‘Without’ by Joy Harjo is a poem that starts as an exploration of death. One that begins by affirming that in the grand scheme of existence, our deaths have no tangible effect on the world. From this sentiment rises a celestial ledge from which the speaker observes still-living mourners and peers into the polarized personas that clash perpetually within the human mind. The result is a poem that offers a staggering portrayal of the universe’s eternal cycles that also yearns for a reprieve from them.
‘Without’ by Joy Harjo imagines the way death spurs reflection and alters how we perceive our life’s purpose.
‘Without’ opens with the speaker declaring that the world we leave behind when we die continues “trudging through time” despite our absence. The speaker sees life as a “story contest” that ends with death, which is visualized as an ascending flight homeward. In that lofty rise, we appear as “falling stars” to those still alive who wrestle with the “grief and heartbreak” of our departure.
The speaker hopes that from death’s high perch, we will be able to make better sense of life. Finally, understanding why “half the world” supports greed and the “other half” endeavors to repair the destruction they leave in their wake. Both of these antithetical minds accomplish and express their conflicting desires in various ways, from the “smoke of cooking fires” and “lovers’ trysts” to humanity’s incessant expansion and consumption.
The speaker hopes that in death, we will find one another again. A reunion that will take place under trees that sit shadowed by the sorrows left behind on earth, as they watch hyenas “drink rain, and laugh.”
Structure and Form
‘Without’ contains some of the following literary devices:
- Personification: giving human characteristics to an inanimate or non-human thing, such as when the speaker refers to the “world…trudging through time without us” (1).
- Extended Metaphor: “When we lift from the story contest to fly home / We will be as falling stars to those watching” (2-3) compares death to a cosmic ascent that offers a newfound perception of life.
- Metaphor: a direct comparison of life to a “story contest” (2) or when the speaker describes the gulf between the dead and living as the “edge / Of grief and heartbreak” (3-4).
- Symbolism: an image that represents an idea or concept, as with the “two-minded creature” (5).
- Kinesthetic Imagery: imagery that describes movement, as in “we lift” and “fly home” (2).
- Visual Imagery: imagery that relies on sight, as with “the smoke of cooking fires, lovers’ trysts, and endless / Human industry—” (8-9).
The world will keep trudging through time without us
When we lift from the story contest to fly home
We will be as falling stars to those watching from the edge
Of grief and heartbreak
‘Without’ opens with the speaker dampening the human ego with a reminder that our own personal mortality does not have one iota of influence on the world around us. We die and decompose, but the earth keeps spinning — or, as Harjo depicts through sluggish kinesthetic imagery, “trudging through time” (1) — without any acknowledging halt.
The speaker’s portrayal of both life and death is also highly symbolic. Our lives are referred to as a “story contest” (2), a metaphor that alludes to humanity’s fiercely competitive nature and our reliance on narratives. Death, on the other hand, is imagined as an ascent: one that will “lift [us]…to fly home” (3).
The extended metaphor and related imagery continue into the next two lines as the speaker reflects on those left behind. To them, we appear as “falling stars” (4) streaking across the sky, a stirring but eternally distant reminder that comforts “those watching from the edge / Of grief and heartbreak” (3-4).
Maybe then we will see the design of the two-minded creature
Through the smoke of cooking fires, lovers’ trysts, and endless
In the next group of lines from ‘Without’ the speaker muses over whether or not death’s new perception will help us better understand both the people and world we’ve departed. Harjo uses an arresting bit of figurative language and imagery to illustrate this point: “the design of the two-minded creature” (5), the speaker calls it.
Although it’s at first ambiguous, it soon becomes clear that this duplicitous entity is a symbol of human nature. One that represents our capacity for both great greed and exceptional empathy. Harjo envisions these dualities in stark terms: one “fights righteously for greedy masters” (6), and the other is busy “nailing it all back together” (7).
The speaker then catalogs a scattered collection of images that picture the various ways this “two-minded creature” achieves its contradictory goals: “the smoke of cooking fires, lovers’ trysts, and endless / Human industry” (8-9). Each symbolizes an elemental part of human existence, from food and culture to love and heartbreak, as well as the propulsive (and destructive) energies that fuel creativity and consumption.
Maybe then, beloved rascal
Watch hyenas drink rain, and laugh.
The final four lines of ‘Without’ are both its most ambiguous and impactful. Addressing fondly a “beloved rascal” (10), the speaker expresses another small hope that they will be reunited in death.
The speaker desires only peace and reconciliation in death. Harjo’s diction and imagery — “the timeless weave of breathing” (11) — contrast other instances of eternity in the poem, from the indifferent march of time to the ceaseless internal conflicts of human nature that lead to global catastrophe.
All of these “earth sorrows” will only shadow the place from which the speaker will rest “under the trees” (12). Offering a pleasant shade to repose beneath as they watch “hyenas drink rain, and laugh” (13), an image that underscores the speaker’s unburdened distance from the troubles and complexities of life.
One of the poem’s central themes is an image of life, the world, and humankind without our presence. This vision reveals our minuteness compared to virtually everything around us but it is also hoped by the speaker that death will impart some lucidity or new perspective. Yet perhaps, more importantly, the poem asserts the separation we will enjoy from “earth sorrows.”
The poem’s various themes regarding death and the dualities of human nature make it clear that Harjo wrote this poem with the intention of exploring some of the harder questions we all have about life.
One interpretation could be that this “rascal” is one of the people who, in life, “righteously” championed the greedy.
- ‘I heard a Fly buzz – when I died’ by Emily Dickinson – this poem painstakingly illustrates the moments before the speaker’s death.
- ‘Death is Nothing at All’ by Henry Scott Holland – this poem also muses over death’s nature and effects from the perspective of one who has already passed away.
- ‘And Death Shall Have No Dominion’ by Dylan Thomas – this poem strives to impart the belief that death is not a separation but a unifying inevitability.