Invisible Fish

Joy Harjo

‘Invisible Fish’ by Joy Harjo is a beautiful poem that illustrates time’s oppressive persistence on both the natural world and humankind.

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: Time leaves behind echoes of the past

Speaker: An omniscient observer

Emotions Evoked: Bravery, Frustration, Sadness

Poetic Form: Free Verse

Time Period: 20th Century

Joy Harjo's poem uses mesmerizing imagery and figurative language to conjure up a surreal scene that peels back the layers of time to reveal the ghosts it leaves behind.

Like any truly spellbinding poem, ‘Invisible Fish’ touches on a variety of themes. From the incessant procession of time to an acknowledgment of our debt to ancestral generations. While the symbol that Joy Harjo hinges much of the poem on is the humble yet baffling image of an “invisible fish” and “ghost ocean.”

Through a whirlwind of time-traveling imagery, the poet illustrates the ceaseless change the landscape and its inhabitants undergo over the course of centuries and millennia. Summoning a compelling if not somewhat depressingly sardonic, vision of the future and present simultaneously.


‘Invisible Fish’ by Joy Harjo offers a surreal but lucid snapshot of life on earth unburdened by our typically linear perception of time.

‘Invisible Fish’ opens with a bizarre description of a desert landscape where a “ghost ocean” once existed. All that remains of this ancient sea are just “waves of sand” and “water-worn rock.” This expanse of water is also where the titular “invisible fish” once swam.

The poem starts to leap forward in time in the next few sentences. Evolution launches the fish out of the ocean as they “learn to walk.” Humans then enter the frame, coming “ashore” like the fish to “paint dreams on the dying stone.” Another hurdle leads the speaker into the modern era. A place where “Chevy trucks, carrying the dreamers’ descendants,” cover a landscape that was once an “ocean floor.”

Structure and Form

‘Invisible Fish’ is a prose poem consisting of four sentences organized into a single paragraph. Although not structured as lines of verse or stanzas, Harjo’s poem utilizes a number of poetic techniques, such as fragmentation and figurative language. There is even a cadence created by her use of caesura and repetition, as well as the presence of end rhymes within the sentences.

Literary Devices

‘Invisible Fish’ contains some of the following literary devices:

  • Visual Imagery: “this ghost ocean now described by waves of sand, by water-worn rock” and “humans will come ashore.”
  • Kinesthetic Imagery: “Invisible fish swim” and “Soon the fish will learn to walk.”
  • Personification: “dying stone.”

Detailed Analysis

Sentences 1-2

Invisible fish swim this ghost ocean now described by waves of sand, by water-worn rock. Soon the fish will learn to walk.

In the first sentence of ‘Invisible Fish,’ the speaker offers a strange vision that’s given form by Harjo’s use of visual and kinesthetic imagery. One in which paradoxically “invisible fish” swim through a “ghost ocean.”

The latter half of the sentence reveals that this expanse of water no longer exists, and all that is left behind is an arid landscape filled with “waves of sand, by water-worn rock.” Their diction underscores the fact that even in its absence, water is exceptionally ubiquitous.

One interpretation is that the speaker is envisioning a fish and ocean that no longer exist. But this is only an echo or “ghost” of the past — the second sentence drags the reader eons backward through time to a significant moment in the chain of evolution on Earth.

Sentences 3-4

Then humans will come ashore and paint dreams on the dying stone. (…)

In the third sentence of ‘Invisible Fish,’ the speaker moves forward to another crucial moment in our planet’s history: the arrival of humankind. Just like the fish, these primordial humans “come ashore” — a possible reference to the transitory nature of early peoples that also foreshadows the seafaring arrival of colonization.

Yet these particular people are described and romanticized as “dreamers” who paint their dreams on “dying stone.” In other words, they created and lived. But like the fading rocks that served as their canvas and homes, time would eventually wither them all away.

It’s here that the speaker makes one last jump forward in time. Harjo effectively frames the poem around the present state of this “ocean floor,” which is bleakly described as being “punctuated by Chevy trucks.” The juxtaposition of the absent ocean with a desert of filled with gas-guzzling automobiles touches on modern tensions between the environment and industry.

But the poem’s commentary doesn’t stop there. Inside the trucks sit the progeny of those first dreamers who — like the fish — braved land all those ages ago. The modern human is much less romanticized by the speaker, who reveals rather anticlimactically that these descendants are not painting their dreams like their forebearers, but just heading to the store.


What is the theme of ‘Invisible Fish?

The poem’s central theme is that time slows down for neither nature nor man. It propels us through radical evolution and vanishes us from the earth, filling every second and inch of reality with the faint memories of what no longer exists.

Why did Joy Harjo write ‘Invisible Fish?

Many of Harjo’s poems center on forging connections with the past. In doing so she emphasizes the wealth of wisdom to be gathered therein. This poem expresses not just a need to acknowledge previous generations but also our own meekness in the face of time’s tide. When not even the oceans or rocks are spared — it would be folly to think any one moment is more eternal or singular than another.

