A Study Of A Woman Dangling From A 13th Floor Window
Analysis of “The Woman Hanging From the 13th Floor Window”
In the poem, The Woman Hanging From the 13th Floor Window, you open with a woman hanging on for her life, while contemplating suicide. However intricate and elaborate her story may seem, though, she doesn’t actually exist. Through special wording and vague details, Joy Harjo is able to make readers think they are reading a poem about one single woman, but in actuality the woman doesn’t, nor ever has existed. After reading through to the end of the poem, the reader may realize that the woman was not the focus of the poem, but rather themselves. Such a realization is shocking, especially given the ambiguous ending, but the details of her life are easily construed into personal memories and feelings throughout the stanzas.
The first stanza of this poem begins with the first of many lines to repeat the title. This sets up the mod for the rest of the poem. The next lines, “Her hands are pressed white against the concrete molding of the tenement building” (2-3) gives the reader a sense of distress and worry. Then, the forth line makes the reader begin to question the poem; “She hangs from the 13th for window in east Chicago,” (4) almost all buildings in Chicago or any city that exceed such a number often skip it, in favor of just calling it the 14th floor, or not including any offices or apartments on the floor. The choice of the author to place this woman on the 13th floor then makes the reader question the reality of the rest of the poem, and even offers up the first of many opportunities to offer their own insight and experience into this poem through eyes of the woman.
Although the second stanza is but one line, it gives the reader a bit of information about the woman. “She thinks she will be set free.” (7) This is a common thought for people who contemplate suicide, but it has an almost airy quality in this poem, like it is being said in a gasp of breath in between saying the first and third stanzas, making the notion of being set free a happy thing, even though it would only be achieved through her death. This line also makes the reader wonder what she wants to be set free from, encouraging them to read on, further intrigued by the ambiguity offered in this poem.
In the third stanza, the beginning seems to give this woman a past, an identity, but that is taken away in the next lines as more ambiguous “facts” are given about this woman. The first obvious line from this stanza that seems so strange is “She is her mother’s daughter and her father’s son.” (12) Such a strange split in personality is taken to mean something more than just one woman, but rather anyone, perhaps everyone, in the world who has ever seen themselves as the woman hanging from the 13th floor window. This issue is supported by lines 14 and 15, “She is all the women of the apartment building who stand watching her, watching themselves.”
The forth stanza makes more common experiences seem to be specifically for this one woman and her experiences, but are actually something common, and the reader can relate, possibly without even realizing it. “It was the farther north and she was the baby then. They rocked her,” (17-18) is a very vague line that many people can insert their own memories into the little story. Harjo seems to be writing this poem in a way that is simply vague enough to include many people’s opinions and stories. This line also serves to offer a contrast to the way her young life was happy and warm, while her life as an adult is cold and hard, which is why the woman is contemplating suicide.
In another way, stanza five gives more background, but this time, even though the woman is still referring to a time she was probably a child, she has begun to see the world in a more cynical way, “It is a dizzy hole of water… it just sputters and butts itself against the asphalt.” (20, 22-23) These feelings, even if one has never been to Lake Michigan to see the water “speak softly,” many people can relate to, because they can look back at a time in their life when a once thought kind and beautiful thing has now turned into something that simply is, if not has become something taken over by the rich “living in tall glass houses.” (21) The second part of the stanza is another nod to the Woman being all women, because she “sees other women hanging from many-floored windows counting their lives.” (24-26) She has now changed from being a representation of all women, but has now expanded to each individual woman who has contemplated suicide, and now they may no longer be on the 13th floor, now they are each in their own floors, because these new women exist, whilst the woman of the poem stays on floor 13, because she is not real, and neither is the 13th floor.
In the sixth stanza, the author continues talking about how many women base their worth around their children, where it was also mentioned in the fifth stanza, “She sees other women…counting their lives in the palms of their hands and in the palms of their children’s hands” (24-27) and now the sixth stanza talks about the woman’s “soft belly.” Her heart is also named the lowest part of her that is dangling, which is a result of her possibly losing her children as they grow up. Almost all adult women will relate to the unconditional love of their children, and these lines call for that love to come forth, and place yourself in her shoes, placing your worth on your children, no matter how young or old.
The seventh and eighth stanzas deal with voices the woman hears. Such voices that anyone could relate to; “cats mewling,” “her grandmother’s voice,” “gigantic men of light,” all of which are general and apply to anyone. The gigantic men, for instance, for a religious person, could be referring to angels, which might be why they call for her to “get up, get up, get up” (38) but for a nonreligious person, it could be male authority figures or simply a masculine vision, because they are seen as strong, and that’s what the woman wants to be at this point, to pull herself up; to be “strong.” The next stanza talks about the voices of those below her, some calling for her to fall, and others wanting her to climb back up, bringing this woman to a state of heavy confusion, one that women in her situation would face.
