Category Archives: The Woman Hanging from the Thirteenth Floor Window

Joy Harjo: The Woman Hanging from the Thirteenth Floor Window

When reading this poem I thought of the famous photograph of a baby sitter falling to her death when a fire escape collapsed during a building fire in Boston in 1975. This poem was published 8 years after the tragedy, and Harjo may have begun working on it after seeing this photograph (though I’m totally speculating here). Yet the themes are similar, “as she falls from the 13th floor”, in that there is a hopelessness to the dire situation both women are in, being trapped (in the photo by death itself, or in the poem by a slow death of poverty and family responsibility).

There is a life flashing before our eyes quality to both works, too. Though we can only look in horror at the woman in the photograph, in Harjo’s poem we get images of “Lake Michigan”, “her father, and of her mother”, Some of them scream out from below / for her to jump, they would push her over.” Harjo is remembering everything that makes up her life, but it’s dismal. The lake :just sputters / and butts itself against the asphalt” – there is no breaker between her and the dismal, relentless nature of the world, unlike the rich who are secure in “tall glass houses at the edge of [the lake]”.

Death is ever-present, too: “pull their children up like flowers and gather / them into their arms” is almost funeral. And of course she “hangs” all through the poem, dangling, on a precipice of society that offers very little hope of relief. “Her mind  chatters like neon”, “Her teeth break off at the edges”, “she sees other / woman hanging”, “She thinks of the 4 a.m. loneliness”, “She is several pieces”. All these images paint a picture of brokenness, and of restlessness. There seems to be longing (else why would she hang on for so long?), and she even falls in the last stanza, but there is a choice here, too in that she “climbs back up to claim herself again.”, which speaks to her strength, in that she will not give up, in that even though the world she lives in is terrible, she will not let it totally consume her – she will endure it, as all the other woman have endured it.

Fire Escape Collapse, 1975, Stanley Forman