Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2827
SOURCE: Erdrich, Louise, and Jan George. “Interview with Louise Erdrich.” North Dakota Quarterly 53, no. 2 (spring 1985): 240-7.
[In the following interview, Erdrich discusses her early works and talks about the life experiences that influence her poetry and fiction.]
“If there's a story there, that's enough,” says Louise Erdrich, who brings to life the history and mythology of her people and, therefore, her identity: Chippewa, German, woman, Midwesterner. By juxtaposing and weaving past and present together, Erdrich gives shape to the prairie land and its people in her book of poems, Jacklight, and her novel, Love Medicine (both 1984, Holt, Rinehart & Winston).
She draws on her years in North Dakota to create and recreate characters who endure despite adversity and affliction, who continue simply because they must go on. Erdrich says she is close to the prairie and its people; her life touches all those who live and have lived on that land. And this interrelatedness is evident in her writing, especially in the stories of Love Medicine where the characters' lives are intermingled in spirit as well as history.
Growing up in North Dakota, Erdrich had the advantage of a geographical closeness to the heritage she was, even as a child, interested in. Learning about her connections to her German and Chippewa past yielded a love for the people of which she's a part, a love that is evident in the pages of her books.
But it wasn't until several years after she left North Dakota that Erdrich was to find this knowledge a great resource in her writing: “I didn't realize that [at first]. It wasn't really a source to me until I got out of college. When I was in college, I began to recognize what it was, but I didn't know what to do with it. I did write while I was in college, but I didn't know where to go to look for a source for my writing. I didn't really find out how important it was until after college.”
Admitted to Dartmouth in 1972, Erdrich was among the first class of women accepted at the previously all-male college. She majored in English and Creative Writing, winning several awards for her fiction and poetry. Following graduation, Erdrich returned to North Dakota where she spent time as a publications director for a small-press distribution company and as a poet in the Poetry in the Schools program underwritten by the National Endowment for the Arts. She also later worked on a film for Mid-America Television which dealt with the clash of cultures between the Sioux and the European settlers in the 1800s.
She returned to the East in 1978 when she received a fellowship to teach at Johns Hopkins University, later worked as newspaper editor of an urban Indian organization in Boston, and eventually turned to her own writing full-time. Erdrich's work has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, North American Review, New England Review, Redbook, MS magazine, North Dakota Quarterly, Earth Power Coming (a Native American literature anthology, Simon Ortiz, ed.), and The Best American Short Stories of 1983. She has also been awarded the American Academy of Poets Prize, the Nelson Algren Short Fiction Award, and the National Award for Fiction; and a chapter of her novel Love Medicine will be included in the 1985 O. Henry Prize collection. In 1985, she received the National Book Critics Circle Award for Love Medicine.
Sometimes lyrical, sometimes narrative, her poetry in Jacklight speaks of love and courage, blending a mythical, even mystical, past with a present that challenges Erdrich to define a historical, as well as personal and present, struggle to survive. Erdrich creates characters who call up our own desires and fears and who mesh our identities with our own pasts. Like a jacklight, her book draws us into its woods of “mystery, and shelter.” We follow to find each other, to find who we are.
In both books, Erdrich's rich characters are “bits and pieces” from her past, but she is quick to point out that her writing is not autobiographical. The events and people are an admixture of real places, people and impressions, and experiences she could have had or people she feels did or do exist.
She writes with a sadness over the despair, failure, and confusion of her struggling characters, specifically women or Native Americans, but this sadness is suffused with empathy and admiration for their love and endurance amid their struggle. Erdrich wants to tell the truth, and she is careful not to inadvertently encourage stereotyping, for example, alcoholism as an Indian problem. In the character Gordie in Love Medicine, we come to understand his alcoholism not only as a more universal human struggle, but also as one part of a complex search for catharsis and, ultimately, self-identity.
In Love Medicine Erdrich writes with perception, honesty, and great sensitivity. Her prose is often poetic and resonant, yet unpretentious and clear. There is strength in the delicate balance between the feminist and racial overtones and the gently humorous and ironic tones that pervade her writing. Perhaps this arises from her belief in humanity despite prejudices and brutality, and her resolution “not to give up hope. Humans can survive.”
[George]: Would you give an autobiographical sketch, telling how you came to be a writer?
[Erdrich]: I grew up in Wahpeton, North Dakota, which is a medium-sized town right on the border with Minnesota. My parents worked at the Wahpeton Indian School, and we lived on the campus in employee housing. I went to public schools and for a few years to a parochial school, St. John's, and after I was through with school I went to Dartmouth. My mother read about the Native American program there and helped me apply. So that's how I finally left. But I think that the eighteen years I lived in Wahpeton, along with visiting the reservation my mother is from, and all the time I've spent in North Dakota since, has formed me as a writer. Someone said that writers live until they're twenty-five and write about it afterward. I don't think that's entirely true, but what truth there is in the statement lies for me in the fact that I know nowhere else like North Dakota, care about no one else like I do people from North Dakota. That's excepting friends and family, of course, who don't find their way directly into my fiction.
What about your teaching experiences?
I taught poetry in the schools all through North Dakota, and also composition and creative writing at Johns Hopkins. I never was much of a teacher and don't think I would be now. My husband is the best teacher in the world. His name is Michael Dorris, and he's a professor of Native American Studies at Dartmouth.
You're enrolled with the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, right? Have you ever lived in the Turtle Mountain area for any extended period of time?
Yes, I'm enrolled as a Turtle Mountain Chippewa, and from time to time, our family would spend time visiting there, or I'd go by myself and visit grandparents, aunts, uncles. I never lived on the reservation for any stretch of time, so all I know is from visiting there, and loving the place and the people. It really is beautiful around there, and the Chippewas have the best sense of humor of any group of people I've ever known.
So you grew up with a strong sense of connection to your past?
Yes, both sides of my family were strongly connected to their own histories. My father is a terrific storyteller and made his relatives and the characters in the towns where he grew up almost mythic. I owe “Step-and-a-Half Waleski” in Jacklight completely to him. There really was a woman like her in his childhood. My mother told stories too, about her childhood, mainly what it was like on the home place, or allotment, where my grandparents lived, and what the reservation was like during the Depression.
Did you have an interest in writing poetry or fiction while in high school?
I wrote a few things in high school, but I mostly confided in my diary and journals. I kept endless self-absorbed journals. Not until college did I try anything that resembled a poem or short story. Then once I started writing, I just knew that was it. I was going to be a writer and nothing would stop me. That was all that mattered for a long time, and I had a very romantic view of myself as an obsessed artist. [Erdrich confided in an earlier conversation: “I wanted to be some kind of artist, and it didn't really matter what kind. And then I found out pretty quick once I got into college and took some art courses that I wasn't going to be a visual artist. But then I started writing and that was very satisfying.”] As time went on it became more and more routine until now it's nine to five. I write when the children are in school, share absolutely everything with my husband, and love doing it, but see it as just part of life.
The divisions in Jacklight, such as “Hunters” and “Runaways,” serve as unifying themes. Were many of the poems written with that structure or those themes in mind?
The divisions in Jacklight were suggested by my editor at Holt, Judy Karasik, who jolted me out of my ideas on an assigned order to the book and, I think, gave it more life. “The Butcher's Wife” poems were written as a chapter, but the others fit together in odder ways.
To what degree are images, such as light in the woods, symbolic in the book? I see jacklighting as a possible element in poems dealing with the Chippewa or women.
Jacklighting and hunting are both strong metaphors for me of sexual and love relations between men and women. In the male tradition, men are the hunters and women are their prey, but in the poem “Jacklight,” I am trying to say something like this: if our relationships are ever going to be human, and not just play-by-numbers, men have to follow women into the woods and women likewise. There must be an exchange, a transformation, a power shared between them. [Erdrich earlier indicated that it is in this transformation where we arrive at a different stage of power.] Living in empty country, the woods to me have always been a place of mystery, a shelter. That's where we have to go to find each other.
I sense this transformation of the hunter and hunted in several poems in the book, for example, in “Chahinkapa Zoo” where the animals are no longer hunters. They have been hunted and are now caged. Was there that correlation in your own mind when you wrote the poem?
I never thought of that, but it's a good idea. Sometimes things work out on an unconscious level.
What about this reversal in poems dealing with people, for example, “The Lady in the Pink Mustang”? You write about her “bare lap” being “floodlit from under the dash” as she's trying to lure the semi-driver.
That's an interesting idea, too. I guess she is using her sexuality in the same kind of way that the men in the poems are using the jacklight, to attract in an animal way, to paralyze and fascinate. The difference is that she is defiant because in her world men are still in control.
Are you searching for a personal identity in these poems?
