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16 pages 32 minutes read

Joy Harjo

Remember

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1982

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

“Remember” appears in US Poet Laureate Joy Harjo’s first book of poems, She Had Some Horses (1983). The children’s book version, with illustrations from Michaela Goade, is from Random House Children’s Books (2023). Harjo is the first Indigenous American woman to be named Poet Laureate of the United States. Her work explores themes of current and historical culture of Indigenous people, feminism, and appreciation of the natural world. Like many of Harjo’s poems, “Remember” is written in free verse and employs literary techniques of anaphora (repetition), personification, metaphor, and imagery from nature. It reminds the reader to “remember” nature and treat different elements of nature, such as the sun, moon, stars, wind, plants, and animals as family members. It incorporates elements of Indigenous religion with modern-day language to create a work that is both contemporary and timeless.

Poet Biography

Joy Harjo is from the Muscogee (Creek) Tribe. Originally named Joy Foster, she adopted her grandmother’s surname “Harjo.” which means “so brave it seems crazy.”

Born May 9, 1951 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Harjo began asking for books at a young age. She did not consider herself a poet until college when she switched her major from pre-med to creative writing. She studied other types of art, including painting and music at the Institute of Native American Arts in New Mexico. After earning her MFA in Creative Writing at Iowa State University, she continued to write poetry, play the saxophone, teach, publish, and release albums of both music and spoken word.

She has written nine books of poetry, released seven albums, two children’s books, and a memoir, Crazy Brave (2012), in which she tells the story of growing up in a household with a stepfather who humiliated her, how she left the house at the age of 16 and became a teenage mother, and how she eventually came to poetry.

In 1999 she was made the first Indigenous American poet laureate and served for three consecutive terms.

Poem Text

Harjo, Joy. “Remember.” 1983. Poets.org.

Summary

“Remember” is a list poem in which the speaker catalogues all the things the reader of the poem should remember. The speaker starts with something large: “Remember the sky that you were born under” (Line 1). They list other elements of the sky, including the stars and the moon, personifying each one. The star has “stories” (Line 2), and the reader should know each one. She advises them to “Remember the sun’s birth at dawn, that is the / strongest point of time. Remember sundown / and the giving away to night” (Lines 4-6). As in the first four lines, the speaker personifies the elements of the sky, but she specifies that the sunrise is the “strongest” (Line 5) point of time, and at nighttime, things are “giving away” (Line 6) to the night.

In the next few lines, the speaker focuses on the reader, telling them, “Remember your birth, how your mother struggled / to give you form and breath” (Lines 7-8). She tells the reader that they are “evidence” (Line 8) not only of their mother’s life but also of the lives of everyone who came before them and everyone who made them, including their father and ancestors.

Next the speaker talks about the earth, saying, “Remember the earth whose skin you are” (Line 11). She is personifying the earth and including the reader in that personification. She specifies she is talking about all people with all different skin colors, implying the earth has multiple skin colors. This line brings in all nationalities: “red earth, black earth, yellow earth, white earth / brown earth, we are earth.” (Lines 12-13)

She continues this personification, saying, “Remember the plants, trees, animal life who all have their / tribes, their families, their histories, too” (Lines 14-15). The speaker compares the plants and animals to human beings, ascribing to them human attributes. Saying they have families, tribes, and histories implies they are capable of forming the same kinds of social structures and communal bonds that people form. She humanizes them to show their equality to human beings. She tells the reader to “Talk to them, / listen to them. They are alive poems” (Lines 15-16). She then reminds the reader that plants and animals have things to teach human beings, and they would benefit by listening and talking back.

The speaker moves on to the wind, saying, “Remember the wind. Remember her voice. She knows the / origin of this universe” (Line 17-18). The speaker personifies the wind as a female who has been around since the beginning of the universe. This implies that the wind may know much more than the reader does, because it has seen so much.

In the next five lines, the speaker returns focus to the reader or the “you” of the poem. She reminds the reader that they are one with all people, with the universe, and with the motion of the universe, particularly with its growing. Lastly, she brings up the topic of language, saying “language comes from this” (Line 24). She equates both language and life with a dance, suggesting that all three are part of an interactive motion between connecting parts.

The final line, “Remember” (Line 26), re-emphasizes the word that she had been repeating throughout the poem. It underlines the importance of that directive, which is to actively think about these truths and remind oneself to see the world this way.

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