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17 pages 34 minutes read

Joy Harjo

Perhaps the World Ends Here

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1994

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

“Perhaps the World Ends Here” is by Joy Harjo, a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, and the 2019 US Poet Laureate—the first Native American poet to hold the office. Published in Harjo’s 1994 collection, The Woman Who Fell from the Sky, the poem explores themes of unity, the concept of gathering, and the apocalypse. Written as an extended metaphor in which Harjo’s speaker compares the ubiquitous kitchen table to the world and the cycles of life, “Perhaps the World Ends Here” is a stark argument—during times of global war, climate change, and overall fragmentation—for recognizing the similarities of all humanity rather than its differences. As a Native, Harjo understands the importance of community, supporting family and friends, and caring for the earth’s environment. These thematic tones run deeply throughout this poem and many other works by Harjo.

Speaking volumes in just 11 stanzas, “Perhaps the World Ends Here” is a testament to Harjo’s poetic ability and to her softly forceful voice. Harjo’s work has been described as “[drawing] from the river of Native tradition, but […] also [swimming] freely in the currents of Anglo-American verse” (“Joy Harjo.” The Poetry Foundation), and this poem does just that. It reflects the Creek values and traditions while speaking to a wider audience.

Poet Biography

Joy Harjo was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1951 as the first of four children. A member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, her father was from the famous Creek family, and her mother was of Cherokee, Irish, and French descent. Harjo grew up among many artists and musicians. Her mother was a songwriter, and her grandmother played saxophone. From Harjo’s youth, these artistic women inspired her to explore her own creativity. While she didn’t start writing poems until she was a bit older, Harjo painted as a teenager to express herself, attending the Institute of the American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. During this time, she danced, acted, and wrote songs regularly. Harjo earned a Bachelor of Arts from the University of New Mexico and a Master of Fine Arts from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

In 1975, just three years after she began writing poetry and while she was still a student at the University of New Mexico, Harjo published her first poems, a chapbook titled The Last Song. The chapbook, the first of many of her collections, engages topics of broken or fragmented indigenous history.

Her first full-length collection, What Moon Drove Me to This?, came in 1980 and established Harjo’s iconic poetic voice. Using Indigenous myths, stories, and symbols, Harjo’s first collection erupted onto the poetic scene with a deep, spiritual force.

Harjo’s poetry is heavily steeped in Native culture, including First Nation storytelling and histories. The poet is an activist, and her poetry asks difficult questions about feminism, social justice, and environmentalism. Harjo’s poems have been called autobiographical, and they’re often rooted in place and landscape, particularly of the Southwest where she grew up but also of other areas around the US, like the Southeast, Alaska, and Hawaii. Harjo uses poetry as a platform for important issues, whether political or having to do with remembering and honoring the past. Yet, while she may write from the personal point of view and evoke Native traditions and myths, her poems have a universal audience. As one critic notes, “To read the poetry of Joy Harjo is to hear the voice of the earth, to see the landscape of time and timelessness, and, most important, to get a glimpse of people who struggle to understand, to know themselves, and to survive” (“Joy Harjo.” The Poetry Foundation).

Hugely decorated, Harjo’s poetry has countless awards, including the Josephine Miles Poetry Award, the Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets, and the William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of American, among many others. In 2017, Harjo was awarded the prestigious Ruth Lilly Prize in Poetry. Her oeuvre extends beyond poetry into memoir and novels; as of 2022, she has published nine poetry collections, two children’s books, and two memoirs, among other writings.

Harjo is also an acclaimed and accomplished saxophonist who has toured extensively with her band, Poetic Justice. Perhaps most notably, Harjo was named US Poet Laureate in 2019—the first Native American to achieve that title. She has taught creative writing at several institutions, including University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and has held positions of Professor and Chair of Excellence in Creative Writing at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

Poem Text

Harjo, Joy. “Perhaps the World Ends Here.” 1994. The Poetry Foundation.

Summary

Harjo’s “Perhaps the World Ends Here” uses the extended metaphor of the kitchen table to examine themes like collective unity and concepts like gratitude.

The poem opens with a first-person plural speaker (“we”) asserting that “[t]he world begins at a kitchen table” (Line 1); eating is necessary to sustain life. The speaker turns this into something of a creation myth by claiming that “the gifts of the earth are brought and prepared” (Line 2) on the table and that this is how it’s been “since creation” (Line 2).

However, the table does more than provide an eating surface, as the speaker enumerates other events that take place on or around this furnishing. For example, animals must be shooed away from the table, while babies “teethe at the corners” (Line 3) or crawl underneath it. Children will gather at the table to receive guidance from elders. There is “gossip” (Line 5) at the table; there is dreaming and coffee drinking there.

The speaker then says the table has been a place of shelter and support in times of danger. It’s also been a place of triumphant celebration. Moreover, the table is there at the beginning and end of life: “We have given birth on this table and have prepared our parents for burial here” (Line 9). The table is a site for the vast spectrum of human emotion, as people gather to sing, cry, laugh, or give thanks. The table, says the speaker, is the beginning and the end of life, and it will endure to the end of the world, when those gathered will “[eat] of the last sweet bite” (Line 11).

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