Louise Erdrich Poetry: American Poets Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2371

Louise Erdrich’s interest in writing can be traced to her childhood and her heritage. She told Writer’s Digest contributor Michael Schumacher, “People in [Native American] families make everything into a story. . . . People just sit and the stories start coming, one after another. I suppose that when you grow up constantly hearing the stories rise, break, and fall, it gets into you somehow.” Her parents encouraged her writing: “My father used to give me a nickel for every story I wrote, and my mother wove strips of construction paper together and stapled them into book covers. So at an early age I felt myself to be a published author earning substantial royalties.”

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Although most of her characters and themes grow out of her background as a Native American woman who grew up off the reservation, Erdrich’s writings not only reflect her multilayered, complex background—she is both Turtle Mountain Chippewa and European American—but also confound a variety of literary genre and cultural categories. In her fiction and poetry, she plainly regards the survival of American Indian cultures as imperative. She prescribes the literary challenge for herself and other contemporary American Indian writers in her essay “Where I Ought to Be: A Writer’s Sense of Place,” published in a 1985 issue of The New York Times Book Review: In the light of enormous loss, American Indians must tell the stories of contemporary survivors while protecting and celebrating the cores of cultures left in the wake of catastrophe.

Erdrich’s themes tend to focus on abandonment and return, pleasure and denial, failure, and absurdity. She raises virtually all the issues important to an understanding of the human condition: accidents of birth and parentage, falling in love, generosity, greed, psychological damage, joy, alienation, vulnerability, differentness, parenting, aging, and dying.

Jacklight

The meanings of Jacklight radiate outward and circle back to the title poem. Instead of being trapped by the hunters’ jacklights, the animals in Erdrich’s poem lure the hunters into the woods: “And now they take the first steps, not knowing/ how deep the woods are and lightless.” This poem’s themes are typical of Erdrich: her knowledge of the natural world’s wisdom, an awareness of the contentious interaction between humans and animals, and a prophetic sense that human beings need the healing power nature offers.

Following the title poem, section 1, “Runaways,” explores the theme of return, most often to the natural world. Erdrich details a “quest for one’s own background” in the work. She describes mixed-blood American Indians like herself searching “to discover where we are from.” In “Indian Boarding School,” the children running away from their off-reservation schools speak collectively that “Home’s the place we head for in our sleep.” In “Rugaroo,” an alcoholic man’s search is so dogged that “He blew up with gas./ And now he is the green light floating over the slough.” As the title poem prophesied, there is a return to the natural world and a haunting transformation.

Section 2, “Hunters,” pursues the theme of the interaction between the human world and the natural—human beings having forgotten, for the most part, links with the natural world. “The Woods” presents a first-person speaker who has made the move back to the woods and who invites her lover to join her: “now when I say come,/ and you enter the woods,/ hunting some creature like the woman I was,/ I surround you.” An integration is made, but it is bizarre and somewhat threatening: “When you lie down in the grave of a slashed tree,/ I cover you, as I always did;/ this time you do not leave.” The following poem removes the threat as the speaker directly addresses her husband: “Again I see us walking into the night trees,/ irreversible motion, but the branches are now lit within.” There is more companionship here, less seduction. This poem is clearly a response to the “Jacklight” poem, taking up its challenge and discovering new powers: “Husband, by the light of our bones we are going.”

“Captivity” uses the narrative of Mary Rowlandson, who was captured by the Wampanoag Indians in 1676. At first repulsed by her male captor, Rowlandson will not eat the food he offers. Later, she witnesses a tribal ritual: “He led his company in the noise/ until I could no longer bear/ the thought of how I was.” The poem concludes with her entreaty to the earth “to admit me/ as he was.”

Section 3, “The Butcher’s Wife,” is a sequence of poems that share the central character of Mary Kroger, a powerful woman. These are narrative poems dealing chiefly with non-Native American material, although Kroger is a midwesterner and aware of what the land was like before white incursions. In “Clouds,” Kroger says, “Let everything be how it could have been, once:/ a land that was empty and perfect as clouds.” When her husband dies, Kroger goes through a transformation: “Widowed by men, I married the dark firs.” Kroger has answered the call of “Jacklight.” By “marrying” the woods, she has discovered unexpected powers. “At certain times,” she says, “I speak in tongues.”

Erdrich concludes Jacklight with Indian oral narratives. In “The Strange People,” for example, she uses a story about the antelope. As in “Jacklight,” Erdrich narrates this poem from the point of view of the animal. Initially, the antelope doe is attracted by the hunter whose “jacklight/ fills my eyes with blue fire.” Though she is killed by the hunter, she does not die. A trickster figure, she becomes “a lean gray witch/ through the bullets that enter and dissolve.” He is no match for her, and she leaves in the morning to return to the woods.

“Turtle Mountain Reservation” closes the volume and is dedicated to Erdrich’s Chippewa grandfather. This grandpa “hitchhikes home” and comes at last to the swamp and the woods, “his hands/ that have grown to be the twisted doubles/ of the burrows of mole and badger.” He is the woods. The speaker recognizes that she too comes from “Hands of earth, of this clay.” This book of poems is, indeed, a return to Erdrich’s roots.

Baptism of Desire

The Roman Catholic Church teaches that there are three forms of baptism: fire, water, and desire. Any of these will establish the necessary condition for salvation to occur. In her second book of poems, Baptism of Desire, Erdrich focuses on desire and forms a powerful metaphor for the union of the physical and the spiritual. Subjects from her first book of poems reappear in her second. The reader recognizes Mary Kroger, for example, and also the American Indian trickster figure Potchikoo. For the most part, however, Erdrich explores new material, primarily religious but also deeply connected to her own experience as a woman, a wife, and a mother.

The most striking poem in the volume is “Hydra,” which appears to be Erdrich’s statement about her coming into her own as a creative being. The critic Amy Adelstein states that “Erdrich draws on the ambivalent imagery of the serpent as seducer and an initiator into the sacred mysteries.” From an American Indian perspective, the hydra or snake is Erdrich’s power animal, her guide and the activator of her poetic imagination: “Snake of the long reach, the margin,/ The perfect sideways motion/ I have imitated all my life./ Snake of hard hours, you are my poetry.” So compelling is this “Hydra” that it explains Erdrich’s ability to write poems during pregnancy, childbirth, and the early years of her various children. In her notes to this volume, she says that most of the poems were written during periods of sleeplessness brought on by her pregnancies.

Some readers prefer the religious poems in Baptism of Desire to the more domestic ones. The critic Annie Finch states that they are “lush in imagery, fascinating in their suggestiveness, refreshing, often, in their very privacy.” Erdrich achieves this privacy through persona poems in some cases. “The Visit,” in the voice of Mary, the mother of Jesus, takes up the subject of the Immaculate Conception and the virgin birth. Erdrich’s poem begins with the stark statement, “It was not love. No flowers or ripened figs/ were in his hands.” Mary was told she was to become the mother of God, but this was no romantic proposition. What about Joseph, Mary’s husband-to-be? “What could he do but fit the blades/ of wood together into a cradle?”

In “Avila,” Erdrich writes in the voice of Saint Teresa of Ávila’s brother. The opening imagery is vivid and direct, the question shocking as he asks: “Sister, do you remember our cave of stones,/ how we entered from the white heat of afternoons,/ chewed seeds, and plotted one martyrdom/ more cruel than the last?” He refers to the disasters of the Children’s Crusade to free the Holy Land from Muslim rule.

“Sacraments,” a long seven-part poem, is equally compelling. Erdrich discards the definitions given by the Catechism for a more private perspective. In the poem on Holy Orders, for example, she begins: “God, I was not meant to be the isolate/ cry in this body./ I was meant to have your tongue in my mouth.” The speaker longs for union with her God, but the rendering is more in the vein of the fifteenth century Hindu poet Mr B than of traditional Christianity.

