Critical Commentary

Thoughts on Joy Harjo’s ‘Dangerous Woman’: Resistance, Power and Survival

Joy Harjo

Joy Harjo

‘I Am a Dangerous Woman’[1] was published in 1979 in Harjo’s second collection of poetry What Moon Drove Me To This? and like much of Harjo’s poetry, in this collection and beyond, it explores cultural and feminist concerns.

I Am a Dangerous Woman/Crossing the Border Into Canada

I Am a Dangerous Woman/Crossing the Border Into Canada

The poem opens with overlapping landscapes and settings, beginning with the airport and moving fluidly into the natural scene at the ‘foothill(s) of the Sandias.’ The reference to the Sandias immediately places the setting in the American Southwest. These juxtaposed images represent the natural world, represented here by the Sandia Mountains, against the human construction of the airport, but they also subtly demonstrate the ways in which cultures encounter each other in very limited ways, and for only a limited time. [2] There is a sense that the urban cityscape becomes contiguous with the natural landscape, and Harjo develops this sense of continuity throughout the poem. The use of the Sandias is particularly important; it remains a sacred site to the Sandia Pueblo people and through the conflicting opening images the speaker draws attention to the clash in Anglo and Native values. The speaker’s identification with Native American culture is shown through her interpretation of the airport’s metal detector, which she identifies as a ‘guncatcher machine’. There is a strong tension that is maintained throughout the poem beginning with the ‘sharp ridges’ of the windows, the buzzing of the ‘guncatcher machine’, and culminating in the most dramatic sound of all, the ‘clicking/ of the gun’ inside the speaker’s mind.[3] This tension intensifies the speaker’s alienation from Anglo values; the ‘guncatcher machine’, instead of being a symbol of safety and security, becomes frighteningly oppressive. In this poem, as in others in the collection[4] technology is seen as a tool, and a symbol, of Anglo oppression and not as a method of facilitating movement or providing freedom.

The feminist concerns at work in the poem begin in the title, which appears twice more throughout, punctuating the three stanzas and appearing on isolated lines. This structure channels Native American oral culture, enabling this strong tradition to be carried over into Harjo’s written form; the use of enjambment functioning effectively for this purpose and adding a strong sense of continuity. The particularly dramatic repetition of ‘I am a dangerous woman’ not only demonstrates the speaker’s feminine power, but possibly, attempts to recover the tonal effects of ritual chanting.[5] This ‘dangerous woman’ appears at once powerful, and clearly dangerous, yet simultaneously vulnerable, but she keeps retaliating and asserting her power with the dramatic repetition. Just as she threatens the figure of authority with her ‘weapon’ and evades their control because ‘security will never find it’, the harrowing image of the gun clicking in her head exposes the turgid history of genocidal violence on Native Americans and the subsequent fear of extinction. Harjo explores both the idea of survival and extinction in this poem, and although there is not a sense of harmony within the poem or the articulations of the speaker, there is a sense of balance through the constant alternation of desperation and hope.[6] The speaker identifies herself within the first word of the title,[7] and her presence is notable throughout; this dangerous woman is keen to demonstrate her desire to resist and survive, and even, to regain the power she has lost. For Harjo the land is not only the site of oppression, it can also be a site of opposition and continuous struggle.[8] The theme of balance features prominently throughout the poem, beginning with the images of the landscape; here, Harjo challenges the materiality of the airport against the spirituality of the sacred mountains, demonstrating Anglo culture and values as alien to native peoples. By attempting to resolve these polarities and bring them into equal balance, Harjo offers hope to Native American people, and her use of traditional oral influences in this poem demonstrates her unwillingness to let go of her cultural origins, and shows her commitment to survival and continuance.

This poem then, can be seen to explore feminist and cultural concerns, exposing the clash of values between Native America and Euro-America. The speaker however, whilst acknowledging her position of vulnerability, empowers herself through the chant-like refrain ‘I am a dangerous woman’ and is therefore able to provide a sense of empowerment to her disempowered cultural status; both as a woman, and as a citizen of the Muscogee Nation.

Joy Harjo

Joy Harjo

Listen to Joy Harjo perform ‘I Am a Dangerous Woman/Crossing the Border Into Canada’ here.

Read more about the extraordinary Joy Harjo and her life and work here.

Notes:

[1] Joy Harjo, How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems, 1975 – 2001 (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2004), p. 17. All further quotes from the poem have come from this collection.

[2] John Scarry, ‘Representing Real Worlds: The Evolving Poetry of Joy Harjo’, World Literature Today, vol. 66, no. 2, From This World: Contemporary American Indian Literature (Spring, 1992), p. 288

[3] ibid., p. 288

[4] Most notably the poem ‘3AM’ from her first collection The Last Song (1975).

[5] Laura Coltelli, ‘Joy Harjo’s poetry’ in The Cambridge Companion to Native American Literature. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005) p. 289

[6] ibid, p. 286

[7] Scarry, op. cit., p. 288

[8] Azfar Hussain, ‘Joy Harjo and her Poetics as Praxis: A Postcolonial Political Economy of the Body, Land, Labor, and Language’, Wicazo Sa Review, vol. 15, no. 2, (Fall, 2000), p. 43

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