Over the course of nine brief lines ‘Memory Sack’ presents a poignant illustration of human life as a generator of memory. From the moment we are born we spend our lives traversing the remnants of all who came before us. And as we move through this world we collect and carry our own. Like many of Joy Harjo’s poems, this one has an eye for elucidating with sublime tenderness the universal experiences that unite us all together regardless of race or creed.
Explore Memory Sack
‘Memory Sack’ by Joy Harjo conjures up a symbolic representation of life’s journey and our purpose as creators of memories.
‘Memory Sack’ begins with the speaker describing birth as an opening to the “earth door.” In being born,, we join our other ancestors on the same road they took. The speaker describes how we carry our memories like a pack on our backs. Our journey takes us through the cycle of life — characterized by destruction and creation — with our sole goal being to create more memories along the way.
Structure and Form
‘Memory Sack’ is written as a single stanza of nine lines. Harjo wrote the poem in free verse, so it lacks any formal meter or rhyme scheme. This allows the poet to structure her imagery and figurative language around her syntax, using end-stopped lines and enjambment to create her own cadence.
‘Memory Sack’ uses a variety of different literary devices, including but not limited to:
- Metaphor: “That first cry opens the earth door” (1) “We join the ancestor road” (2) “the circle / Of destruction” (5-6) “the circle / Of creation” (7-8).
- Auditory Imagery: “The first cry” (1).
- Visual Imagery: “With our pack of memories / Slung slack on our backs” (3-4).
That first cry opens the earth door.
We join the ancestor road.
The first two lines of ‘Memory Sack’ establish its heavy use of symbolism, as well as Harjo’s revelatory figurative language. Here the speaker offers a description of childbirth — another experience that humans share not just among themselves but also mammals in general. The auditory imagery of our first cries signifies to everyone around us that we are alive and have arrived into existence.
But the way the speaker phrases it also envisions those cries as a kind of invoking command that throws open “the earth door” (1) and thrusts us into the world. In doing so, we join what the speaker calls the “ancestor road” (2), a metaphor that reveals our life’s course as being charted atop paths walked by previous generations. The image also emphasizes a reverent connection and empathy with those who came before.
With our pack of memories
The next sequence of lines in ‘Memory Sack’ describes the way in which we move through life carrying our memories with us. The image of a “sack” or “pack” (3) as it’s referred to in the poem, creates a sense of rugged ownership over the collected recollections that we place within it. After all, our memories are perpetually and intimately a part of who we are, as well as incredibly tangible. Capable of making us feel weightless and over-encumbered alike.
We venture into the circle
As ‘Memory Sack’ nears its end, the speaker reveals the destination of life’s journey — or rather the goal — as there’s no real stopping point other than death. Instead, Harjo uses the image of a circle to symbolize life and anchor her metaphor for it. In travailing this closed circuit, we encounter all the vast experiences life has to offer. Dichotomies of destruction and creation (of life and death, happiness and joy, etc.) surround us and even define many of the memories that we eventually collect. Throughout our journey through these circles, we spur even more memories into existence.
One of the many universal experiences we all share as people is the ability and desire to make new memories. It is an innate feature of consciousness that helps develop our personal identity and links us together.
The poem emphasizes the importance of memory in regard not just to the individual but the world around us. It is one both defined and haunted by the echoed lives of our forbearers. Harjo might have written the poem as a reminder that we all share something in common with one another — alive or dead — in this passive ability to create and hold onto memories.
Harjo’s title implies that we carry our memories like a pack on our backs. It is, therefore, something we both consciously and unconsciously possess at all times. But it also accentuates the sense that our memories have a weight to them. Serving as a buoy against life’s difficult moments or becoming a burden in the form of depressing memories.
Here are a few more poems by Joy Harjo that you might also enjoy: