Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 520
“Jacklight,” the opening and title poem in Erdrich’s first book of verse, is a haunting dramatization of male-female and of white-Indian relations. The poem begins with an epigraph citing that “the same Chippewa word is used both for flirting and for hunting game,” so that the encounter between hunters and animals enacted in the poem is also an allegory for sexual gamesmanship between men and women. The title refers to an artificial light, such as a flashlight, used in hunting or fishing at night. This detail, along with a number of others, suggests that the poem is also an allegory of an encounter between white and Indian cultures. Erdrich does not indicate whether the male hunters in the poem are white or Indian, but in either case their equipment and character traits clearly suggest aggressive and exploitative aspects of white culture.
The poem begins not with the hunters going into the woods, but with the animals coming out—perhaps because of their curiosity, flirtatiousness, or trusting openness:
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.
In these lines and throughout the poem, Erdrich’s use of assonance and consonance (such as “Out of brown” and “knotted twigs”) and of parallel syntax (such as the repetition of “out of”) creates a charged atmosphere that suggests repeated, ritualistic behavior.
The harsh assaultiveness of males and of white culture is portrayed in the beams of the jacklights, which “clenched to a fist of light that pointed,/ searched out, divided us.” The perverse power of this jacklight, in contrast with the powers of nature, is such that the animals (or females, or Indians) are compelled into separating from their group. Although the animals in the poem smell many repulsive aspects of the hunters (“the raw steel of their gun barrels,” “their tongues of sour barley,” “the itch underneath the caked guts on their clothes”), they do not retreat. Erdrich seems to be suggesting that women (if they want to have husbands) and Indians (if they want to avoid total destruction by the advancing white culture) have no choice but to deal with such brutishness.
In the last two stanzas, however, the animals declare that it is time for some concessions:
We have come here too long.It is their turn now,their turn to follow us. Listen,they put down their equipment.It is useless in the tall brush.And now they take the first steps, not knowinghow deep the woods are and lightless.
For the male who is in search of a female, or the white in confrontation with an Indian, or the reader who may be white or male and about to enter the world of a female Indian poet, there must be a willingness to deal with complexities and mysteries for which their “equipment” or preconceptions are inadequate. Yet Erdrich’s readers may also be assured that though “the woods” of her poetry may seem “deep” and at times “lightless,” they always contain authentic rewards of feeling and experience.
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