A writer has to start somewhere, and I started with myself. [“But (those poems were) all in my 20s kind of stuff you know.” Erdrich laughs. She points out the cynicism in some of the earlier poems got resolved in time.] I'm sure I worked out a lot about my identity in the poems, but more than that, it gave me a way to make something more interesting of my own bits and pieces of personality than was probably there in reality. Language is magic that way.
“The Butcher's Wife” is dedicated to your grandmother. Does the butcher's wife actually portray your grandmother, or is she representative to some degree?
Yes, I do have a grandmother whose life vaguely resembles the life lived by Mary Kroger. She is a tough woman with a mystical bent who ran a butchershop for years and now lives in a tiny town in Minnesota and raises guinea hens. She's never pulled her punches with anybody, and I love her, but I wouldn't say that the poems are about her in particular. They are about a character, a fictional persona, someone I imagined myself in the skin of and wrote about.
I'm interested in the three Leonard poems in “The Butcher's Wife.” Why are they placed in that section of the book? Can you comment on them?
About the Leonard poems, I was hoping to write a whole book. I was going to have many characters, like Step-and-a-Half Waleski. But I just ran out of steam. I'd kind of thought that I'd said enough anyway. I don't know what all I'd wanted to say, but I think what I was trying to do really was write a novel, and the instinct to keep on building onto her character was a really novelistic instinct. So I probably needed to get on with my fiction where my heart really was.
Could you comment on the influence of religion, specifically the Catholic Church, in your life and writing?
Catholicism has always been important to me even though I am not a practicing Catholic now. The ritual is full of symbols, mysteries, and the unsaid. That affects a person always, once you know it as a child.
What authors or works have influenced you—the fact that you write, how you write, or what you write?
I read everything, and probably everything from cereal boxes to William Faulkner has been an influence. I'd say the biggest influence I've had on my work has been my husband. Not only does Michael edit, help arrange, comment, and come very close to writing the work himself, but I am his client too and he's my literary agent. He knows the characters, knows the things they'd do, what they'd say, how to get them from one place to another and so on. Most of the characters were invented between the two of us. We have similar backgrounds, so he knows who I'm talking about. As for writers, Flannery O'Connor and Eudora Welty, Toni Morrison and Alejo Carpentier, on and on. [Earlier Erdrich also pointed out that she read William Gass, originally from North Dakota, very seriously. She “was very taken” with his style and language. Concerning Carpentier, she was very impressed with his book The Kingdom of This World, a historical collage pervaded by mythology. I later wondered about its influence on Erdrich's Love Medicine.] My favorite reading is firsthand accounts of adventures, travel journals, diaries. I am indebted to my sister Lise for getting me interested in John Tanner's journals.
In your novel, style, language, and point of view change from chapter to chapter. Can you comment on this and also on your development as a writer in general?
I had trouble going from poetry to fiction because the language just has to give in order to have a narrative voice that will carry the reader. One must say, “Then she did this, he did that, they opened the door,” and so on, I fell in love with writing in a sensual way, loved the feel of words, and still do, but a fiction writer has to temper this to tell a story.
Do you still write much poetry? If not, do you think you will return to it in the future?
I don't write any poetry, except private things, and won't return to it unless I run out of steam with fiction. Maybe!
What was your main purpose in writing Love Medicine? Do you think you achieved it?
I don't know if I achieved what I wanted to do in Love Medicine. I don't know what purpose I had in mind, except to write as honestly as possible, and to resolve things for a few characters. I wanted to tell a story, so if I told it, that's done.
What do you feel is a writer's biggest obstacle?
Time and money are a writer's biggest obstacles, and by the grace of foundations, fellowships, writers' colonies, and mainly by the support of my husband, I've not had to deal with these two big worries since 1981. Before then I had all kinds of jobs and went crazy trying to write with some sense of continuity.
What are you hoping to accomplish in your new novel, Beet Queen?
The novel I'm working on now picks up some people I've had kicking around and puts them in challenging situations. I don't know what I'll accomplish, again, but if the story is there, that's enough.
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Louise Erdrich 1954-
American poet, novelist, and author of memoirs and children's books.
The following entry presents criticism from 1985 to 1999 on Erdrich's life and works. See also, Louise Erdrich Literary Criticism and Love Medicine Criticism.
Erdrich is a poet and award-winning novelist whose works explore themes of family and personal survival and cultural continuity. The daughter of a German American father and an Ojibwe French mother, Erdrich populates her fiction with central characters drawn from both Native and non-Native cultures, and her poems reflect the unresolved tension of trying to preserve a minority cultural heritage in the face of the dominant white culture. Because it addresses universal concerns of motherhood and sisterhood as well as the unique life experiences of Native American women, Erdrich's work has garnered both praise and criticism for its wide appeal and lack of overt politicism.
Erdrich was born in Little Falls, Minnesota, on June 7, 1954, and was raised as the oldest of seven children in Wahpeton, North Dakota. Her Ojibwe (Chippewa) grandfather was once the tribal head of the Turtle Mountain Reservation nearby, and her parents worked at a boarding school run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Erdrich was a member of the freshman class at Dartmouth University in 1972, the year that women were first admitted as students. The university established its Native American studies department that year as well, and its first chairperson was anthropologist Michael Dorris. In a class taught by Dorris, who would later become her husband, Erdrich first began the cultural examination of her heritage that would later inspire her poetry and fiction, including Jacklight, her first volume of poetry, and the novel Love Medicine, both of which were published in 1984.
In 1978, Erdrich began a graduate program at Johns Hopkins University, and after completing a Master of Arts degree, she was invited to return to Dartmouth to give a poetry reading. Dorris attended the event, and they subsequently began a literary friendship that led first to professional collaboration and then to marriage in 1981. During the next decade and beyond, Dorris and Erdrich worked closely on all of their literary projects while raising a family that consisted of adopted and biological children. The collaborative partnership, revealed in more than two dozen interviews in Conversations with Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris (1994), began to unravel during the mid-1990s. The couple separated in 1995, and Dorris committed suicide in 1997.
Since the publication of her second volume of poetry, Baptism of Desire, in 1989, Erdrich has focused primarily on writing long and short fiction, and in the late 1990s she began writing children's stories as well. While she continues to document the life experiences of full- and mixed-heritage Native American women in her novels, she has also adopted an interest in learning and preserving the language of the Ojibwe, known to its speakers as Anishinibe.
Erdrich's first volume of poetry, Jacklight, is based on works she first conceived as part of her master's degree studies. The poems of this collection comprise five general thematic groupings. These include poems that explore the conflict of Native and non-Native cultures; poems that celebrate family and the bonds of sisterhood; songs of love; autobiographical poems that bring to life characters from the poet's childhood; and poems that elicit the mythical, storytelling aspects of her Ojibwe heritage. One of the best-known poems of this collection is the frequently anthologized “Indian Boarding School: The Runaways”; another is “A Love Medicine,” the family and sisterhood themes of which also form the basis of her novel Love Medicine.
With her second poetry collection, Baptism of Desire, Erdrich draws deeply on her experience as a mother, caretaker, and life partner, noting that many of the poems were “written between the hours of two and four in the morning, a period of insomnia brought on by pregnancy.” The volume's title refers to a little-understood tenet of the Roman Catholic faith tradition in which Erdrich was raised; the poems embrace a complex spirituality born of the co-mingling yet conflicting religious traditions of her dual heritage. “Hydra,” which masterfully intertwines themes of myth, maternity, Native intuition, and Catholic theology, finds the poet speaking to both the child in her womb and the mythical serpent, likening herself to the biblical mothers Eve and Mary. The solitude of maternal wariness in the presence of sleeping children is evoked in “The Ritual.” Describing this collection, critic Carolyn Dunn wrote, “The ordinary and the extraordinary are woven into one seamless whole.”
Although she began her literary publishing career as a poet, Erdrich is best known for her fiction, which includes short stories written for periodicals and anthologies, and more than a half dozen novels. The earliest of these, Love Medicine, was first published in 1984 and released in an expanded edition in 1993. The next four, The Beet Queen (1986), Tracks (1988), The Bingo Palace (1994), and Tales of Burning Love (1996), continue the stories begun in the first novel of three interrelated families whose experiences span most of the twentieth century. Set in and around a reservation in a fictional North Dakota town, these novels reveal Native American families living in cultural conflict while simultaneously depicting the universal issues of family life that cross cultural boundaries.
The Antelope Wife, which appeared in 1998, was Erdrich's first major work published without the literary or editorial influence of Michael Dorris. The late 1990s also saw the publication of two children's books by Erdrich: Grandmother's Pigeon (1996), and The Birchbark House (1999). Her most recent novels include The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse (2001) and The Master Butchers Singing Club (2002).
