Don’t Bother the Earth Spirit

Joy Harjo

‘Don’t Bother the Earth Spirit’ by Joy Harjo is a heavily symbolic poem that personifies nature as a mesmerizing storyteller.

Joy Harjo

Nationality: American

Joy Harjo is a major American poet who was chosen as poet laureate of the United States.

She’s the first Native American to hold that position.

Key Poem Information

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Central Message: Our lives on earth are different versions of the same core story

Themes: Beauty, Death, Nature

Speaker: Someone attuned to nature

Emotions Evoked: Enjoyment, Fear, Nervousness

Poetic Form: Free Verse

Time Period: 20th Century

Joy Harjo's poem utilizes both poignantly grandiose imagery and figurative language to illustrate the ways in which our lives are defined by life's compelling capacity for both horror and beauty.

‘Don’t Bother the Earth Spirit’ is a moving prose poem by Joy Harjo that personifies the earth as a spirit embroiled in the act of creativity. Presented as a reclusive storyteller, this symbol of nature incarnate is as mysterious as she is polite, welcoming you into her home with offered refreshments. All she requires is that you listen to her story.

Like so many of Harjo’s poems, she stuns with both her use of imagery and figurative language. Using both to weave a quietly devastating and rousing extended metaphor throughout its sentences. One that both embodies and captures life’s captivating wonder.


‘Don’t Bother the Earth Spirit’ by Joy Harjo imagines nature as a solitary storyteller with the ability to enrapture the human mind.

‘Don’t Bother the Earth Spirit’ begins with the speaker offering us a curt forewarning to not intrude upon the poem’s enigmatic subject. The reason? This “earth spirit” is busy creating a story. The speaker describes it as the “oldest story in the world,” one both delicate and always evolving into something new.

The price of being caught by the spirit outside its home is an invitation inside for coffee and warm bread. But you will also be “obligated to stay and listen” to the story she has been working on. One, the speaker again singles out as being “no ordinary story.”

In the course of listening to this tale, the speaker reveals you will experience harrowing moments of titanic terror and personal tragedy. From “earthquakes” and “lightning” to the “deaths of all those you love.” But there will also be such overwhelming beauty as you’ve never before experienced.

Such a story is so captivating that the speaker admits you might not even want to leave. “This is how she traps you,” they announce in reference to the earth spirit. They then direct your attention to a “stone finger” — possibly a headstone for a grave — explaining that the person buried there is the only person who’s “ever escaped” the telling of this story.

Structure and Form

‘Don’t Bother the Earth Spirit’ is a prose poem, meaning it is written not as a group of lines collected into a stanza but as a paragraph comprised of sentences. The poem still is quite poetic in its use of both imagery and figurative language. Harjo also plays with its cadence by alternating between short single-clause sentences and longer ones with cataloged images.

Literary Devices

‘Don’t Bother the Earth Spirit’ uses some of the following literary devices:

  • Alliteration: the repetition of the first consonant sound in two closely placed words, as in “blinding beauty.”
  • Kinesthetic Imagery: an illustration of movement or activity, as in the line, “She is working on a story” or the violent shaking invoked by “earthquakes.”
  • Visual Imagery: a description of the scenery in the line, “If she sees you watching she will invite you in for coffee, give you warm bread.” Other examples are “lightning” and the ambiguous “stone finger.”
  • Extended Metaphor: Harjo compares life and all of existence to a narrative woven by nature: “It is the oldest story in the world and it is delicate, changing,” accentuates its timelessness and shifting plurality. “You will have to endure earthquakes, lightning, the deaths of all those you love, the most blinding beauty” lists its capacity for both great grief and joy. And the only way to escape both life and the story is to die: “See that stone finger over there? / That is the only one who ever escaped.”
  • Personification: Harjo lends the “earth spirit” human traits and characteristics, from her composition of a story to playing host to her houseguest.

Detailed Analysis

Sentences 1-3

Don’t bother the earth spirit who lives here. (…)

‘Don’t Bother the Earth Spirit’ begins with the speaker introducing the residence of an “earth spirit” via a cautionary command. The warning instills a mood of foreboding curiosity while also igniting that particularly human (and oftentimes self-destructive) pursuit of the elusively sublime.

