Memory Sack

Joy Harjo

‘Memory Sack’ by Joy Harjo is a poignant poem that reveals human memory as a uniting characteristic of our existence.

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: Life is defined by the memories we create and collect

Speaker: An unknown person

Emotions Evoked: Empathy, Hope, Resilience

Poetic Form: Free Verse

Time Period: 21st Century

Joy Harjo's poem offers a sublime illustration of our movement through life as simply a gathering of memories, presenting this innate feature of human consciousness as a unifying element.

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.


‘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.

Literary Devices

‘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).

Detailed Analysis

Lines 1-2

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.

Lines 3-4

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.

Lines 5-9

We venture into the circle
Of destruction,

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.


What is the theme of ‘Memory Sack?

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.

Why did Joy Harjo write ‘Memory Sack?

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.

What is the meaning of the poem’s title?

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.

What is the tone of the poem?

The speaker’s tone is quietly reverent. Harjo’s diction and use of figurative language imbue their understanding of memory with sublime meaning and purpose.

Similar Poems

Here are a few more poems by Joy Harjo that you might also enjoy:

Poetry+ Review Corner

Memory Sack

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Joy Harjo (poems)

Joy Harjo

This poem by Joy Harjo might be on the shorter side, but that does not make it any less impactful. One of the beautiful elements of her poetry is its ability to discover and celebrating elements of our shared humanity. This poem hones in on our ability and desire to make memories as a source of meaning and purpose.
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21st Century

Joy Harjo is an important 21st-century poet who often wrote about Indigenous experiences. As a result, her poems are crucial to understanding the lives of a marginalized group. But they also speak to an immense desire for humanity to be reconciled with one another. This poem offers a moving reminder that we all move through life carrying the memories that make us who we are.
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Joy Harjo is a Muscogee-American poet born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1951 and became the first Indigenous person to serve as the U.S. poet-laureate. As a result, her poems, like this one, have helped uplift the voices of other Indigenous writers like herself while also giving voice to their experiences in America regarding identity and the generational effects of colonialism.
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Birth is one of the themes found in Joy Harjo's poem. Its very first line begins with a compelling metaphor for our arrival into existence, describing it as an "earth door" that is opened with our first cries as a baby. In this way, the poet highlights the tumultuous means through which we enter the world.
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A major theme in Joy Harjo's poem is the idea of life as a journey. One that begins with birth and ends with death, and one in which we really only carry two things the whole way through, ourselves and our memories. This journey is also defined by its turbulent capacity for extremes, be it creation or destruction, yet it still has a hopeful bent in that the speaker finds comfort in making more memories.
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Another theme in Joy Harjo's poem is the connection we share with other people. The poem itself seems to imply that one of our unifying traits as humans is both a capacity and desire to make memories. But the poem also addresses our relationship with those who came before us, as when we are born, we take our first steps on the "ancestor road."
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Empathy is inspired by Joy Harjo's poem because of its lucid presentation of human life and experience. One that gently rests upon our ability to make memories but also the understanding that they're all we really have to carry us through life as individuals. This empathy is directed not just at other people but also at our ancestors as well.
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Hope is one of the poem's more powerful emotions. As Joy Harjo creates a highly symbolic but affecting illustration of life's experiences from cradle to grave, she also instills this buoyant belief in the power of memory, as it connects us and grounds us to the past but also imparts this earnest desire to make more.
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Resilience is another theme found within Joy Harjo's poem, one that's expressed somewhat indirectly. The speaker's view of life is defined by their understanding that there are plenty of highs and lows to be discovered. Yet through it all, we should be guided not by fear but rather reassured in the knowledge that we are not the first or last to experience such things.
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Joy Harjo's poem touches on a variety of things that unite us as people—presenting our memories as a defining part of our humanity and our ability to connect with one another. Her use of imagery and symbolism offers a poignant understanding of life and how important our memories truly are to our respective journeys through life.
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Life Struggles

The poem also comments somewhat on how one should approach life's adversity. As Joy Harjo illustrates, we are born into turbulence and exist wavering back and forth between times of creation and times of destruction. The one constant thread is our own existence and memories, implying it's all we carry consistently with us and all we have to comfort us.
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Memories are the central topic of Joy Harjo's poem, revolving around the metaphor she creates to illustrate the way we carry them with us through life. It's this simple but compelling image of a sack or pack filled with precious or anguished memories that makes us who we are, and no matter who we are, we all carry one.
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One could also interpret Joy Harjo's poem as a reminder that memories can offer us some strength through life's hardships. There is just something slightly defiant and persevering about the image of a person slugging through their lives carrying all that they hold dear to them on their backs. As a result, the poem can instill some hope and boldness with its final line.
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Free Verse

Like many of Joy Harjo's poems, this one is written in free verse. Unrestrained by a formal meter or rhyme, the poem's cadence is derived from its succinct sentences and images. Using both enjambment and end-stopped lines to either halt their reader or usher them forward. She also uses anaphora and repetition to a similar effect as well.
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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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