Most of the critical attention devoted to Erdrich's work has focused on her long fiction, especially the five interrelated novels; literary analysis of these works often praises Erdrich's intuitive narrative style and non-chronological portrayal of time. However, many of the cultural themes identified by reviewers of her novels—elements of Ojibwe mythology combined with aspects of Roman Catholic religious life; the depiction of women's relationships with loved ones and society as a whole; and portrayal of life experiences from both Native and non-Native perspectives—are also noted approvingly by reviewers of Erdrich's poetry. In a review of Jacklight, James McKenzie wrote that Erdrich's poetry “fills an important space in our evolving, collective knowledge of who we really are.” Praising Baptism of Desire, Helen Jaskoski wrote, “The language is rich, the imagery sometimes almost hallucinatory.”
Erdrich's literary approach to representing the Native American experience has been criticized on cultural and political grounds by some peers, including Leslie Marmon Silko. Silko's observation about the novel Love Medicine, for example, is that Erdrich does not accurately or fully address the political, psychological, or economic hardships endured by Native Americans in the dominant white culture. Other critics concur, however, that although Erdrich's unconventional use of narrative and descriptive language doesn't lend itself to overt political commentary, it fully communicates her deep concern for cultural preservation and continuity. As such, the universal appeal of her fiction and poetry is considered a strength, rather than a weakness, by such observers of her work.
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SOURCE: McKenzie, James. Review of Jacklight. North Dakota Quarterly 53, no. 2 (spring 1985): 257-9.
[In the following review, McKenzie asserts that Erdrich's first volume of poetry successfully portrays North Dakota's varied population of “ordinary” people of both Native and European American heritage.]
The new North Dakota license plate blends romantic figures from the state's territorial past (Sakajawea, the Seventh Cavalry, Teddy Roosevelt) with objects from its present (a curve of highway, a farm silo, the capitol tower) to form what must be the most complicated image on any of the fifty states' license plates. Old Glory, in the middle of the montage, doubling as Teddy's gesticulating arm and a backdrop for Custer's unit, draws the hodgepodge together. It is a cluttered logo, though not without some power to stir. Teddy's bull head and upraised, scolding finger suggest he is bellowing orders to the cavalrymen below him. The cavalry itself marches smartly into the letters and numbers, guidons flapping. Such are the broad, imprecise lines of public myth. Never mind that Custer led a significant proportion of his unit to annihilation under very compromised circumstances; forget that the Rough Rider's Dakota cattle ranch failed in the snows of an uncooperating winter. The citizens need bold imagery, giants to boast about, something to counter South Dakota's Mount Rushmore.
Louise Erdrich's Jacklight knows another North Dakota, a place of ordinary people—Native and European Americans—who live in the footprints of the giants and the wreckage they left behind. Some of her citizens even know these romances are dangerous. In “Dear John Wayne,” a carful of Indians laughs at the clichés of a Western at the local drive-in. But since it is Wayne's face that fills the screen, “a horizon of teeth,” Wayne whom the crowd cheers, Wayne who wins, they too are seduced, somewhat, by the romance of the John Wayne West:
We get into the car scratching our mosquito bites, speechless and small as people are when the movie is done. We are back in our skins. How can we help but keep hearing his voice, the flip side of the sound track, still playing: Come on, boys, we got them where we want them, drunk, running. They'll give us what we want, what we need.
Some of her white plains people also know the painful complexities denied and papered over by the public myths. Mary Kröger, the central figure in “The Butcher's Wife” (a rich, long sequence comprising about a third of the book), says to herself at one point, drunk and staring at the clouds passing overhead:
We lay our streets over the deepest cries of the earth and wonder why everything comes to this: The days pile and pile. The bones are too few and too foreign to know. Mary, you do not belong here at all.
But these are the words of her more reflective, insightful characters, the few who through accidents of sensibility and personal history can see behind the masks. Others are less fortunate. Ray Twobears, “on his third new car in half as many years,” blots all possibility of such vision with alcohol. A three-foot snapping turtle, whose head he has blown off with a cherry bomb, drags itself “up a slight hill and over / into a small stream that deepens into a marsh,” while Ray sleeps “his own head off.” It is a horrifying analogue of Twobears' own brutal, blind, crawling survival. No tormented ambiguities there.
No poem dramatizes the torture of clinging ostensibly to public myths while knowing better inside than “Captivity.” Erdrich condenses and reworks Mary Rowlandson's seventeenth century captivity narrative into six eerily lyrical stanzas. Like Rowlandson, the speaker of the poem, safe in her husband's bed again, can no longer sleep the night. “Rescued, I see no truth in things.” Her experience among her Indian captors has forever destroyed her set of cozy certainties. She can never again see the world with the Manichean clarities of a General Custer, a John Wayne, or the Puritan husband whose bed she again shares: “And in the dark I see myself / as I was outside their circle.”
Louise Erdrich displays other voices in this first volume. There are love poems, occasional pieces, a wonderful, bawdy account of what must be a Chippewa folk tale, “Old Man Potchikoo.” But the book's main energy radiates from its many strong characters, the people of the small towns and reservations whose daily lives challenge Chamber of Commerce romance. The people of Jacklight are so well-defined, so interconnected with each other and with the actual history of the plains they inhabit (“The Butcher's Wife” reads like a novella in poetry) that Erdrich's novel Love Medicine seems a natural unfolding of what begins so well here in the poetry. Her work fills an important space in our evolving, collective knowledge of who we really are.
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Baptism of Desire 1989
Imagination (nonfiction) 1980
Love Medicine (novel) 1984; expanded edition, 1993
The Beet Queen (novel) 1986
Tracks (novel) 1988
The Crown of Columbus [with Michael Dorris] (novel) 1991
The Bingo Palace (novel) 1994
Conversations with Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris [with Allan Richard Chavkin and Nancy Feyl Chavkin] (interviews) 1994
The Blue Jay's Dance: A Birth Year (memoirs) 1995
Grandmother's Pigeon (juvenilia) 1996
Tales of Burning Love (novel) 1996
The Antelope Wife (novel) 1998
The Birchbark House (juvenilia) 1999
The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse (novel) 2001
The Master Butchers Singing Club (novel) 2002
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SOURCE: Shetley, Vernon. Review of Jacklight. Poetry 146, no. 1 (April 1985): 40-1.
[In the following review, Shetley offers a brief criticism of Jacklight.]
Louise Erdrich's rough-hewn poems view the American West they inhabit under two contrary aspects: as wild, daemonic nature or as landscape of human loneliness, whose physical correlatives are on the one hand forest and plain, and on the other roadside and small town. In the former mode, she seeks what was once called the “deep image,” a logically inexplicable but archetypally resonant cluster of language meant to liberate an elementally powerful emotional response. While her reading has probably included W. S. Merwin and Galway Kinnell, she may have gone back beyond those practitioners of the style to some of its sources; the quest for the deep image was significantly informed by the poetry of oral cultures, and Erdrich (as the book jacket informs the reader) “belongs to the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa.” Erdrich achieves some fine, spooky effects; “The Woods,” with chilling terseness, rewrites the Daphne myth in the terms of a Native American animism: “Light bleeds from the clearing. Roots rise. / Fluted molds burn blue in the falling light, / and you also know / the loneliness that you taught me with your body.” But this is an inherently chancy mode, which depends heavily on the poet's “ear,” her ability to distinguish the genuinely striking from the merely portentous. Erdrich at times is betrayed by the speed with which the mysteriously evocative language of one moment flattens into the cliché of the next; when she writes “Husband, by the light of our bones we are going,” one reflects that bones have already shed rather too much light on the landscape of American poetry, and that no one is likely to find much new ground by that source of illumination.
More frequently, Erdrich takes as her subject everyday life, though the everyday life of those who are in some way marginal, exploited, isolated. A colloquial plain style, enlivened by an eye for irony and a sense for speech-rhythms, serves these poems well. The series of dramatic monologues gathered in the sequence “The Butcher's Wife,” written in the personae of various inhabitants of a small town in the early twentieth century, stand out as probably the volume's best work. Erdrich dwells on the loneliness of the characters she creates, their double estrangement in a vast, empty landscape and in their isolation from one another:
I never let her know how those words cut me serious—her questioning my life. One night a slow thing came, provoked by weariness, to cram itself up every slackened nerve; as if my body were a whining hive and each cell groaning with a sweet thick lead— I turned and struck at Otto in our bed; all night, all night the poison, till I swarmed back empty to his cold and dreaming arms.
As a sequence, “The Butcher's Wife” relies less on Erdrich's uncertain talents as a coiner of epithets and more on her ability to build a fictional world through an accumulation of vignettes. While the notion of a sequence like this might seem alarmingly like another cruise up Spoon River, Erdrich shows a flair for imagining the texture of other lives. One is not surprised to find out that she has also published a novel recently. Variety and scope are goals as worthy as compression and power; Erdrich pursues the former a good deal more comfortably and effectively than the latter. Indeed, her gifts seem to lie more in narrative than in lyric, and her growth as a poet will likely depend on her finding ways to embody in poems her talents as a narrator.
