Joy Harjo

‘Without’ by Joy Harjo is a moving poem that explores everything from death to the dualities of human nature.

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: Death offers a reprieve and possibly a new perspective on life's sorrows

Themes: Death, Nature, New Life

Speaker: A person thinking on death

Emotions Evoked: Empathy, Grief, Hope

Poetic Form: Free Verse

Time Period: 21st Century

Joy Harjo's poem unfolds as a solemn hope for understanding and respite from life, using grandiose imagery and figurative language to create a compelling portrait of the world and humankind.

‘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’ is written in free verse, which means it doesn’t follow a formal structure or rhyme scheme. It is comprised of thirteen lines that all use enjambment, with the exception of two.

Literary Devices

‘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).

Detailed Analysis

Lines 1-4

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).

Lines 5-9

Maybe then we will see the design of the two-minded creature 


Through the smoke of cooking fires, lovers’ trysts, and endless 

Human industry—

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.

Lines 10-13

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.


What is the theme of ‘Without?

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.”

Why did Joy Harjo write ‘Without?

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.

Who is the “beloved rascal” mentioned in the poem?

One interpretation could be that this “rascal” is one of the people who, in life, “righteously” championed the greedy.

How is enjambment significant to the poem?

Only two of the poem’s lines are end-stopped, meaning only those signal a pause to the reader. As a result, the poem unfolds with a brisk cadence that urges the reader from one line to the next in a continuous stream.

Similar Poems

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Joy Harjo (poems)

Joy Harjo

This poem by Joy Harjo showcases the poet's masterful use of imagery of figurative language. One that offers a vividly emotional look at life after we've been removed from the equation. The result is a beautiful poem that tries to reconcile or find some understanding in the grandiose dualities found in life and people.
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21st Century

Joy Harjo's poetry reflects a glimpse of Indigenous experiences across both the 20th and 21st centuries. Her style brings together modern elements such as free verse and prose poetry, exploring identity and narratives that seek to find common ground. Poems like this one reveal the ways in which she relies on shared myths illustrated through an indigenous lens.
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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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Joy Harjo's poem begins with death and uses it as a jumping-off point for exploring a glimpse of life without our presence. From there, the poem tries to use this outside perspective to orient and make better sense of a whole host of human conundrums, including why the world appears so viciously divided.
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Nature is another theme found in Joy Harjo's poem. The poet uses images from nature to illustrate both death and the speaker's hopes for the afterlife. Two striking examples of nature in the poem are the "falling stars" and the verdant imagery of sitting "under the trees in the shadow of earth sorrows."
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New Life

Joy Harjo's poem also touches on this idea of new life. One that presents a different vision of the afterlife, defining it as a change in perspective and a place from which to be freed of earth's sorrows. It's the hope of the speaker that in such respite, they might find some peace and even laughter.
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One of the emotions inspired by Joy Harjo's poem is empathy. The speaker offers a powerful image of this emotion when the speaker refers to the other half of the world that is "nailing it all back together." Empathy is what stirs people to fix the greedy mistakes of others.
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Grief is expressed in Joy Harjo's poem within its opening lines. This sadness is linked to those left behind when a loved one departs this world. The poet's use of figurative language creates a poignant but still devastating image of such anguish. Yet grief is also expressed when it comes to the world in general when the speaker remembers "earth sorrows."
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Joy Harjo's poem does lean towards being more hopeful than aggrieved. One of the reasons for this is the imagery she uses throughout, which is more inspiring than it is dreary. Even the dichotomy of those fighting for "greedy masters" and the ones "nailing it all back together" is invigorating in its own way. While the poem's final lines imagine a paradise that exists in the shadow of, though is not affected by, the world left behind.
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Joy Harjo's poem hinges on curiosity over the effect or lack thereof that our absence might have on the world. In wondering this, the speaker inevitably explores their vision of the afterlife, a place that is defined by its distance from the world. This space is afforded by the afterlife is what the speaker hopes will afford a better understanding of life's joys and woes.
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Industrialization is another topic touched on in Joy Harjo's poem. When the speaker is cataloging all the various elements of human existence, they also mention "human industry." A variety of meanings might be gleaned from this phrase but because it comes after the phrase "greedy masters," it invokes an image of destructive industries that harm the environment in favor of exponential profit.
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Joy Harjo's poem also comments on human mortality within the poem. Death is not an immediate end in the mind of the speaker. Instead, they imagine it as a homecoming of sorts, one that returns us to a place characterized by hope for reconciliation and reunion. The result is a poem that offers a sublime understanding of our mortality.
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A topic mentioned in Joy Harjo's poem is time. According to the speaker, they concede that once we die and leave this world, time doesn't stop to in mourning like our loved ones. Instead, it keeps slugging onward to eternity. The poet brings up time again near the end of the poem, emphasizing it no longer binds them.
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Free Verse

Joy Harjo typically writes in free verse and doesn't contain a formal rhyme scheme or meter. This poem uses it to create its own cadence via the poet's ceaseless use of enjambment, which propels the reader through each line. Her rhythm is also aided by repetition and a carefully organized syntax.
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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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