In Baptism of Desire, Erdrich finds a spiritual element in caring for her children. In “Sunflowers,” a mother and father tend to their children at night. After soothing the children, changing diapers, and providing milk, the parents return to bed and dream of “a field of sunflowers,” which, like humans, are profoundly phototropic, turning their heads to the light, “to the bronze/ face of the old god/ who floats over us and burns.” The spirituality here is primitive, even pagan, and much in tune with Erdrich’s heritage as American Indian. The children are like the flowers, a connection suggested but not underlined by Erdrich. Amy Adelstein comments on this suggestiveness as a trait of Erdrich’s poems. She says, “It is in a dreamlike, suggestible state that the metamorphosis of shapes and identities and the confounding of time and space occur, approximating the ritual of baptism.”

“Ritual,” the last poem in Baptism of Desire, details a mother’s duties as protector of her children: “I bind the net beneath you with the tendons of my wrist.” Then she returns to sleep beside her husband, their bed covered with a quilt depicting “the twelve-branched tree of life.” She uses this tree as metaphor for their union, which grows and spreads as a tree does, “Until the slightest twigs scrape at the solid frost-blue/ of the floor of heaven.”

Original Fire

Original Fire, Erdrich’s third book of poetry, was published in 2003, fourteen years after her last collection. In the spirit of the controlled chaos of Love Medicine, with its multiple narrators and nonchronological structure, Erdrich integrates five new poems amid pieces from Jacklight and Baptism of Desire, while introducing a collection of thirteen new poems under the “Original Fire” subheading. The author continues to focus heavily on themes that existed in her previous collections, in which she critiques Western religions, revels in motherhood, and ponders creation and death.

The section “The Seven Sleepers” contains three new poems, which follow an overarching theme of contradicting spiritual beliefs. The poems here are inextricably linked—each piece builds on its predecessor, necessitating that readers ponder the whole as the sum of its parts. “The Sacraments” has seven poems coinciding with the seven sacraments of Catholicism. Likewise, “Saint Clare” contains four poems focusing on specific Catholic saintly ideals and experiences. In poems such as “Christ’s Twin” and “Orozco’s Christ,” Erdrich focuses on the duality of the sacred and secular worlds, while juxtaposing the mortal deity of Christ and the supernatural elements of American Indian spirituality.

Erdrich continues to scrutinize the brutality and hypocrisy of “civilized” Christians in two new poems: “The Buffalo Prayer” and “Rez Litany.” “The Buffalo Prayer” is a scathing indictment of the ravaging of the natural world, which destroyed native culture and livelihoods. The eradicated buffalo narrate and sarcastically supplicate to Holy Ladies of “the Buffalo Bones,” “Destruction Everywhere,” and “the Box Cars of Skulls.” These references are meant to satirize the pretenses under which the Christian colonizers destroyed the order of the natural world. Erdrich’s ire for such destructive assertions of dominance by the white culture continues in “Rez Litany,” which condemns the inadequate health care systems provided to native populations, whose bureaucrats “. . . preside now in heaven/ at the gates of the Grand Casino Buffet.”

The final section, “Original Fire,” contains thirteen new poems illustrating Erdrich’s maturation both in life and in art. She focuses on relationships between mother and child, wife and husband, and humankind and nature. “New Mother” and “Little Blue Eyeglasses” portray a mother’s need to comfort and protect a child from conception through adulthood. The mother-guardian-consoler theme continues into “Wood Mountain,” in which a mother and son deal with the loss of a loved one, ultimately finding understanding and solace in each other.

Erdrich matures within her poetry in “Advice to Myself,” in which the narrator tells herself to leave the dishes in the sink and the crumbs in the toaster, as such chores only maintain material possessions—they are not necessities. If anything, such monotonous chores promote an ongoing routine that leads to further expectations. The realization that happiness is not contingent on such trivialities sets her free.

The final poem of the collection, “Asiniig” (the Ojibwe word for stone), is representative of both grandmother and grandfather personas, whose conversation forms the basis for another creation story. The stones are the narrators, created by “original fire” and ever present. In the six individual poems that make up “Asiniig,” Erdrich explores the human desire for immortality. The stones, which have myriad uses in every culture, tell people that they exist after death, if only through the stones. The stones persist in life so that people may persist in death through nature; bodies and consciousness disappear, yet, like a phantom limb, aches persist—all that remains is memory.

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