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Fast, Robin Riley. “Claiming History.” In The Heart as a Drum: Continuance and Resistance in American Indian Poetry, pp. 183-206. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan, 1999.
Seventh chapter includes a discussion of Erdrich's poem “Captivity” among a selection of works that offer literary variations on historic accounts of relations between native and nonnative peoples in Colonial America.
Finch, Annie. “Poets of Our Time.” Belles Lettres 5, no. 4 (summer 1990): 30-1.
Review of Erdrich's Baptism of Desire.
Hughes, Sheila Hassell. “Falls of Desire/Leaps of Faith: Religious Syncretism in Louise Erdrich's and Joy Harjo's ‘Mixed-Blood’ Poetry.” Religion & Literature 33, no. 2 (summer 2001): 59-83.
Examines the blending of Western and Native religious traditions in Native American culture, and the treatment of this phenomenon in the poetry of Erdrich and Joy Harjo.
Ludlow, Jeannie. “Working (In) the In-Between: Poetry, Criticism, Interrogation, and Interruption.” SAIL: Studies in American Indian Literatures, 2d ser., 6, no. 1 (spring 1994): 24-42.
Discusses the literary treatment of works by contemporary Native writers, the author focuses attention on Erdrich's poem, “The Lady in the Pink Mustang.”
Rolo, Mark Anthony. “The Progressive Interview: Louise Erdrich.” The Progressive 66, no. 4 (April 2002): 36-40.
Erdrich talks about learning the Ojibwe language and restoring its use within her family.
Additional coverage of Erdrich's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Writers Supplement, Vol. 4; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vols. 10, 47; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 1; Bestsellers, Vol. 89:1; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography Supplement; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 114; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 41, 62, 118; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 39, 54, 120, 176; Contemporary Novelists, Ed. 7; Contemporary Poets, Ed. 7; Contemporary Popular Writers; Contemporary Women Poets; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 152, 175, 206; DISCovering Authors 3.0; DISCovering Authors Modules: Multicultural Authors, Novelists, Popular Fiction and Genres Authors; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Exploring Poetry; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 5; Literature and Its Times Supplement, Vol. 1;Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Ed. 1; Native North American Literature; Novels for Students, Vol. 5; Poetry for Students, Vol. 14; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; Short Stories for Students, Vol. 14; Something About the Author, Vols. 94, 141; and Twentieth-Century Western Writers, Ed. 2.
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SOURCE: Waters, Richard K. Review of Jacklight. American Indian Culture and Research Journal 9, no. 4 (1985): 136-9.
[In the following review of Jacklight, Waters comments on Erdrich's exploration of her mixed heritage through poetry.]
In Jacklight Louise Erdrich has achieved something unusual in the field of Native American poetry, where all too often the voice of the poet too stridently insists that the reader give attention to the poet's Indian-ness. Not that it is wrong to be read as an Indian poet, but usually the poets of such works contradictorily beg to be read as poets in the mainstream, despite the inevitability that poems written about “bear” and “coyote” in an almost predictable style will be read as “Indian” poetry, whether the writer is Native American or Anglo. Erdrich, on the other hand, is a writer of mainstream poems concerned with real people in real situations, and while she does, of course, explore the “Indian” side of her own experience, she gives equal attention to the German-American side which she inherited as well. This makes her half Indian-ness as incidental as her half German-ness, and the resulting poems become much more American (and realistic) than those of so many other writers; hence they succeed as poems rather than becoming merely more “Indian” poems.
The themes of this poetry concern what it means to this writer to be a human being, a woman, a midwestern American, and to be from these two (Native American and German American) backgrounds. The images seem to be fairly well split between the two, for while there are the requisite beer parties and pick-ups on muddy mountains, there are as well thickly braided women, strong butchers and sausages. Thus the poems can be explored in terms of the poet's sense of two-ness in her personal identity. This is especially interesting as one of the unifying themes throughout the book is that of hunting, and this functions on mainly three levels: that of the poet's hunting for personal identity, the way in which the reader becomes a hunter when drawn into the woods (archetypal symbol of the psyche) of the poems, and perhaps most interestingly in the way in which Erdrich explores what it means to be a human being hunting for love.
This latter point is so important, in fact, for Erdrich, that she sets it continually before the reader in the opening pages of the book. The title of this collection is Jacklight, a device used in hunting at night, a bright light that draws game towards it then dazzles them into motionlessness, making them easy prey. That this is a central image for Erdrich is evident from the fact that it is not only the title of the book, but also the title of the first section, which contains only one poem, again by the same title. That she intends to develop a connection between hunting and sexuality is established in the introductory comment of this poem which explains that one Chippewa word means both hunting and flirting, while another can mean either rape or killing a bear with one's bare hands.
The speaker in this first poem uses the plural pronoun “we” when discussing the game who are drawn out of the woods, saying that each responded to the jacklight alone. This plural pronoun could perhaps refer only to women in response to sex, but it might as well apply to men, despite the phallic image implied in the line “we smell the raw steel of their gun barrels” (page 3), for in later poems, “The Lady in the Pink Mustang,” “The Woods,” and “Night Sky,” men are hunted rather than being the hunter. Even so, most of the poems concern women more directly and men only as they relate to the female subjects. There is often a kind of violence that attends that relationship, but there is always a sense of persistence in the search for love that prevails just the same.
After the game in “Jacklight” have been collectively drawn to the light, response becomes individual as the light “searched out, divided us. / Each took the beams like direct blows the heart answers. / Each of us moved forward alone” (page 3). The desire for and interest in sexual love is a collective human experience, but it is something that we must all, finally, approach individually. Yet such love is often painful, “direct blows the heart answers.” Light is equated with love in a later poem, “Train”: “And always the light / I was born with, driving everything before it. … / Here is the light I was born with, love. / Here is the bleak radiance that levels the world” (page 25). The violent light of “Jacklight,” like love, begins painlessly enough: “At first the light wavered, glancing over us. / Then it clenched to a fist of light that pointed, / searched out, divided us” (page 3). It is this fist of light which delivers the “direct blows the heart answers.” A fist figures in the second poem of the book, called, in ironic keeping with the theme, “A Love Medicine.” In this poem the speaker's sister leaves her boyfriend behind when she goes out into the night and he goes after her. As she walks “she steps into the fistwork of a man” (page 7). Still, despite the pain involved, we continue to respond to the jacklight, that “bleak radiance that levels the world.”
Erdrich deals with the quest for personal identity and the sense of a split heritage in an interesting way in the poem “Family Reunion,” a poem concerning the Indian side of her family. Here the speaker says “I sink apart / in a corner, start knocking the Blue Ribbons down.” A woman, half Chippewa, half German-American is at a party with her Uncle Ray, an unfortunately stereotypical drunken Indian, drinking Blue Ribbon beer—Pabst, a German name, Blue Ribbon beer. So many stereotypes come together at once so successfully in this sequence that the best conclusion is that this is America, a country of mixing stereotypes. Here drunken Indians are drinking German-named American beer in the American midwest, and this is perhaps the point, that for whatever separation comes about as the result of the stereotyping, these remain American people, Americans by virtue of their mixed backgrounds.
The poem entitled “Captivity” brings together the matters of sex and the tension between whites and Indians. The poem takes for its subject the account of Mary Rowlandson's captivity in the year 1676. In the beginning of the poem the captive is afraid that her captor has put something into her food to make her love him, but it soon becomes clear that what she really fears is her own desire, to which she eventually gives in: “… I followed where he took me. / The night was thick. He cut the cord / that bound me to the tree” (p. 27). The next stanza reads like Nathaniel Hawthorne's “Young Goodman Brown” in its portrayal of the wrath of God; we find the polarities of Puritan and Indian, godliness and evil, and writing in this way places Erdrich squarely in one of the most significant currents in American literature.
The German side of things is seen mainly in the poems of the section called “The Butcher's Wife,” in which we find the memories and musings of a German widow who finds herself in a country that is not really her own and yet it is her own since she has lived the biggest portion of her life there. (The situation of most Americans since we are natives of America even when we are not “native-Americans.”) In “Clouds” she laments to herself “Mary, you do not belong here at all,” and yet she does belong there when her thoughts remind her that the nation becomes that of those whose kin are buried there: “Our friends, our family, the dead of our wars, / deep in this strange earth / we want to call ours” (page 45). But even when she knows that she belongs there as much as anywhere she dreams of what that land once was: “Let everything be how it could have been, once: / a land that was empty and perfect as clouds” (page 45).
Out of this mixture of backgrounds and experience the poet seems to be successful in her hunt for personal identity when she ends the book with the lines “Hands of earth, of this clay / I'm also made from” (page 85). This is from the poem called “Turtle Mountain Reservation,” written for her Indian grandfather. The hands referred to are his hands, thus Erdrich says that we are in part the people who have made us, just as she said in the poems concerning the Butcher's wife, but we are also of this earth, all of us who occupy this continent, regardless of the mixtures of blood.