What is the meaning of the poem’s title?

The “invisible fish” of the poem’s title is imagined by the speaker as this “ghost” of the past. One that symbolizes all things remembered or forgotten that no longer exist, from the ancient ocean to our ancient ancestors.

How does the poem’s use of present tense affect its portrayal of time?

Harjo uses the present tense for the most part throughout the poem. Describing the past as if it is happening in real-time or simultaneously with the present. The poem lifts the veil off our limited perception of time — unifying past, present, and future.

What is the tone of the poem?

The tone of the poem might be perceived as indifferent, bordering on apathetic. Like a personification of time itself, the speaker narrates with unmoving emotion the way the world is altered across ancient and modern times. At the same time, the final sentence appears to sarcastically juxtapose these mythic and surreal moments of antiquity with the chore-filled humdrum of contemporary life.

Similar Poems

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Invisible Fish

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Joy Harjo (poems)

Joy Harjo

This poem by Joy Harjo offers a surreal but no less insightful glimpse into both the past and future, one that is accentuated and colored by the poet's knack for creating spellbinding images and figurative language. The most striking and arresting of which has to be the one found in its opening line: "Invisible fish swim this ghost ocean."
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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 most often utilizes free verse, which she structures as either lines of verse or in a prose poem like this one. This flexibility often expresses itself as an extension of her identity, detailing with raw vigor life as an Indigenous woman.
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Joy Harjo is an exceptionally important Indigenous poet from America. She belongs to the Muscogee Nation and was also the first Native Person to become the U.S. poet laureate. In terms of the Native American Renaissance that took place in the 20th century, Harjo is considered a major voice, and poems like this one reveal her to be a uniquely American voice in every regard.
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One of the poem's underlying themes resembles disappointment. Joy Harjo's final sentence falls dully flat as it juxtaposes the ethereal and inspiring imagery of the previous lines with the dreary sight of modern times. There's a palpable sadness at that moment that borders on disappointment as if the speaker is offering this unspoken lament in trying to understand where we came from versus where we find ourselves.
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A core theme found in Joy Harjo's poem is the importance of dreams, which can reflect not only the past but also the future. From the surreal and dreamy imagery of the "invisible fish" and "ghost ocean" to the humans who "paint dreams on the dying stone." The poem seems to pit the dreams of the distant past against the disenchantment of today.
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Another theme present in Joy Harjo's poem is nature. This theme presents itself in a variety of images and symbols, most notably the fish and ocean. But it is also present in the "dying stone" that the speaker envisions people creating art upon. It is even present (though somewhat through its absence) in the final line, which pictures a dried ocean bed.
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One of the emotions that might be inspired by Joy Harjo's poem is a sense of bravery. The speaker of the poem recounts a variety of leaps in evolution that appear to accentuate a certain spirit of daring and adventure or even artistic boldness. This is only emphasized by its final sentence, which juxtaposes these mythical moments with a disenchanting sight within modernity.
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Another emotion Joy Harjo's poem can inspire is a certain frustration. One that is rooted in the speaker's implied sadness toward this long-gone ocean and what has replaced it in its absence. This might depend on a much more cynical interpretation of the poem. But there is enough to support such a feeling being expressed.
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Both the tone and mood of Joy Harjo's poem are imbued with sadness. The source of that feeling is somewhat ambiguous, and it might even just be an extension of some quaint nostalgia for the distant past. Even the diction of the poem, with its emphasis on ghostly transparency and echoes of long-forgotten times, contributes to this feeling of sadness.
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Joy Harjo's poem uses a fish as a symbol of a past that no longer exists but is still persistently present. But they also represent living things that once inhabited an area whose ecology has changed to the point that it can no longer sustain them, a plight that is infinitely applicable to humankind as a whole.
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History is a topic touched on in Joy Harjo's poem. One that the speaker examines simultaneously with the present, moving with a telescopic vision between moments of evolutionary progress and cultural advances. The purpose of this vast glimpse at the earth's history is to accentuate both the minuteness of life and also its immense leaps.
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Man vs Nature

This poem by Joy Harjo juxtaposes two images: nature and humankind. But the poet also entangles them together as living creatures on a planet endlessly changing through the centuries and millennia. Not only do humans today live alongside the animals that are alive here and now, but all around us, we are surrounded by the ghosts of those that once called this exact spot home.
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One of the poem's core topics is time. Joy Harjo uses fantastical imagery and figurative language to peer into the past and present seemingly with one glance. The result of this offers a surreal experience and way of looking at the world around you. One that takes into account all the creatures that have ever lived on Earth.
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Free Verse

Joy Harjo wrote the poem 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. Using both sound devices like alliteration and commas to create a cadence that is both euphonious and reflective of its dreamy mood.
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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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