This confusion is continued on into the ninth stanza, where she knows that she is only holding on through her “own thread of indecision.” (48) This could be left open in a way for readers to wonder what they would do, knowing that anyone who has been in her place has been on this same thread, and some women’s snapped, while others’ pulled them up again.
The tenth stanza brings more confusion over her ambiguous character, as it states that she “thinks of all the women she has been, of all men.” (51-52) It brings forth again, who she is or isn’t, and that “she” doesn’t exist at all except in our minds. Again, “she thinks of the color of her skin,” (52) while we know that the author is Native American, she does not give a name for the color, and in the context of the poem, is open to interpretation of any color, white, black, yellow or brown. The rest of this stanza is filled with general memories, noises, sights, and feelings that any and everyone knows.
The last, eleventh stanza, begins again the repetition of the phrase “the woman hanging from the 13th floor window” and also brings back from the fourth and fifth stanzas the feeling of a loved childhood with the line “crying for the lost beauty of her own life.” (61) However, the last few lines are again ambiguous and vague. The author gives the reader the option to “pick” what fate the woman has, but in reality there is no fate at all, because the woman is not a woman, she is you.
The Woman Hanging From the 13th Floor Window is a poem that gives the reader a sense of free will in “controlling” the character, especially in the last few lines of the poem. Because the stories the woman has of her past and the things she feels, they are able to fit their own life into her, and one can realize that this woman, though the focus of the poem is on her, and that she has a “past,” doesn’t exist. The first clue for the is that she is hanging from the 13th floor, which doesn’t exist, and the poem often mentions how she is many people, or has seemingly split personalities. This poem caters to the minds of women who have thought of suicide, inserting things about children, or other things that women often find especially meaningful, but it does offer some experiences and feelings men feel as well. Throughout the poem, Harjo gives the reader chances to include themselves into her story without realizing it, and this leaves people shocked when it is up to them to decide her fate, and then when they also realize that that fate could be theirs.
Joy Harjo’s Biography
Joy Harjo, a member of the Mvskoke Nation in Tulsa, Oklahoma, is a poet best known for her critically-acclaimed books of poetry. “Born to a Creek father and a French-Cherokee mother” (Moyers 159), she lives a life very much rooted in the Native American culture of connecting to and celebrating the inner voice. As she states in her interview with Moyers, being part of a culture that still has living oral traditions and vital heroic figures and inspiration from her Aunt Lois Harjo Ball helped her develop this voice within her. As a result of this and her upbringing, she discovered multiple muses who have appeared in her writing process, such as the old Creek Indian, and found a motif—a round rocking chair from the Chicago Indian Center—that has consistently reappeared in the corner of her vision as various figures from the Indian Center sat in it to bring her inspiration. Most recently, her works won her the Wallace Stevens Award “for proven mastery in the art of poetry” (poets.org) by the Academy of American Poets, and in 2009, she even won a Native American Music Award for Best Female Artist of the Year with her music. Aside from this, she also regularly contributes to the “Comings and Goings” column of the Muscogee Nation News, and is a Professor of English and American Indian Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Stylistically, Harjo’s poems are based upon a combination of prayer, chanting, storytelling and song. In her book How We Became Human, she displays a range of variations of her highly descriptive, freeform poems, many of which convey messages that are both heartfelt and profound. Harjo makes use of both first and third person narrative in her poems, displaying a versatility in perspective through works like “For Alva Benson, and For Those Who Learned to Speak” (Harjo 33-34)—with the third person—and “This Is My Heart” (167-168)—using a first person viewpoint. Some of her poems also make use of structural repetition and run-on sentences, like “Say I… ” and “Say we…” in “Desire” (Harjo 81), as well as “This Is My Heart”, with:
“This is my heart. It is a good heart.
This is my soul. It is a good soul.
This is my song. It is my song.”
Harjo’s writing is mainly focused upon the subjects of her Native American identity and personal survival, the twin realms of the earth and the spirit world, and human connection. In “Crossing the Border”, Harjo recounts her experience of crossing the Canadian border. She describes herself and her travel party as “Indians in an Indian car, trying / to find a Delaware powwow / that was barely mentioned in Milwaukee” (Harjo 20-21), a group of Americans both native to and separated from their home nation in the prejudice they are subjected to. Despite this injustice, Harjo continues to view the world around her with eyes open to its beauty, praying to the “gods of the scarlet light” (Harjo 127-128) and admiring how “the sun breaks over the yawning mountain” in “Songline of Dawn.” Similarly, Harjo is highly attuned to her spirituality, developing a sense of self-awareness and belief in powers that exist beyond our physical realm. In her poem “The Path to the Milky Way Leads Through Los Angeles” (Harjo 141-142), she observes that “the shimmer of gods / is easier to perceive at sunrise or dusk” and that “we must matter to the strange god who imagines us as we revolve / together in the dark sky on the path to the Milky Way.” She seamlessly weaves spiritual concepts into poems regarding the physical realm and creates a world that is both ethereal and beautiful. Finally, Harjo emphasizes the power and importance of human connection—love, most vitally—in “The Creation Story” (Harjo 91-92), as it can “carry a friend from her death / to the stars / correctly” and “keep / [her] people safe / from drought / or gunshot.” To show genuine care and concern for one another is not a weakness in her eyes, it builds stars that constantly watch over us and protects us from fear instead.