When Erdrich ends the poem “Jacklight” with the lines “And now they take the first steps, not knowing / how deep the woods are and lightless. / How deep the woods are.” It is an invitation to the reader to go hunting, to try to find what these poems are about. It can be a very elusive game at times, but Jacklight is a finely crafted collection of poems that is well worth the effort of hunting for the ideas deep in those psychic woods.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 440
SOURCE: Loudon, Michael. Review of Jacklight. World Literature Today 60, no. 1 (winter 1986): 159.
[In the following review, Loudon offers favorable criticism of Jacklight.]
Designating someone's “first book of poems” as such is typically an apologetic strategy. For Erdrich, “first-rate,” “first ground,” and “first light” are more descriptive of the forty-four poems of Jacklight. I felt early in the reading the same narrative force, precise images, and complex characters that eventually found full expression in her celebrated novel Love Medicine (1984), but the poems are far from mere exercises on the way to a novel. They are first-rate poems: the language again and again sings to its own vision. An ordinary event in the cycle of seasons, the falling of blossoms, becomes “White crowns of the plum trees / were filling the purple throats of the iris”; or consider the reflection of parents: “We are alone here on earth / with the ragged breath of our children / coming and going in the old wool blankets.” I am humbled before a committed language expressing courage tempered by fear.
The ground of Erdrich's poems is the region of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa reservation in North Dakota, but political boundaries alone cannot suppress the fragmentary cultures of the Chippewa, Cree, French, English, Scottish, and German legacies of the people who stand in the midst of degradation, rejecting self-pity and improvising their strength from whatever is around them. Repetitions (evoking the mythic light upon which she draws throughout the book) and stunning images (Neruda and James Wright resonate within them) build the insistent will of characters who continue when “everything around … is crying to be gone.” Such a character, “who drank Vitalis [and] Sterno” but “is the green light floating over the slough,” in the haunting “Rugaroo,” is one of many that “will not let you sleep.” Mary Kröger, the widowed central persona of the long sequence “The Butcher's Wife,” is another; in “New Vows” she sorts through the sorrows of her life and of those around her, until “shadows move freely within [her] as words” and she discovers “the trick was in living that death to its source.”
From that source, the oral tradition, Erdrich's poems reach first light. Her last section weaves myth and memory, the Windigo and the White Roach Bar, toward a moving eulogy for her grandfather; yet the eulogy becomes affirmation for all humanity “of this clay” who have known “the absence / of birds in a nest.” Each of us coming to these poems will have the jacklight turned upon himself (jacklight: any light used to lure game in night hunting—usually “illegal”). Each of us will have to find his way “forward alone.”
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1092
SOURCE: Jahner, Elaine. Review of Jacklight. Studies in American Indian Literatures 9, no. 1 (1986): 29-34.
[In the following review, Jahner offers a critical review of Erdrich's Jacklight.]
In an age and culture where the sheer volume of poetry written on a given day must approach that of personal letters, critics know that words like “new” or “unique” are so shopworn as to threaten meaning. Nevertheless, these adjectives retain their original full force of signification when applied to Louise Erdrich's Jacklight. The poems in this volume demonstrate an awareness that words, well-placed, will pull at the bit, will make us realize that we can't yet guess how much revelatory power any one word might possess, never mind that of words in combinations. Still another, quite concrete reason justifies applying an adjective like “unique.” The poems are rooted in the culture of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa Tribe in North Dakota. There, people have retained aspects of their Chippewa, Cree, French, and—to a lesser extent—American, English, Scottish and German heritages, holding to all in a language and culture that distinguishes them from other Chippewa and from mainstream American neighbors.
With competent sensitivity, Louise Erdrich has grasped the diverse rhythms of her regions, the literal rhythms of speech patterns and the more elusively metaphorical ones of people's dignified confrontations with the isolated events in their lives, framed and staged in the largely unknown and generally unimagined center of our North American continent. Technology and transportation provide high speed connections that weave around or above but seldom through Louise Erdrich's very real literary territory. The insistent power of those unknown people who are, nevertheless, necessarily and intensely knowing becomes the forceful point of the first and title poem.
We have come to the edge of the woods, out of brown grass where we slept, unseen, out of leaves creaked shut, out of our hiding. We have come here too long.
Readers should approach the experience of this and subsequent poems with confidence tempered by a little humility; for the poems have a strong narrative current which pulls us toward characters who take hold of mind and emotions and leave us in awe of their vitality. These people are attractive largely because they know how to improvise, match action and resource with the calm calculation and total lack of self-pity that makes them stand out as heroic in situations that sometimes threaten the foundations of human dignity. We encounter Francine, the town prostitute who has learned “what the selves are a man can disown / till he lets them to life in a room.” She knows that
… what mending there is occurs in small acts and often after the fact of damage when nothing is ever enough.
Then there is Leonard, “cracked Leonard,” with his “limber sins.” Most unforgettable of all is Mary Kröger, “the butcher's wife,” his second one. She remembers that the first wife was also Mary.
I knew her, Mary Kröger, and we were bosom friends All graves are shelters for our mis- laid twins
Mary's impact can blister the receptive consciousness; yet ultimately her courage is a message of resilient endurance.
… One night a slow thing came, provoked by weariness, to cram itself up every slackened nerve; as if my body were a whining hive and each cell groaning with a sweet thick lead I turned and struck at Otto in our bed; all night, all night the poison, till I swarmed back empty to his cold and dreaming arms.
“The Slow Sting of Her Company”
Louise Erdrich is a novelist as well as a poet and the narrative strength of the poems presages the impact of her novel. But the poet and the novelist practice different crafts. Jacklight provides ample evidence that Erdrich knows the tools of each trade and understands that in poetry language itself is the main subject, with techniques like versification serving to show what language can do and be. Examples of lines that present narrative tension in a way fully consonant with the poet's art can be found on almost every page. One, in a poem about Mary Kröger, especially impresses me.
They do call minds like mine one-track One track is all you need to understand their loneliness, then bite the hand that feeds
upon you, in a terrible blind grief.
This is kind language in the way that a certain quality of light can be kind to a person's facial features; it highlights an appeal which is also an invitation to care and accept and expand our sense of Mary's choices. The same lines show how masterful versification can free words to resonate. The one word “feeds,” coming as it does just before a major pause, holds us and shakes us for a bit before releasing us to the direct force of “upon you.”
Some poems have less narrative and a more exclusively imagistic appeal that startles in its own way.
Wind has stripped the young plum trees to a thin howl.
“Walking in the Breakdown Lane”
One section of the book defies easy classification since “prose-poem” is not really accurate enough. Erdrich's lines on “Old Man Potchiko” recall the enduring but cautious love affair between oral storytelling and poetry. Erdrich tells her version of a traditional tale complete with the grand design and selective freedom of details that characterize the best storytellers. Her tale guarantees glimpses of the exhilaration that only luscious, earthy humor can give and the tale's small touches prepare the way faithfully for its bright central scenes.
From poems like “Night Sky” with its slowly transforming images to events like “Old Man Potchiko,” there is immense range covering diverse themes and techniques. The last lines of the last poem serve as a kind of benediction granted by an old man.
And through the soft explosions of cattail and the scattering of seeds on still water, walks Grandpa, all the time that there is in his hands that have grown to be the twisted doubles of the burrows of mole and badger, that have come to be the absence of birds in a nest. Hands of earth, of this clay I'm also made from.
“Turtle Mountain Reservation”
So are we all made from earth and clay, and as members of the human community we can only be grateful to one who gives us so poignant, reverent, occasionally funny an introduction to other members of the global neighborhood, especially when such gift includes a chance to marvel at the splendid surprises words themselves can still have in store for us.
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SOURCE: Erdrich, Louise, and Miriam Berkley. “PW Interviews: Louise Erdrich.” Publishers Weekly 230 (August 15, 1986): 58-9.
[In the following interview, Erdrich discusses the development of her career and her collaboration with husband Michael Dorris.]
When Louise Erdrich was a child in North Dakota, her father encouraged her to write by paying her a nickel a story. Once in a while, a story found its way into a book hand-sewn by her mother. Still, she had no urge to be a writer, she says, “until I got to college and found I wasn't much good at anything else.” If Erdrich is, one suspects, being unduly modest about her nonliterary achievements, there can be no doubt about her talent as a writer. Within a single year, 1984, when she was 30, her first collection of poetry, Jacklight, and her first novel, Love Medicine—both published by Holt—received overwhelming acclaim. Laurels for the latter, which depicted the lives of two Chippewa families on and off a North Dakota reservation, included the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Sue Kaufman Prize; it was, in addition, a national bestseller.
