Poetry Sunday: “When the World as We Knew It Ended,” by Joy Harjo


When the World as We Knew It Ended

We were dreaming on an occupied island at the farthest edge
of a trembling nation when it went down.

Two towers rose up from the east island of commerce and touched
the sky. Men walked on the moon. Oil was sucked dry
by two brothers. Then it went down. Swallowed
by a fire dragon, by oil and fear.
Eaten whole.

It was coming.

We had been watching since the eve of the missionaries in their
long and solemn clothes, to see what would happen.

We saw it
from the kitchen window over the sink
as we made coffee, cooked rice and
potatoes, enough for an army.

We saw it all, as we changed diapers and fed
the babies. We saw it,
through the branches
of the knowledgeable tree
through the snags of stars, through
the sun and storms from our knees
as we bathed and washed
the floors.

The conference of the birds warned us, as they flew over
destroyers in the harbor, parked there since the first takeover.
It was by their song and talk we knew when to rise
when to look out the window
to the commotion going on—
the magnetic field thrown off by grief.

We heard it.
The racket in every corner of the world. As
the hunger for war rose up in those who would steal to be president
to be king or emperor, to own the trees, stones, and everything
else that moved about the earth, inside the earth
and above it.

We knew it was coming, tasted the winds who gathered intelligence
from each leaf and flower, from every mountain, sea
and desert, from every prayer and song all over this tiny universe
floating in the skies of infinite

And then it was over, this world we had grown to love
for its sweet grasses, for the many-colored horses
and fishes, for the shimmering possibilities
while dreaming.

But then there were the seeds to plant and the babies
who needed milk and comforting, and someone
picked up a guitar or ukulele from the rubble
and began to sing about the light flutter
the kick beneath the skin of the earth
we felt there, beneath us

a warm animal
a song being born between the legs of her;
a poem.


From How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems: 1975-2001 (W. W. Norton and Company Inc. 2002) by Joy Harjo. Copyright © 2002 by Joy Harjo. Used by permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., and available here.


Joy Harjo was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1951 and is a member of the Mvskoke/Creek Nation. Her books of poetry include Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings (Norton 2015); How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems (Norton 2002); A Map to the Next World: Poems (Norton 2000); The Woman Who Fell From the Sky (Norton 1994), which received the Oklahoma Book Arts Award; In Mad Love and War (Wesleyan 1990), which received an American Book Award and the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Award; Secrets from the Center of the World (University of Arizona Press 1989); She Had Some Horses (Thunder’s Mouth Press 1983); and What Moon Drove Me to This? (Reed Books 1979). Her memoir, Crazy Brave (Norton 2012), won the 2013 PEN Center USA literary prize for creative nonfiction. Also a performer, Harjo has appeared on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam in the U.S. and internationally. She plays saxophone with her band Poetic Justice and has released four award-winning CDs of original music, winning a Native American Music Award (NAMMY) for Best Female Artist of 2009. Harjo’s honors include the PEN Open Book Award, the American Indian Distinguished Achievement in the Arts Award, the Josephine Miles Poetry Award, the Mountains and Plains Booksellers Award, the William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America, and fellowships from the Arizona Commission on the Arts, the Witter Bynner Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the 2015 Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets. She is Professor of English and American Indian studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and she lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

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  • Meryl Natchez September 13, 2017 at 11:31 am

    I love this poem, the combination of the daily, the terrible sense of impending doom, and especially the ending! Thank you for posting.

  • Marian Cannon Dornell September 10, 2017 at 8:04 am

    I have not taken a deep breath in days. This shallow breathing sets in in early September, as I begin to fall into the annual dread that has come to me this time of year since that day. Thank you. Thank you for posting this poem that makes the reader face the day. Face the day as an American who, perhaps unknowingly perpetuates that American thing that brought on the attacks. Owning that responsibility is only the start to working toward peace. Thank you for reminding us of our responsibility.

    • Rebecca Foust September 10, 2017 at 2:48 pm

      Thanks for reading, Marion. Steady it goes, I guess. I brace for every day.