destruction.
Anna Mae,
everything and nothing changes.
You are the shimmering young woman
who found her voice,
when you were warned to be silent, or have your body cut away
from you like an elegant weed.
You are the one whose spirit is present in the dappled stars.
(They prance and lope like colored horses who stay with us
through the streets of these steely cities. And I have seen them
nuzzling the frozen bodies of tattered drunks
on the corner.)
This morning when the last star is dimming
and the busses grind toward
the middle of the city, I know it is ten years since they buried you
the second time in Lakota, a language that could
free you.
I heard about it in Oklahoma, or New Mexico,
how the wind howled and pulled everything down
in righteous anger.
(It was the women who told me) and we understood wordlessly
the ripe meaning of your murder.
As I understand ten years later after the slow changing
of the seasons
that we have just begun to touch
the dazzling whirlwind of our anger,
we have just begun to perceive the amazed world the ghost dancers
crazily, beautifully.

A Postcolonial Tale (Joy Harjo & John L. Williams)

Every day is a reenactment of the creation story. We emerge from dense unspeakable material, through the shimmering power of dreaming stuff.

This is the first world, and the last.

Once we abandoned ourselves for television, the box that separates the dreamer from the dreaming. It was as if we were stolen, put into a bag carried on the back of a whiteman who pretends to own the earth and the sky. In the sack were all the people of the world. We fought until there was a hole in the bag.

When we fell we were not aware of falling. We were driving to work, or to the mall. The children were in school learning subtraction with guns.

We found ourselves somewhere near the diminishing point of civilization, not far from the trickster’s bag of tricks. Everything was as we imagined it. The earth and stars, every creature and leaf imagined with us.

The imagining needs praise as does every living thing. We are evidence of this praise, and when we laugh, we’re indestructible. No story or song will translate the full impact of falling, or the inverse power of rising up. Of rising up.

Our children put down their guns when we did to imagine with us. We imagined the shining link between the heart and the sun. We imagined tables of food for everyone. We imagined the songs.

The imagination conversely illumines us, sings with us, dances with us, drums with us, loves us.


I think of Wind and her wild ways the year we had nothing to lose and lost it anyway in the cursed country of the fox. We still talk about that winter, how the cold froze imaginary buffalo on the stuffed horizon of snowbanks. The haunting voices of the starved and mutilated broke fences, crashed our thermostat dreams, and we couldn’t stand it one more time. So once again we lost a winter in stubborn memory, walked through cheap apartment walls, skated through fields of ghosts into a town that never wanted us, in the epic search for grace.
Like Coyote, like Rabbit, we could not contain our terror and clowned our way through a season of false midnights. We had to swallow that town with laughter, so it would go down easy as honey. And one morning as the sun struggled to break ice, and our dreams had found us with coffee and pancakes in a truck stop along Highway 80, we found grace.

I could say grace was a woman with time on her hands, or a white buffalo escaped from memory. But in that dingy light it was a promise of balance. We once again understood the talk of animals, and spring was lean and hungry with the hope of children and corn.

I would like to say, with grace, we picked ourselves up and walked into the spring thaw. We didn’t; the next season was worse. You went home to Leech Lake to work with the tribe and I went south. And, Wind, I am still crazy. I know there is something larger than the memory of a dispossessed people. We have seen it.

Reconciliation – A Prayer

We gather by the shore of all knowledge as peoples who were put here by a god who wanted relatives.

This god was lonely for touch, and imagined herself as a woman, with children to suckle, to sing with – to continue the web of the terrifyingly beautiful cosmos of her womb.

This god became a father who wished for others to walk beside him in the belly of creation.

This god laughed and cried with us as a sister at the sweet tragedy of our predicament – foolish humans –

Or built a fire, as a brother to keep us warm.

This god who grew to love us became our lover, sharing tables of food enough for everyone in this whole world.


Oh sun, moon, stars, our other relatives peering at us from the inside of god’s house walk with us as we climb into the next century naked but for the stories we have of each other. Keep us from giving up in this land of nightmares which is also the land of miracles.

We sing our song which we’ve been promised has no beginning or end.


All acts of kindness are lights in the war for justice.


We gather up these strands broken from the web of life. They shiver with our love, as we call them the names of our relatives and carry them to our home made of the four direction and sing:

Of the south, where we feasted and were given new clothes.

Of the west, where we gave up the best of us to the stars as food for the battle.

Of the north, where we cried because we were forsaken by our dreams.

