Louise Erdrich Poetry: American Poets Analysis - Essay

Louise Erdrich Poetry: American Poets Analysis

(Poets and Poetry in America)

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.”

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.


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...

(The entire section is 2371 words.)