Compare the poems, “Theme for English B,” by Langston Hughes, and “A Love Medicine,” by Louise Erdrich.

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booboosmoosh | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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Louise Erdich's "Love Medicine," and Langston Hughes' "Theme for English B," are written about people who are searching for an identity—where they are equals. In both poems there is a theme of separation.

Langston's Hughes' poem, "Theme for English B," is based on a homework assignment the poet was given in school. The poet writes about his world and its truths. Hughes (the speaker?) describes where he comes from. The underlying reference in this work is the connection between people, that transcends color. Hughes knows others don't like it, but honestly, sometimes he does not like it either. As he sees it, people are uncomfortable with the "perception" of sameness or in actually being the "same." The idea threatens some.

Hughes provides a "list" of things he likes—things that most people enjoy:

Well, I like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love. 
I like to work, read, learn, and understand life. 
I like a pipe... 
or records... 
I guess being colored doesn't make me NOT like 
the same things other folks like who are other races.

We read words here that speak to separation: the speaker notes that he likes what other people like, and that his skin color has nothing to do with it.

What is common to both races is not as powerful a concept in the poem as the things some people use to encourage a separation of the races.

Louise Erdrich's poem, "Love Medicine," also presents a theme of separation.

The poet writes about her sister Theresa—how, at first, she seems to fit in better (with this night) than the speaker.

This dragonfly, my sister,

She belongs more than I

to this night of rising water.

"Dragonfly" may simply refer to Theresa's green halter and chains (is she theoretically enslaved?) which create a colorful iridescence that catches the eye. In the Native American culture, the dragonfly is symbolic, representing "a lesson to be learned." Is Erdrich the one who is supposed to learn a lesson, or is it her sister? What takes place on this night may prove that both women need to be mindful of what life may have to teach them. All of a sudden, this sister who seems better suited for the night:

...steps against the fistwork of a man...and his boot plants its grin / against the arches of her face.

It would appear that Theresa is alone when she is beaten by the man in the boots. The rising water could symbolize a threat; the storm that brings the water perhaps symbolizes conflict. Laughing, Theresa leaves her man in his Dodge. (He then "wears a long rut in the fog" looking for her—so while she finds herself alone, there is one who is trying to find her). However, she is punched by a man—a different man. (Is he a stranger, or worse, someone she knows?) The fog hides the violence. Erdrich does not see it, but she finds her sister afterward.

Once again we discover the theme of "separation" in this poem: between Theresa and her man, between Erdrich and Theresa, and between goodness (i.e., the dragonfly) and confounding brutality (the beating).

In comparison, Hughes' describes his separation, and his attempt to comprehend it even he and others have much in common. However, Erdrich draws attention to separation that strikes with cruelty.

[NOTE: when Erdrich repeats "I find her..." in the sixth stanza, it indicate that violence is taking place in other locations, to other women—possibly noting that separation is wide-reaching. Perhaps when she refers to "sister," she speaks to all women.]

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