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

The next few stanzas rely on anaphora, the rhetorical device that repeats words at the beginnings of sentences or lines. “We saw it” appears three times and then, in stanza 8, modulates into “we heard it.” These are acts of witness, no less powerful for being foisted upon us, and the speaker reminds us that they occurred while we were living our ordinary lives, doing ordinary things like changing diapers, feeding babies, and washing the floors. The comforting routine of these everyday acts are part of what hypnotizes us into a sense of security, forever disrupted by what we all saw and heard, some of us at ground zero and most of us on TV. But, as we will see later, those domestic routines are also the warp and woof of our lives.

Stanza 7 is where things really begin to go off the rails, the comforting routines giving way to signals and portents large in the horrors they presage: “the conference of the birds warned us” and told us “when to rise / and when to look out of the window” to see what was happening. Again, that could be a literal window in downtown Manhattan, but it could also be a metaphorical one by which all Americans were after September 11 forced to confront the “commotion” of the larger world until then kept at bay by our screens. This interpretation is supported by “[w]e heard it. / The racket in every corner of the world.” From here the poem returns to another refrain, “we knew it was coming” and describes what has, in fact, come: “And then it was over, this world we had grown to love.” Here, “world” designates not the planet but the constructed world of American supremacy and complacency, the one taught in grammar school and held close as an inviolate given.

The poem could have ended here, and powerfully, in apocalypse. Instead, though, Harjo returns to the everyday acts of living to reconstruct a new, if diminished, world, and we are reminded that not everything was lost. Many lives, yes, and two towers that have come to be the symbols of American Imperialist folly. Also our view of our own culture, its perceived moral high ground and sense of manifest destiny. But that, Harjo reminds us, is not everything. Life goes on in the aftermath of even the greatest tragedies.

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

“Seeds” and “babies” are, of course, archetypal images of new life and hope. The song and music represent Art, what comforts and perhaps saves us, the human lament given material shape that sometimes winds up as a poem that bears witness and, maybe, can instruct and comfort readers like us.

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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.