Through these many scopes her poems are written through, Harjo conveys an admiration for the beauty of the earth within the context of Native American traditions and history, uniting all her readers in their roots as a single body of undivided tribal people (Moyers 162). In her interview in The Language of Life, she states that she hopes “on some level [her poems] can transform hatred into love” (Moyers 165). Though an ambitious goal for written works like poetry, she understands the full scale of power and influence language can have on opinions, therefore harboring hope that her words can bring positive effect to her readers somehow. Additionally, she wishes to embrace her fear as an ally, rather than antagonize it and view it as an enemy, so as to stop it from becoming a destructive force in our lives. Furthermore, as a poet, she urges us to acknowledge the presence of love, in all its forms, present in the poetry of today. Whether romantic, platonic, patriotic, maternal, or paternal, love is ever-present and allows us to form connections with one another. Finally, because of all these connections forged, Harjo seeks to persuade us into realizing our importance on this earth. Regardless of how little or insignificant we feel, we play a huge role within our own spheres in our world, thereby making us more important than we can ever imagine.
“I am memory alive not just a name
but an intricate part of this web of motion,
meaning: earth, sky, stars circling my heart
centrifugal.” — “Skeleton of Winter”, Joy Harjo
How Europeans Brought Negative Transformation In America
Since Europeans first made contact with natives in 1492, the Europeans have taken advantage of the natives for their own benefit. They were extremely efficient, with Columbus discovering America and creating American slavery within a 15-year span. Before the Europeans showed up, scholars estimate the native population was between 20 to 100 million and by 1620, an astonishingly 95% of the population was dead according to PBS. Even today, according to Gallup Independent we only have 5.2 million Native Americans left with 22% living on reservations with conditions which have been compared to the Third World. Looking at the treatment and the lives of the natives in history and in modern day clearly shows that the change the Europeans brought was undeniably negative.
Balboa made his voyage to the Pacific Ocean after overthrowing the governor of Darien in 1513. Preceding this were years of violence towards the natives described in the short story “Balboa” by Sabina Murray. Balboa had gone on a genocidal killing spree, as “his muskets blasted away the faces of the greatest warriors… His Spanish war dogs, great mastiffs and wolfhounds, tore children limb from limb”(Murray). The natives did not have technology beyond bows and spears, and even then did not have the steel variants the Europeans had had throughout the previous centuries. Also, while the natives had encountered dogs before, they had never experienced a dog trained to kill and a dog as large and deadly as a mastiff or greyhound. Even more surprising was to see the dogs in their armor that gave them some protection from the natives’ attacks. The Europeans simply killed all who dared oppose them while on their search for the riches of the New World. Of course, this could not have been done without the help of diseases and pestilence. Balboa also had a nifty little trick guaranteed to destroy the opposition that Sabina Murray pointed out, the fact that, ” Balboa’s soldiers spread smallpox and syphilis”(Murray). As pointed out in the introduction, 95% of the native population was killed by smallpox and other diseases after the Europeans arrived. That was their strategy, to infest the area and wait a few years, then when the population was dwindling they would come in and begin to colonize. This was of course terrible for the New World because entire tribes and cultures disappeared within a few short years and the stragglers had to face the oncoming onslaught of European explorers who viewed them as sub-human savages.
Another injustice to plague the Americas when the Europeans came was of course racism. As Charles Mann points out in his short story “Coming of Age in the Dawnland”, “But Indian is not a category that Tisquantum himself would have recognized…he regarded himself first and foremost as a citizen of Patuxet”(Mann). With the arrival of the Europeans came the arrival of the terms “Indians” and “savages”, terms that at the time were acceptable to call a Native American. To the Europeans, there was initially no Iroquois or Wampanoag. There was not even Sioux or Cheyenne, much less Lakota Sioux or any other smaller classifications that defined the average native. They were all banded under a single banner, the banner of “Indian” despite the fact they were not in India and “savage” despite the fact that according to Cornell University, the Iroquois tribal government had freedom of speech, freedom of religion, separation of powers, and checks and balances and the fact that the Senate even acknowledged the American republic was influenced by the Iroquois Confederacy. This systemic racism and grouping of different ethnicities into giant groups may have had it’s start with the natives but it also continues today in America. In Richard Rodriguez’s essay “‘Blaxicans’ and Other Reinvented Americans,” he points out that, “ OMB came up with five major ethnic or racial groups. The groups are white, black, Asian/Pacific Islander, American Indian/Eskimo, and Hispanic”(Rodriguez). Even in modern day America we cannot escape the generalizations of ethnicity given to us by our European ancestors. For example, the fact that included in Hispanic is Spanish, Mexican, Cuban, Puerto Rican, Brazilian, Portuguese, Chilean, Colombian, etc. is extremely insensitive because those cultures, while sharing some similarities, are still very much different. It would be like a person grouping Germans and Russians or British and French together, they may be slightly similar but they are still completely different in most aspects.
