What is the tone of the poem "Jacklight" by Louise Erdrich?

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accessteacher | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The tone of this poem is one of deep sadness and grief, but also one of challenge. This is a tone that is created through the reflection on the way that male/female and white/indigenous people relations are described and commented upon, with white males presented as predatory and violent, forcing themselves upon women and indigenous people showing no mercy or pity. Note, for example, the following quote:

We smell their breath steaming lightly behind the jacklight.

We smell the itch underneath the caked guts on their clothes.

We smell their minds like silver hammers

cocked back, held in readiness

for the first of us to step into the open.

The repeition of the syntax "We smell..." creates a parallelism that is sinister through its repetition, and also presents the men as being relentless and unavoidable. The comparison of their minds to "silver hammers / cocked back" ready to fire at the first of the creatures to enter the open identifies the violence and the strength of their force, and their is a sense of deep sadness at the inevitability of such brutality. However, the sense of challenge in this poem is evident through the final stanza, where the speakers declare that they will return to the woods and lead the white men after them so they have to experience a very different terrain where they are not masters and stronger than anything else. 

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