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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 576

“Captivity” is a medium-length narrative poem in free verse, its fifty-eight lines divided into six stanzas which are, respectively, nine, ten, eleven, eight, ten, and ten lines long. The title refers to the subject of the narrative: It is a woman’s story of her capture by a band of American Indians in the seventeenth century. No names are given for the narrator or any of the other characters—the man she identifies as her captor, a woman associated with him, and the narrator’s child and husband. An epigraph, a short quote from Mary Rowlandson’s 1676 narrative about her own capture and travels with a band of Wampanoag, follows the title of the poem. The quote reads: “He (my captor) gave me a bisquit, which I put in my pocket, and not daring to eat it, buried it under a log, fearing he had put something in it to make me love him.”

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Although the poem is written in the first-person point of view, the Rowlandson reference makes it clear that Erdrich is creating a narrator whose culture, experiences, and beliefs are different from the poet’s own. The speaker of the poem is based on a historical figure. Erdrich is a twentieth century poet of German and Chippewa descent; the narrator of “Captivity” is a woman like Mary Rowlandson.

The poem begins with a description of the group’s flight through the woods. The narrator states that she had trouble crossing a stream but that someone, referred to only as “he,” saved her. The captive has learned to recognize him as an individual, and she is afraid that she understands “his language, which [is] not human.” In her fear, she prays.

The next two stanzas describe events that occurred during her time with her captors. They are chased and have to march. The narrator’s child cries because of hunger, but she cannot suckle, so a woman feeds the baby “milk of acorns.” The narrator promises herself to starve rather than take food from her captors, but she does not keep the promise. One night “he” kills a pregnant deer and gives her “to eat of the fawn./ It was so tender,/ the bones like the stems of flowers,/ that I followed where he took me.” The events that close the stanza are not clearly described. “He” cuts the ropes that bind her, and it is night. The next stanza describes natural events that the narrator interprets as God’s wrath. These events include a lightning storm. She sees that her captor neither notices or fears God’s wrath.

The last two stanzas describe her life after she has been rescued and returned to her husband. Although she is back with her family, she is neither happy nor content. She says that she sees “no truth in things,” and despite having food for her child, she does not feel at home. She says “I lay myself to sleep” and “I lay to sleep,” two lines that echo the prayer taught to children. Instead of untroubled sleep or a completed prayer, she has a vision of herself back with her captors. She is “outside their circle,” but as her captor leads them in what the narrator first thinks of as noise, she finds herself part of the chant. She strips a branch and joins them, strikes the earth “begging it to open/ to admit me/ as he was/ and feed me honey from the rock.”

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Themes