The Europeans and later Americans also seemed to have a knack for enslaving and removing natives from their homelands. William Shakespeare’s dramatic play The Tempest, depicts a settler in the form of Prospero taking the island away from the native who is Caliban. Caliban says,” This island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother, which thou hast takest from me”(Shakespeare). He elaborates that Prospero had taught him all kinds of things and was originally friendly and helpful, just as the Europeans had originally come and taught the natives their language, culture, and religion but, just like Prospero, they ended up killing or enslaving the natives and taking the land. In fact, when Columbus had literally killed off the entire native populations of some of the Caribbean islands, he brought black slaves from Africa to work the land, which is why Jamaicans are black. The Europeans would do nearly anything to get land or slaves to keep their industries and interests alive and strong. In Joy Harjo’s poem entitled “New Orleans”, it describes the violence and remains of the Creeks after being utterly destroyed and their culture collapsing and also the Indian Removal Act of 1830. In the poem she writes,” There are voices buried in the Mississippi mud. There are ancestors and future children buried beneath the currents stirred up by the pleasure boats going up and down”(Harjo). When the Creek were being relocated and removed from their lands, some were taken through New Orleans on steamboats and one crashed into another and 300 Creek drowned in the river. In all, 3,500 died out of the 15,000 removed and when they got to Oklahoma, they were suddenly lumped with tribes that they had nearly no similarities with and were expected to live on dusty, infertile land. In 1823, the Supreme Court decided that Native Americans can occupy land in the US but could not own it, because the US’ “right of discovery” mattered more than the the natives “right of occupancy.” So by 1837, 46,000 Native Americans were removed from their lands and taken west to unfamiliar surroundings and strange tribes.
Now, some would argue that the violence was mainly Spanish on native or American on native, that the English pilgrims who came were not violent. For example, in the short story “Of Plymouth Plantation” by William Bradford, William Bradford states,”…after friendly entertainment and some gifts given to him, they made peace with him….”(Bradford). Looking at this, one could argue that the Europeans in this instance came in peace but, with a little historical research and context, this can be dismissed. First off, Thanksgiving was not the settlers inviting the natives and being friendly. The natives had showed up because the English had their first successful harvest and shot cannons and guns in the air. The natives were alarmed and came to investigate and made camp near them. They met the settlers and the reason they formed an alliance was because the Wampanoag were in a struggle against another warring tribe and found that the settlers weapons and armor were far superior to any other local tribes. It was essentially a defensive alliance. According to History.com, in 1675, the son of the chief who had signed a treaty with the English, named Metacom, called all Native American tribes to defend their homeland and people against the settlers because the Europeans continued to encroach onto Wampanoag land, a humiliating treaty in 1671 where the natives were forced to give up their guns, the fact that the other Sachem before him was arrested by colonists even though not in their jurisdiction and dying in their custody, and the last straw being when the Plymouth Colony hung three Wampanoag natives for killing a Christianized native. Metacom’s Rebellion was unsuccessful simply because the natives could not outlast the European settlers who were supported by England, despite the fact that they had won many victories. The descendants of the original Pilgrims and other people began to call for Britain to help eliminate the native population completely, since the war had already decimated the 30% of the population made up of natives to 15%. This conflict is seen by most as a last, desperate breath, a last fight for their ancestral lands and a last chance to try to halt the colonial advance. So in hindsight, the natives originally could have slaughtered the colonists who had arrived and spared themselves much suffering in the future, so the peace treaty was in fact another negative thing the Europeans brought because it bought the colonists time to reinforce and get more people and weapons from Britain.
So all in all, in the end the change the settlers brought to the Americas was death, enslavement, removal, and racism. They only brought negative changes to the Americas, they destroyed cultures and nearly eradicated an entire race. History shows us that the natives were extremely mistreated and even today, they are mistreated. We glorify their blood and talk of how brave they are yet, we do nothing to improve their conditions, but you know what they say, sons do indeed bear the sins of the father.