But the reason we are not to disturb her is less severe: she’s simply hard at work on a story. One that the speaker describes as the “oldest story in the world…it is delicate, changing.” The extended metaphor that Harjo entwines throughout her prose poem starts to reveal itself in their symbolic diction.

The core idea of this metaphor is that the story represents a narrative record of the earth’s existence. The story’s significant age suggests its universal nature, “delicacy” emphasizes its importance and fragility, and its constant “change” reflects life’s inherent fluidity.

Sentences 4-7

If she sees you watching she will invite you in for coffee, give you warm bread, and you will be obligated to stay and listen. (…)

In this section of ‘Don’t Bother the Earth Spirit, ‘ the speaker explains exactly what will happen if you dare to disturb the busy Earth spirit spinning this universal yarn. However, there is no divine consequence or insidious lesson. The earth spirit of Harjo’s poem reacts with gentle hospitality to the gawkers at her door: inviting you in for “coffee…[and] warm bread.”

But there is a slight catch. “You will be obligated to stay and listen,” the speaker ominously declares. However, it’s ambiguous as to what exactly compels you to listen to her story if it’s indeed against your will. Yet the speaker reveals just a few sentences later that it is because the story is so “compelling” that you will want to keep listening — “this is how she traps you.”

In listening, you will be exposed to destruction and terror. Harjo symbolizes both through the imagery of a natural disaster like an earthquake and the fury of a lightning strike. You’ll also need to be prepared for immense grief like the “deaths of all those you love.” The speaker curbs such despair with the promise of experiencing “blinding beauty” — a crucial reminder of life’s opportunities for bliss.

Sentences 8-9

See that stone finger over there? (…)

‘Don’t Bother the Earth Spirit’ ends with the speaker shifting the scene away from the interior of the Earth spirit’s home toward another part of the scenery. Harjo uses a rhetorical question to point out the existence of a “stone finger” within sight of both the speaker and listener. Ambiguity veils this vividly tangible but inexplicable image more than any other found in the poem. It’s even unclear whether this object is inside or outside the home.

One interpretation might view the “stone finger” as a symbol for the headstone of a grave, as the images conjured up by both somewhat resemble each other. This also meshes with the poem’s extended metaphor, revealing the only way to escape life’s story is through death.


What is the theme of ‘Don’t Bother the Earth Spirit?

The poem’s theme emphasizes nature’s active role throughout Earth’s history and its timelessness about our brief and temporary existence. It reveals how our lives are impossibly entangled in the story of our planet.

Why did Joy Harjo write ‘Don’t Bother the Earth Spirit?

Harjo’s poems often explore how our experiences as humans are, at their core, quite universal. In this poem, she hones in on the “oldest story” ever told to underscore the sentiment that what unites us is our shared experiences with tragedy and beauty.

How does the earth spirit “trap you” with its story?

The reason the story is so captivating is because of the grandiose emotion it inflicts on those who hear and experience it. Like the catharsis offered by a splendid piece of art told by a talented bard, they will allure you with depressing lows and ecstatic highs.

What is the significance of the earth spirit’s gracious attitude toward the listener?

Ethereal and immortal, the earth spirit of Harjo’s poem reacts somewhat unexpectedly to a loitering mortal. Instead of responding with anger (as the speaker’s warning might’ve implied), they offer nourishment in the form of food and a story. Illustrating and stressing the need for a communicative bond between humanity and nature.

