(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

Louise Erdrich opens Original Fire with the title poem from the bookJacklight (1984), a depiction of difference and similarity drawn as a confrontation between inhabitants and invaders of the wilderness. Erdrich locates the poetic perspective in the consciousness of deer spirits, whose home ground has been disrupted by the incursion of human beings, for whom the forest is alien but inviting terrain. The meeting of disparate populations is one of Erdrich’s primary themes, exemplified in her novels by the interaction of Catholic missionaries and American Indian tribal communities and by the intermingling of German American pioneers, her father’s family background, and the native Ojibway people of her mother’s family.

Erdrich is primarily known as a novelist. She published seven novels following the continuing popularity and critical success of Love Medicine, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1984. Erdrich says that she “started out as a poet,” inspired by her father’s recital of poems by Robert Frost and George Gordon, Lord Byron, and that her writing method is to “curl up in a chair and just write it like I’m writing a poem.”

The poems in Jacklight are designed to speak as, and for, a native community whose processes of perception might seem implausible and unfathomable to those unfamiliar with American Indian ways of knowing and being. The poem “The Strange People” carries an epigraph fromPretty-Shield: Medicine Woman of the Crows (1932), noting that “The antelope are strange people.” The poem “Captivity,” an imaginative entrance into the mind of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, “who was taken prisoner by the Wapanoag” in 1676, recounts the dislocation Rowlandson experiences as the strange ways of her captors gradually meld into the modes of her previous life. Shifts in perspective to the consciousness of a nonhuman species are presented as natural to the degree that Erdrich does not attempt to explain or justify the opening lines of “The Strange People”: “All night I am the doe, breathing/ his name in a frozen field” or the beginning of “Jacklight,” which does not choose to identify the creature speaking: “We have come to the edge of the woods,/ out of brown grass, where we slept unseen,/ out of knotted twigs, out of leaves creaked shut,/ out of hiding.”

Erdrich describes herself as a writer who functions “as an emissary of the between-world, that increasingly common margin where cultures mix and collide.” In these poems, the collision is not only between Indians and Anglos but also between humans and other species, with the humaness of animals functioning as a commentary on human ways, the animalistic instincts of humans linking them to a wider sphere of creation in the traditions of American Indian cultures. The hunters jacklighting the wilderness, in an attempt to penetrate an alluring and alien dark realm, are described as taking “the first steps, now knowing/ how deep the woods are and lightless/ How deep the woods are.” Their entry into the woods is presented as a return to a place of origins, where there is a possibility of regaining powers of vision neglected for centuries.

However, the Indians themselves have lost something of their ease in the woods through interaction with the invaders of their lands, so that in “I Was Sleeping Where the Black Oaks Move” there is a longing in the recollection, “Sometimes now, we dream our way back to the heron dance” and an ethos of sorrow in the concluding question: “How long must we live in the broken figures/ their necks make, narrowing the sky.” In many of the poems, a sense of unease bespeaks a loss that the poet is trying to understand, and by understanding, achieve some measure of rectification.

The difficulties inherent in this task are implied by the best known of the poems in the first section, which seizes the aura surrounding a major American cultural icon. “Dear John Wayne” begins, somewhat deceptively, with a description of a fundamental mid-twentieth century activity, summer nights spent lounging “on the hood of the Pontiac” at a packed drive-in movie theater. In a typical film, the “death-cloud” of arrows “swarming down on the settlers” calls forth a screen-filling face, “acres of blue squint and eye” that promises a “thick cloud of vengeance.” John Wayne is implacable and irresistible, the representation of a grasping ethic that says “Everything we see belongs to us.” Erdrich acknowledges the futility of resistance, but her chilling final image, declaring “Even his disease was the idea of taking everything./ Those cells, burning, doubling, splitting out of their skins,” is a warning of the effect that this toxic blight has brought to the entire continent.

Following the poems from Jacklight, Erdrich sets a sequence...

(The entire section is 1996 words.)