Of the east because returned to us is the spirit of all that we love.

My House Is the Red Earth

My house is the red earth. It could be the center of the world. I’ve heard New York, Tokyo or Paris called the center of the world but I say it is magnificently humble. You could drive by and miss it. Radio waves can obscure it. Words cannot construct it for there are some sounds left to sacred wordless form. For instance, that fool crow picking through trash near the corral, understands the center of the world as greasy scraps of fat. Just ask him. He doesn’t have to say that the earth has turned scarlet through fierce belief, after centuries of heartbreak and laughter.

If you look with the mind of the swirling earth near Shiprock, you become the land beautiful, and understand how three crows at the edge of the highway laughing, become three crows at the edge of the world laughing.

Don’t bother the earth spirit who lives here. She is working on a story. It is the oldest story in the world and it is delicate, changing. If she sees you watching she’ll invite you in for coffee, give you warm bread and you will be obligated to stay and listen. But this is no ordinary story. You will have to endure earthquakes, lightning, the deaths of all those you love, the most blinding beauty. It’s a story so compelling you may never want to leave. This is how she traps you. See that stone finger over there? That is the only one who ever escaped.

Surrender (Revision)

When I turned out the light to surrender to the expansion of night
I went nowhere but exhaustion.
We wound circles to Pink Floyd and powwow, and skidded when the music
Stopped for musical chairs,
Underneath balloons in honor of baby’s first year.
She’s starting to walk.
I’m amazed at what gets paved by the grind of time
By forgiving. Or do I say, surrender?
I should take rest easy then, this day near equinox marking a festival of crossroads.
We had good weather.
Still I tumble relentlessly over this sleepless hump of worry.
I’m restless for vision, the next song.
For something other than the electrical switch that only takes me back
To where I started: an adobe room in a time of decay,
A small life on planet Earth, and what we imagine here.
When Rain called with the latest on her step-girl’s pregnancy,
We questioned what happened during the delicate web of formation:
Drugs? Coffee? Pesticides in the salad?
Or the old uranium tailings that are everywhere in the winds crossing Gallup?
I had to think through the dark and the dark was no longer a beautiful
Pathway, to stomp dances in the middle of a field of stars.
Funky, I called it.
Rough knowledge bares teeth in the nasty vortex of this brutal civilization.
Think musical chairs, I tell myself. And begin to imagine the falling away.
Each baby with ten fingers and toes, each dance taken.
The beauty prayer will bear me up and we will get there,
Yes we will, said the dark. Surrender.


This is the longest day of the year, on the Illinois River or a similar river in the same place. Cicadas are part of the song as they praise their invisible ancestors while fish blinking back the relentless sun in Oklahoma circle in the muggy river of life. They dare the fisher to come and get them. Fish too anticipate the game of fishing. Their ancestors perfected the moves, sent down stories that appear as electrical impulse when sunlight hits water. The hook carries great symbology in the coming of age, and is crucial to the making of warriors. The greatest warriors are those who dangle a human for hours on a string, break sacred water for the profanity of air then snap fiercely back into pearly molecules that describe fishness. They smell me as I walk the banks with fishing pole, nightcrawlers and a promise I made to that old friend Louis to fish with him this summer. This is the only place I can keep that promise, inside a poem as familiar to him as the banks of his favorite fishing place. I try not to let the fish see me see them as they look for his tracks on the soft earth made of fossils and ashes. I hear the burble of fish talk: When is that old Creek coming back? He was the one we loved to tease most, we liked his songs and once in awhile he gave us a good run. Last night I dreamed I tried to die, I was going to look for Louis. It was rather comical. I worked hard to muster my last breath, then lay down in the summer, along the banks of the last mythic river, my pole and tackle box next to me. What I thought was my last breath floated off as a cloud making an umbrella of grief over my relatives. How embarrassing when the next breath came, and then the next. I reeled in one after another, as if I’d caught a bucket of suckers instead of bass. I guess it wasn’t my time, I explained, and went fishing anyway as a liar and I know most fishers to be liars most of the time. Even Louis when it came to fishing, or even dying. The leap between the sacred and profane is as thin as a fishing line, and is part of the mystery on this river of life, as is the way out. People continue to make warriors in the strangest of times. I save this part of the poem for the fish camp next to the oldest spirits whose dogs bark to greet visitors. It’s near Louis’s favorite spot where the wisest and fattest fish laze. I’ll meet him there.