Now, with The Beet Queen (Fiction Forecasts, July 4), the second volume in a projected quartet, there is a new flurry of excitement around Erdrich. In addition to her literary output, Erdrich and Michael Dorris, who is her husband, her close collaborator and her agent, have produced two daughters—Persia, two and a half years old, and Pallas, one—the newest members of a family that already had three adopted children raised from infancy by Michael. Life in the public eye, Erdrich finds—she and Michael were profiled in Life and feted during the ABA with a mammoth dinner party at Antoine's—is a far cry from their daily existence in an 18th century New Hampshire farm house, which is “consumed with baby details and children details.” Says Erdrich, “It's as though we step into a life warp every time we leave our house.”
The couple are open with PW about their unconventional and profound collaboration. Erdrich, 32, and Dorris, 40, are each part Native American; she French-Chippewa on her mother's side, he Modoc on his father's. Both tall, slim, handsome, brown-haired and brown-eyed, they look as if they could be brother and sister, and recent college graduates rather than parents of a large family. Like newlyweds, they hang on each other's words; like the long-married, they interrupt, echo, complete sentences for each other. Actually, their relationship is both old and new; they have known each other since Erdrich first entered Dartmouth in 1972 as a participant in Dorris's Native American Studies program—and one of the school's first female students—but they have been intimately connected only for the last five years.
Erdrich grew up in Wahpeton, N.D., a small town on the Minn.-N.D. border, which is home to the Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school, where both her parents worked, as well as to two convents. Her maternal grandfather, Tribal Chairman on the Turtle Mountain Reservation, observed both Catholicism and the traditional Chippewa religion. Erdrich (like Dorris) had a “gothic-Catholic childhood,” but never thought about “what was Native American and what wasn't. I think that's the way a lot of people who are of mixed descent regard their lives—you're just a combination of different backgrounds. There wasn't a political climate at the time about Indian rights. I grew up just taking it all in as something that was part of me. It was a small-town life—lots of kids [Erdrich was the eldest of seven] living on a teacher's salary, and we were quite a chaotic, pretty typical family.”
It wasn't until she attended Dartmouth that Erdrich began to look at her Native American heritage as something worthy of study. “I remember feeling at different times that the course material was really saying something to me, but sometimes it takes years of your own experience for what you learn in a class to catch up with you.” She did not feel a stronger commitment until she got out of college and began to look back and see what was important.
Though she had entertained thoughts of an academic future and was adept at drawing, sometime during her undergraduate years she settled on writing as a career. At Dartmouth she won prizes for poetry and fiction. She illustrated a story that Dorris, then her instructor, had dreamed and written down (“Sometimes Michael just dreams up whole chunks of a story or novel”); it was eventually published in an Indian newspaper.
Erdrich soon became “a fanatic” about writing. “I had a very romantic idea of it. I thought I had to have a lot of experience—you have this notion about what the artist does to pursue the art—and also I had to support myself. I ended up taking some really crazy jobs, and I'm glad I did. They turned out to have been very useful experiences, although I never would have believed it at the time.” During college and afterward, she waitressed in Wahpeton, Boston, Syracuse and elsewhere; worked at a Vermont state mental hospital; taught poetry in prisons and schools; life-guarded; was a flag signaler on a construction site; and edited the Circle, a Boston Indian Council newspaper.
She spent nine months in a creative writing M.A. program at Johns Hopkins, alternately teaching and writing. Her degree manuscript included many of the poems later published in Jacklight, as well as parts of a “convoluted, unpublishable” novel, Tracks, that she compressed into the first chapter of a different book by that name, which will follow The Beet Queen. When she started sending out work for publication, she had only sporadic acceptances—first poetry, later a few stories. In Erdrich's parents' house, says Dorris, “are file drawers full of the better rejection slips.” “I only kept the ones,” says Erdrich, “that said, ‘Sorry. …’” “That actually had,” Dorris interjects, “a human being's writing on them.” How many rejections? Erdrich estimates, “Between two and three million.” More seriously, a ratio of 30 no's to every yes. “I'd say I submitted to every address in the International Directory of Small Presses,” she says.
But there were supporters, too, people who read her writing and offered encouragement. Dorris, whom she had met again when she went back to Dartmouth to give a reading, was among them. Although he says he was “not really much into poetry,” he attended the event and “was absolutely blown away by the poems. I felt I wanted to get to know her.” Erdrich had admired Dorris, she says, “but we just weren't contemporaries.”
There was a lot to admire about this unconventional and articulate young man who had attended Georgetown and Yale on scholarship—with a B.A. in English and an M.A. in theater history—and who then, while a graduate student, discovered North American Indian Ethnology in the Yale catalogue and switched majors. Not long after, when Indian studies were being cut from many college budgets, he initiated a course at Dartmouth; he now heads the Native American Studies program there. Moreover, at the age of 22, Dorris, an only child who had always wanted siblings, adopted an infant Indian son. Two other children followed, because he loved and wanted kids but had no immediate plans for a wife.
Erdrich spent the next year or two working in Boston, and attended McDowell and Yaddo writers' colonies. Charles Merrill Co. published her textbook, Imagination, a learning guide for children, in 1980, and Redbook accepted a story she wrote with her sister Heidi under the name “Heidi Louise.” Dorris, meanwhile, was in New Zealand, doing field research in anthropology. Free of teaching, he began to write fiction and to send it to Erdrich along with his letters, just as she sent him poems and stories. When Dorris returned to New Hampshire, so did Erdrich; there they began to collaborate on short fiction geared to a popular market. The stories were, as he puts it, “about people who were at crisis points in their lives. We thought they had good values, and they weren't schlock, but they were very accessible.” On the level of serious fiction, however, “there was a much bigger barrier. But that eroded over time.” Erdrich says, “We've gotten closer and closer in our fiction.” They also fell in love and, in 1981, married, although they had to wait until their six-month anniversary for a first date without the kids.
Today, any work published under either of their names—novels, stories, poems or articles—is done in collaboration with the other. “We'll be talking about a character or a scenario and one of us will write a draft: a sentence, a paragraph, a page, a chapter,” Erdrich explains. Each writes in solitude, he in a hardback chair at his word processor, she in a soft chair, with pen and pad. “Then the other person takes it and goes over it with a red pencil. The person who wrote the draft takes it back, tries again, sometimes four or five drafts' worth, until in the case of all three books [Erdrich's two novels and Dorris's forthcoming one, A Yellow Raft in Blue Water], we sit down and read them aloud over a period of a week or so, and do the final paring and achieve consensus, on, literally, every word.
“In the course of it, we'll continuously plot and continuously talk about who the characters are, what they eat, what clothes they wear, what their favorite colors are and what's going to happen to them. In that way, I think it's a true kind of collaboration: we both really influence the course of the book. You can't look back and say which one made it go this way or that way, because you can't remember. You just remember that you had that exciting conversation.”
“Nothing goes out of the house,” says Dorris, “without the other person concurring that this is the best way to say it and the best way of presenting it. One of the beauties of the collaboration is that you bring two sets of experience to an issue or an idea, and it results in something that is entirely new.”
Erdrich adds, “Some people don't believe it's possible to collaborate that closely, although we both have solitude and private anguish as well. You develop this very personal relationship with your work, and it seems fragile; you're afraid to destroy it. But I trust Michael enough so that we can talk about it. And every time I've been afraid to open it up, it has always been better for the work.”
Love Medicine started out as a short story, “The World's Greatest Fishermen,” written at white heat as an entry in the 1982 Nelson Algren fiction competition, which it won. “Then we got interested in the characters,” Dorris says, “and it expanded into a novel. And we got even more interested in the novel, and it expanded into four novels.” Tracks, the third volume in the quartet, gives the origins of the characters in the first two books. In the final work, the younger characters from Love Medicine and The Beet Queen will interact. The cross-generational aspect of their fiction owes much to the couple's closeness to their respective grandparents, who lived through the Depression—the period in which the story begins—and made it real to them.
When Love Medicine was three-quarters done, Erdrich took her mind off it by writing a short story, “Pounding the Dog,” which is now part of The Beet Queen. When that was done, they began Yellow Raft. “So,” says Dorris, “there's a kind of linkover …”“… which is useful once you finish a book,” Erdrich continues, “because then you're already working on another, and you're not so scared about what's going to happen to the last one.”
Another thing that takes their minds off writing is babies. According to Erdrich,“The Beet Queen was written while either rocking, feeding or changing. …” “Or having!” Dorris interjects. “A baby was there all the time,” Erdrich agrees. “I was pregnant for two years and then nursing afterwards.” “In both The Beet Queen and Yellow Raft,” says Dorris with a grin, “there are big birth scenes. And that's not an accident.”
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4452
SOURCE: Erdrich, Louise, and Joseph Bruchac. “Whatever Is Really Yours: An Interview with Louise Erdrich.” In Survival This Way: Interviews with American Indian Poets, pp. 73-86. Tucson, Ariz.: University of Arizona Press, 1987.
