This 1983 collection is a demonstration of thematic and phraseological repetition. When done well, Harjo succeeds in creating the feel of a chant or meditation. Twenty-two years after the book’s publication, however, there are some word choices that might not work if first presented in today’s poetry culture.
The book is divided into four sections: “Survivors,” “What I Should Have Said,” “She Had Some Horses,” and “I Give You Back.” The first and most lengthy section establishes the poet’s terms as a basis for the entirety of the book. In 25 poems, Harjo enlightens us on various aspects of blood, earth, breath, stars, birth and voice, using each noun at least eight times, not to mention the anchor of the book: horses. Yet, she does so in a way that the reader does not feel compelled to close the book screaming, “Enough!”
Earth is the subject most frequently treated by the poet. It is described as “boiling” and “cooking” beneath us in “Anchorage,” (14) as if preparing to give rise to an uncertain newness. In “For Alva Benson, And For Those Who Have Learned To Speak,” (18) the earth acts as midwife as a Navajo woman “squatted down against the earth / to give birth.” The ground spoke then and continued to speak when birthing became the business of hospitals. Eventually, a woman is born who “learned to speak for the ground” after people learned to ignore it speaking for itself. The earth murmurs and “spinning beneath us / goes on talking.”
It is the intricate dance of this earth, along with the sky and stars that make the poet “memory alive” in “Skeleton of Winter” (31) as all three circle her heart. Harjo and / or the speaker of her poems speak often of the heart, perhaps a little too often by today’s standards, not just in the first section of the book, but in the other three as well. Whether these are “hearts / that would break into pieces” as in “Kansas City” (33) or are unwanted as in “Your Phone Call At 8 AM” (57) where “what you wanted, this morning / you said, was a few words / and not my heart,” the heart has lost much of its poetic magic from decades, if not centuries of trite overuse.
Breath and breathing are succumbing to the same problem in contemporary literature. Harjo asks the reader to “Remember your birth, how your mother struggled / to give you form and breath.” This particular poem, “Remember” (40), seems to encapsulate nearly all of Harjo’s key elements in this book: sky, stars, moon, sun, birth, earth, voice and dance. These are all essentials of the Native American culture the poet calls upon her readers to remember, most to which a person of any ethnic background could relate, in a global sense.
The third section is the title section, “She Had Some Horses,” (63) a poem in five parts. While horses appear throughout the book it is here that they are ascribed their identities by the poet. “She” is, presumably, Mother Earth in which all things originate. Her horses were “maps of drawn blood” or war; they “licked razor blades” or acted destructively. They “cried in their beer” and “lied.” Her horses, personified, were both loved and hated. Harjo selects the past tense here, as if to say to the reader that Mother is done with her work. Then in the last section of the poem, “Explosion,” (68) she offers us possibilities such as “a new people, coming forth” and tells us “maybe the explosion was horses” that will enable some “to see who they have become.”
The final section of the book is one poem, “I Give You Back.” (73) The speaker of the poem is done with fear, reinforced by her chant-like repetition of “I release you” four times followed by eight “I am not afraid” declarations. She declares, “I take myself back, fear.” Then, having experienced what fear has had to offer, the poet completes the book with a newfound confidence “But come here, fear / I am alive and you are so afraid / of dying.//”
There is a delicate balance between the judicious yet intentional use of repetitive thematic elements and phraseology and their overuse. Threads skillfully woven throughout a book keep the reader from being distracted by them, creating a pattern similar to weavings done by peoples indigenous to the southwest. The difficulty lies in determining just how obvious that pattern should be, and, if recreating in poetry a pattern like the art of the Navajo, determining where the requisite flaw should be.