‘All the Tired Horses in the Sun’ is a short poem that sighs over life’s oppressive monotony. One that uses a handful of snapshots of indigenous life to articulate the perpetuity of their desperate existence. Joy Harjo’s imagery is fragmentary but concrete, linking the strife experienced by Indigenous Americans with that of the wearied horses enduring the sun.
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‘All the Tired Horses in the Sun’ by Joy Harjo is a poem about the existential exhaustion felt by indigenous communities and the generational effects of their historical oppression.
‘All the Tired Horses in the Sun’ is comprised of four distinct images that are separated by a repetitive echo of variations on the word “forever.” The first sight described by the speaker is one of their family: “There’s my cousin. Auntie. Uncle. / Another cousin.” The second focuses on the food they eat and drink, mostly junk food and snacks: “Vending machines and pop. / Chips, candy, and not enough clean water.”
The speaker then expresses a cyclical weariness over waiting. The poem ends with a single command issued by the speaker to some unknown party — perhaps even themselves. “Go water the horses,” they order.
Structure and Form
‘All the Tired Horses in the Sun’ is a free verse poem comprised of one stanza defined by its curt, single-sentence lines. In terms of its structure, the poem contains a refrain — “Forever. / And ever. / And ever” (1-3) — that repeats a total of three times. In between these clustered repetitions, Harjo inserts her vividly concise imagery.
‘All the Tired Horses in the Sun’ contains examples of the following literary devices:
- Kinesthetic Imagery: an illustration of movement or action, as in the command, “Go water the horses” (17).
- Visual Imagery: “There’s my cousin. Auntie. Uncle. / Another cousin” (4-5) envisions the speaker’s family; “Vending machines and pop. / Chips, candy, and not enough clean water” (9-10) visualizes the food and drinks available to the community.
- Symbolism: Harjo uses the “horses” to represent the indigenous experience.
- Anaphora: repetition of the first part of a line, such as the phrase, “And ever. / And ever” (2-3, 7-8, 15-16).
- Antimetabole: the repetition of a phrase but inversed, as with “Waiting and tired. / Tired of waiting” (12-13).
There’s my cousin. Auntie. Uncle.
The opening lines of ‘All the Tired Horses in the Sun’ begins this cycle of repetition that reverberates throughout the poem. “Forever / And ever. / And ever” (1-3) the poem begins, imbuing what’s about to be related with the quality of being eternal.
The speaker then points out members of their family — “There’s my cousin. Auntie. Uncle. / Another cousin” (4-5) — each individual image appearing sans any visual scenery. Harjo’s curt syntax further punctuates familial images in the reader’s mind.
She then frames this list of relatives with an echo of the poem’s opening lines, as if her cousins or aunts and uncles reverberate throughout time. One interpretation is that the repetition of “forever” illustrates the ways in which a tediously bleak existence can start to feel like an eternity.
Vending machines and pop.
In the next series of lines from ‘All the Tired Horses in the Sun,’ the speaker offers up another image that also resounds within eternity. Here the mood starts to teeter between nostalgia and bleak dreariness as they invoke the image of “vending machines and pop. / Chips, candy, and not enough clean water” (9-10). The first half of this image might be perceived as slightly positive, offering fond memories of the immediate gratification of junk food offered by vending machines, especially as a child.
Yet the list of snacks ends despondently with the jarring mention that the speaker and their family don’t have access to something as essential as clean water. A juxtaposition made all the more impactful by a new variation of the refrain — “And ever, ever, ever” (11) — that only intensifies the sense that such injustice is stiflingly pervasive and unending.
Waiting and tired.
Tired of waiting.
‘All the Tired Horses in the Sun’ ends with the speaker explicitly characterizing the dismal mood that’s been an undercurrent within the poem. “Waiting and tired. / Tired of waiting” (12-13), they sigh, Harjo using antimetabole to amplify the deep exhaustion expressed by the speaker.
Unsurprisingly, as the opening three lines are repeated one last time, even the fatigue is eternal. The final line also includes a mention of the titular equines as the speaker issues a command to “go water the horses” (17). Like everything and everyone that calls this landscape home, they all suffer under an inexorable sun with little choice or chance of relief.
Yet, the act of watering the horses offers some sign of compassion and hope within this arid purgatory, especially given how scarce the speaker’s access to clean water is. So using some of what little they have to alleviate the discomfort of the horses emphasizes just how important such respite is.
Ultimately, the theme of the poem is rooted in articulating the perpetual desperation of indigenous communities. Commenting not just on the lack of support or infrastructure, leading to disparities in quality of life, but also the pervading sense that longstanding suffering is ingrained in the identity of Indigenous Americans.
The poem was commissioned to be part of a book of collected artwork by the indigenous (Kiowa/Caddo) painter and poet T.C. Cannon. Specifically, it is dedicated to his captivating painting “Mama and Papa Have the Going Home Shiprock Blues” (1966), which depicts an elderly Navajo man and woman sitting for a portrait, dressed in both traditional clothes and strikingly stylish sunglasses. The poem appears to express the painting’s implied tension between indigenous communities and the modernity that further isolates them.
The poem’s ceaseless repetition of variations of “forever” stresses that the people, animals, and things observed are trapped in an inescapable limbo. One that extends across lifetimes and generations.
- ‘She Had Some Horses’ by Joy Harjo – this poem also uses horses as a powerful symbol.
- ‘Horse Whisperer’ by Andrew Forster – this poem centers on the experiences of a horse whisperer.
- ‘Hay for the Horses’ by Gary Snyder – this poem sees the speaker observing a group of men taking care of some horses.