[In the following interview, Erdrich discusses geographic, cultural, and family influences on her poetry and fiction.]
It was a sunny day in New Hampshire when Louise Erdrich and her younger sister, Heidi Erdrich, a student in Creative Writing at Dartmouth, met me at the airport. We drove to the house her sister was subletting from Cleopatra Mathis, a poet and teacher at Dartmouth. Louise and I sat out on the back deck above a field where apple trees were swelling toward blossom, two horses moved lazily about their corral, and we could see the hills stretching off to the east. Louise is a striking woman, slender with long brown hair. She is surprisingly modest—even a bit shy—for one whose early accomplishments are so impressive: a powerful first book of poetry from a major publisher, a first novel which won critical acclaim, a National Book Critics Circle Prize, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in 1985. But as we spoke, her voice was clear and her convictions as strong as those of any of the complex white, Indian, and mixed-blood characters who populate her work and her memories.
“INDIAN BOARDING SCHOOL: THE RUNAWAYS”
Home's the place we head for in our sleep. Boxcars stumbling north in dreams don't wait for us. We catch them on the run. The rails, old lacerations that we love, shoot parallel across the face and break just under Turtle Mountains. Riding scars you can't get lost. Home is the place they cross.
The lame guard strikes a match and makes the dark less tolerant. We watch through cracks in boards as the land starts rolling, rolling till it hurts to be here, cold in regulation clothes. We know the sheriff's waiting at midrun to take us back. His car is dumb and warm. The highway doesn't rock, it only hums like a wing of long insults. The worn-down welts of ancient punishments lead back and forth.
All runaways wear dresses, long green ones, the color you would think shame was. We scrub the sidewalks down because it's shameful work. Our brushes cut the stone in watered arcs and in the soak frail outlines shiver clear a moment, things us kids pressed on the dark face before it hardened, pale, remembering delicate old injuries, the spines of names and leaves.
[Bruchac]: That poem is among the ones I like best of yours. It does two things I see as characteristic of your work—juxtaposes the two worlds and also hints at a natural unity which is broken yet hovering somewhere in the background. Why did you choose to read that particular poem?
[Erdrich]: It might be something as simple as that the rhythm is something I like. Probably I chose it because I've been thinking about it on the way over here because it's the one I knew by heart and it started me back on remembering when it was written and the place where I grew up.
I like the rhythm, but the subject matter, too, has a special meaning.
It does, even though I never ran away. I was too chicken, too docile as a kid, but lots of other kids did. This, though, is a particular type of running away. It's running home; it's not running away from home. The kids who are talking in this poem are children who've been removed from their homes, their cultures, by the Bureau of Indian Affairs or by any sort of residential school or church school. Many kinds of schools were set up to take Indian children away from their culture and parents and loved ones and re-acculturate them. So, it is about the hopelessness of a child in that kind of situation. There is no escape. The sheriff is always waiting at midrun to take you back. It's a refrain and it's certainly the way things were for a long time. I guess now that the boarding schools have finally started serving a positive purpose, the current Administration wants to cut them. They're finally schools that can take in children who have nowhere else to go. They do serve some purpose, but naturally they are threatened. It's just a damn shame.
It seems to me, too, to be a metaphor for the things that are happening with American Indian writing and culture in general. People have been dragged into the twentieth century, European/American culture and frame of mind and running away from that means running not away, but back.
Yes, running home. That's true. I have a very mixed background and my culture is certainly one that includes German and French and Chippewa. When I look back, running home might be going back to the butcher shop. I really don't control the subject matter, it just takes me. I believe that a poet or a fiction writer is something like a medium at a seance who lets the voices speak. Of course, a person has to study and develop technical expertise. But a writer can't control subject and background. If he or she is true to what's happening, the story will take over. It was, in fact, hard for me to do that when stories started being written that had to do with the Chippewa side of the family because I just didn't feel comfortable with it for a long time. I didn't know what to make of it being so strong. It took a while to be comfortable and just say, “I'm not going to fight it.” “Runaways” is one of the first poems that came out of letting go and just letting my own background or dreams surface on the page.
In my own case, being of mixed ancestry, I'm sometimes surprised how strongly those voices speak from that small percentage of my ancestry which is American Indian. That seems to be true of many other mixed-blood writers of your age and my age, that for some reason that's the strongest and most insistent voice.
I think that's because that is the part of you that is culturally different. When you live in the mainstream and you know that you're not quite, not really there, you listen for a voice to direct you. I think, besides that, you also are a member of another nation. It gives you a strange feeling, this dual citizenship. So, in a way it isn't surprising that's so strong. As a kid I grew up not thinking twice about it, everybody knowing you were a mixed-blood in town. You would go to the reservation to visit sometimes and sometimes you'd go to your other family. It really was the kind of thing you just took for granted.
One reason I like Jacklight so much is that it does deal with both sides of your family—the sections in the butcher shop are very real. They're no less strong than the sections which take place on the Turtle Mountain Reservation. When did you first begin to write, to write poetry or to write anything?
Well, my Dad used to pay me. Ever so often he'd pay me a nickel for a story. So I started a long time ago. Both my Mom and Dad were encouraging, incredibly encouraging. I had that kind of childhood where I didn't feel art was something strange. I felt that it was good for you to do it. I kept it up little by little until I got out of college and decided, this great romantic urge, that I was going to be a writer no matter what it cost. I told myself I would sacrifice all to be a writer. I really didn't sacrifice a lot, though. (laughs) I took a lot of weird jobs which were good for the writing. I worked at anything I could get and just tried to keep going until I could support myself through writing or get some kind of grant. Just live off this or that as you go along. I think I turned out to be tremendously lucky. Once I married Michael, we began to work together on fiction. Then it began to be a full-time job. It's a great thing, a miracle for a writer to be able to just write.
That's something seldom talked about, those persons who enable you to be a writer. It's very hard when you're on your own to devote yourself completely to writing, even part-time.
Michael and I are truly collaborators in all aspects of writing and life. It's very hard to separate the writing and the family life and Michael and I as people. He's also a novelist and has just finished his first novel. It's called A Yellow Raft in Blue Water and it's in the voices of three women; a young girl, her mother, and the grandmother speak. Very beautiful—and unusual, intriguing, interesting for a man to write in women's voices. I think it is because he was raised only by women.
The male voices in Love Medicine are very strong and legitimate. The book ends with a male voice.
Yes. I don't know why that is, but they just seem to be. You don't choose this. It just comes and grabs and you have to follow it.
In one of your poems, “Turtle Mountain Reservation,” I notice how strong your grandfather is, how strong his voice is. A storytelling voice, a voice connected to the past in such ways that some people may think him a little crazy—in the poem Ira thinks he is nuts. I wonder if that voice of your grandfather's has made you appreciate more and relate more to the voices of your male characters?
He's kind of a legend in our family. He is funny, he's charming, he's interesting. He, for many years, was a very strong figure in my life. I guess I idolized him. A very intelligent man. He was a Wobbly and worked up and down the wheat fields in North Dakota and Kansas. He saw a lot of the world. He did a lot of things in his life and was always very outspoken. Politically he was kind of a right-winger sometimes, people might say. I think he gave Tricia Nixon an Anishinabe name, for publicity. I always loved him and when you love someone you try to listen to them. Their voice then comes through.
His voice is a combination of voices, too. He can both be in the Bingo Parlor and then speaking old Chippewa words that no one but he remembers.
I think this is true of a lot of our older people. People who aren't familiar with Indians go out to visit and they can't believe that there's somebody sitting in a lawn chair who's an Indian. It's kind of incomprehensible that there's this ability to take in non-Indian culture and be comfortable in both worlds. I recently came from Manitoulin Island, a beautiful place. People are quite traditional and keep a lot of the old, particularly the very old crafts. There is a great quill-work revival. I don't know if you're familiar with the kind of quill-working done up in Ontario, but this is really the center for it. But people live, even there, incorporating any sort of non-Indian thing into their lives to live comfortably. That's one of the strengths of Indian culture, that you pick and choose and keep and discard. But it is sometimes hard because you want some of the security of the way things were. It's not as easy to find the old as it is to find the new.
In the poem “Whooping Cranes,” legend-time and modern times come together, when an abandoned boy turns into a whooping crane. There's a sort of cross-fertilization of past and present in legend.
And natural history. The cranes cross over the Turtle Mountains on their way down to Aransas, Texas. We always used to hear how they'd see the cranes pass over. No more, though. I don't know if they still fly that way or not.
In some of Leslie Silko's work you see that mixing of times. Someone may go out in a pickup truck and meet a figure out of myth.
Don't you, when you go on Indian land, feel that there's more possibility, that there is a whole other world besides the one you can see and that you're very close to it?
Very definitely. Crossing the border of a reservation is always entering another world, an older and more complicated world. How do you feel when you go back to Turtle Mountain?