Similar Poems

Here are some more poems by Joy Harjo that you may enjoy:

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Don’t Bother the Earth Spirit

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Joy Harjo (poems)

Joy Harjo

This poem by Joy Harjo is a phenomenal example of the poet's ability to conjure up short, myth-like narratives that unearth an eternal truth about life. Here, the poet focuses their eye on alluring imagery and figurative language upon creating an archetypal story. One that represents life in all its wonderful and terrible awe.
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20th Century

Joy Harjo's poetry reflects a variety of poetic and cultural movements of the 20th century. In terms of her style, she uses free verse, which she structures as either lines of verse or in a prose poem like this. This poem explores elements of identity and narratives that seek to find common ground among the myths we share a belief.
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Joy Harjo is an important Indigenous poet from America. She belongs to the Muscogee Nation and was the first Native Person to become the U.S. poet laureate. Poems like this one reveal her to be a uniquely American voice that weaves her own cultural identity into the universal fabric and nature of her poems.
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One of the themes found within Joy Harjo's poem is life's capacity for beauty, even alongside its capacity for agony and terror. Throughout the poem, the speaker characterizes the eternal story being written by the earth's spirit as "delicate" and filled with "blinding beauty." And it is this splendor that makes the story itself so alluring and captivating.
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Death is a theme explored in Joy Harjo's poem. The speaker first mentions death when explaining the substance of the story, revealing to the reader that they will have to endure the "deaths of all those you love" before the story's end. But the poem also implies that the only way to escape the narrative is to die.
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Nature is one of the poem's major themes, as its central character is this storytelling of earth spirit. Joy Harjo uses the image of this personified earth as a reminder that the natural world is entwined with all our stories. The poem underscores the belief that we are a part of nature’s cycle of life and death.
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One of the many emotions expressed within Joy Harjo's poem is this sense of enjoyment. As the speaker describes the story, they are explicit about the way it will captivate the listener. In addition, the earth spirit's courtesy also creates an atmosphere of delight within the poem. The purpose of which is to reveal that despite its many opportunities for heartache, life must be enjoyed.
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Fear is another emotion found within this poem by Joy Harjo. The poem's opening sentence even comes as a warning, one that instills apprehension before it's revealed that the earth's spirit is actually quite polite. But fear is still present in the story being written by the spirit, as Harjo envisions life's turmoil as lightning and earthquakes.
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Another emotion that the poem both inspires and articulates is hesitating nervousness. This is evident from the very beginning, as the speaker cautions the listener against disturbing the earth's spirit. When they are caught, there is a moment of anxious worry that there will be some consequence for their imposition. The speaker's description of the story also inspires a similar uneasiness.
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Joy Harjo's poem uses the earth's spirit's story as a metaphor for life. One that takes into account all the grandiose ways it brings both joy and agony to those who are forced to endure it, much like a story too captivating to pull away from. As a result, the poem reveals a certain universality to life's basic experiences.
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Loss is another topic that Joy Harjo's poem touches on. It comes briefly but with devastating lucidity, as the speaker tells the listener that to live through such a story is to experience the deaths of everyone you love. It is one of life's inevitable features, yet despite such a bleak certainty, life is still worth living.
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Joy Harjo's poem brings up human mortality in a variety of ways. One of them serves to emphasize the fact that all things, especially people, die. It is an inescapable tenet of our existence and concludes our respective stories within this grand story being written by the earth spirit. The poem lightly urges you to contend with your own mortality.
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One of the poem's main topics of concern is writing, specifically the creation of a story. The earth spirit of Joy Harjo's poem is personified as a storyteller: they keep a record of all life on the planet. In doing so, she entwines narrative and even poetry with nature and life, making them synonymous with one another.
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Free Verse

Joy Harjo's poem is written in free verse, which means it doesn't contain a strict meter or rhyme scheme. Instead, the poet creates their own rhythm through the arrangement of their sentences. In the case of this poem, the rhythm is developed as she alternates between different syntactical structures, as well as the presence of cataloging.
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This poem by Joy Harjo is considered a prose poem, as it is not structured into lines of verse or stanzas. As a result, it also doesn't have any formal rhyme scheme or meter. Instead, it's written in free verse and follows a syntax that is much more indicative of everyday speech. While its use of imagery and figurative language also affords it a poetic quality.
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Steven Ward Poetry Expert
Steven Ward is a passionate writer, having studied for a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature and being a poetry editor for the 'West Wind' publication. He brings this experience to his poetry analysis on Poem Analysis.

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