I feel so comfortable. I really do. I even feel that way being in North Dakota. I really like that openness. But there's a kind of feeling at Turtle Mountain—I guess just comfortable is the word to describe it. There are also places there which are very mysterious to me. I don't know why. I feel they must have some significance. Turtle Mountain is an interesting place. It hasn't been continuously inhabited by the Turtle Mountain Band. It was one of those nice grassy, game-rich places that everybody wanted. So it was Sioux, it was Mitchiff, it was Chippewa. They are a soft, rolling group of hills, not very high, little hills—not like these (gestures toward mountains)—and there were parts that my grandfather would point out. The shapes were called this or that because they resembled a beaver or whatever kind of animal. He even incorporated the highways into the shapes because some of them got their tails cut off. (laughs) Even that people can deal with. Not always, though. There are many places that are certainly of religious significance that can never be restored or replaced, so I don't want to make light of it.
As in the Four Corners area.
Yes, I was thinking of Black Mesa. In the case of those hills at Turtle Mountain, there was that resilience because they were places which had a name, but not places—such as Black Mesa—much more vital to a culture and a religion. Catholicism is very important up there at Turtle Mountain. When you go up there, you go to Church! My grandfather has had a real mixture of old time and church religion—which is another way of incorporating. He would do pipe ceremonies for ordinations and things like that. He just had a grasp on both realities, in both religions.
I see that very much in your work. A lake may have a mythological being in it which still affects people's lives while the Catholic Church up on the hill is affecting them in a totally different way. Or you may have someone worrying about being drafted into the army at the same time he's trying to figure out how to make up love medicine—in a time when old ways of doing things have been forgotten. It seems similar, in a way, to Leslie Silko's Ceremony, where there is a need to make up new ceremonies because the old ones aren't working for the new problems, incorporating all kinds of things like phone books from different cities.
You may be right. I never thought about the similarity. This “love medicine” is all through the book, but it backfires on the boy who tries it out because he's kind of inept. It's funny what happens until it becomes tragic. But, if there is any ceremony which goes across the board and is practiced by lots and lots of tribal people, it is having a sense of humor about things and laughing. But that's not really what you're saying.
Who knows? (laughs) Anyway, I don't deal much with religion except Catholicism. Although Ojibway traditional religion is flourishing, I don't feel comfortable discussing it. I guess I have my beefs about Catholicism. Although you never change once you're raised a Catholic—you've got that. You've got that symbolism, that guilt, you've got the whole works and you can't really change that. That's easy to talk about because you have to exorcise it somehow. That's why there's a lot of Catholicism in both books.
The second poem in Jacklight is called “A Love Medicine.”
I was sort of making that poem up as a love medicine, as a sort of healing love poem. So, I suppose there are all kinds of love and ways to use poetry and that was what I tried to do with it.
There are several things I see in Jacklight. One is an urge toward healing, a desire to ameliorate the pain, create something more balanced, even if it means facing difficult realities. Was that a conscious theme?
I don't think any of it was very conscious. Poetry is a different process for me than writing fiction. Very little of what happens in poetry is conscious, it's a great surprise. I don't write poetry anymore. I've in some ways lost that ability. I've made my unconscious so conscious through repeated writing of stories that I don't seem to have this urge to let certain feelings build until they turn into a poem.
Another theme I see strongly in Jacklight, and in all of your writing, is the theme of strong women who become more than what they seem to be. Transformations take place—in some cases, mythic transformations.
That is true of women I have known. We are taught to present a demure face to the world and yet there is a kind of wild energy behind it in many women that is transformational energy, and not only transforming to them but to other people. When, in some of the poems, it takes the form of becoming an animal, that I feel is a symbolic transformation, the moment when a woman allows herself to act out of her own power. The one I'm thinking of is the bear poem.
That's a really wonderful four-part poem.
Oh, I'm so glad! But, you know, she's realizing her power. She's realizing she can say “No,” which is something women are not taught to do, and that she can hit the sky like a truck if she wants. Yes, it's transformational. It goes through all of the work I've been doing lately. Part of it is having three daughters, I think, and having sisters. I have an urgent reason for thinking about women attuned to their power and their honest nature, not the socialized nature and the embarrassed nature and the nature that says, “I can't possibly accomplish this.” Whatever happens to many young girls. It happens to boys, too. It happens to men, no question. In the book there are men—maybe not so much in the poetry, but in the fiction—like Lipsha, who begin to realize that they are truly strong and touch into their own strength. I think it's a process of knowing who you are. There's a quest for one's own background in a lot of this work. It's hard not to realize what you're doing. And you say, “Funny thing, I have so many characters who are trying to search out their true background. What can this mean?” One of the characteristics of being a mixed-blood is searching. You look back and say, “Who am I from?” You must question. You must make certain choices. You're able to. And it's a blessing and it's a curse. All of our searches involve trying to discover where we are from.
It makes me think of Jim Welch's wonderful scene in Winter in the Blood when that old man turns out to be his true grandfather.
Oh yes, yes. Certainly.
In that same light, there's a similarity there with Leslie Silko, though I don't mean to imply that you've copied anything of hers.
No, no, that didn't even enter my head. She's working out of a whole different tribal background. She was a discovery for me in a particular way I don't think any other writer will ever be. I'm very attached to her work.
You don't write poetry now because you feel the conscious effort of writing prose makes it less available?
It sands away the unconscious. (laughs) You know, there's really not much down there. But what really sands away the unconscious is getting up in the middle of night to rock your baby to sleep. When you live in isolation—I notice this whenever I leave—I dream poems. But when you get up at all hours feeding babies, you just don't have that kind of experience, you're just not able to let your unconscious work for you. However, I don't miss it. I'd rather have the kids than the tortured unconscious. Also, I have a very practical way of working. I just sit down and Michael works in one room and I work in the other and we just sit there as long as we can. I really have got more and more mundane about my work habits. There are times when I'm up at 4:30 and I feel like something extremely strange is about to happen—whether it's writing or not. Maybe I'm just crazy. But I sit down and, if something is there, it will be written. Usually, though, after the kids are taken care of, I try to write and very few poems come that way. Almost none. I maybe have three now since Jacklight, which I don't think I'll ever publish. Those poems now seem so personal. I just don't know if I can put them in a book again! (laughs)
I think you're tapping, though, the same sources for your prose that you've tapped for your poetry, even though the method may be different. I think the depth of experience, the types of metaphor, and the direction it goes are all on the same road.
I'm connected to the poems because you feel so protective toward your first outpourings. You want them to have some kind of continuity in their life. I think that is probably true. You can see the themes that were being worked with in Jacklight go on into the writing in other ways. The poem you mentioned, “Family Reunion,” turns into part of “Crown of Thorns” once it goes into the fiction. A lot of them do that. The next book, which is The Beet Queen, takes place in that sort of butcher shop world and incorporates people who are and are not in those poems. It's a very different book but also one which I think flows naturally out of both Jacklight and Love Medicine.
What years did you write the poems in Jacklight?
All through '77 and '78. Then, once it was accepted to be published I wrote a few extra ones. I was so thrilled to be finally published. The manuscript went everywhere and I thought it would never be published. Then it was, and I was given this great boost. So I wrote some of the ones I really like, like the one about the bear and about living with Michael and the children, because I was so happy. I guess it was surprising. I thought I would live my whole life without being published and I wouldn't care, but as it turned out I was really happy.
When did you begin writing with Michael?
Once we were married. In '81. We began by just talking about the work, back and forth, reading it. He always—right at first before I got to know him—was the person I would go to with problems. I'd say, “Michael, should I get into teaching, should I quit writing? What should I do?” And he said to me, “Look, there's only one thing to do. Throw yourself into your work. Don't take any more jobs.” And I did it. I just tried what he said. (laughs) At times I found myself in some unpleasant monetary predicaments. But I've been lucky. I think it is because we started working together. He had ideas for the whole structure of Love Medicine that became the book. We worked on it very intensely and closely, and I do the same with his work. We exchange this role of being the … there isn't even a word for it. We're collaborators, but we're also individual writers. One person sits down and writes the drafts. I sit down and write it by myself or he does, but there's so much more that bears on the crucial moment of writing. You know it, you've talked the plot over, you've discussed the characters. You've really come to some kind of an understanding that you wouldn't have done alone. I really think neither of us would write what we do unless we were together.
Didn't the genesis of Love Medicine, “The World's Greatest Fisherman,” come about that way. Michael saw the announcement of the Chicago Prize …
Yes. Michael was flat on his back, sick, and he said, “Look, you've got to enter this! Get in there, write it!” And I did, brought it in and out to him, changed it around, together we finished it.
You have such a strong narrative line in all your work and stories seem so important to you, stories told by your characters in the poems, the stories of the poems themselves and then the structure of story in Love Medicine, which is, in fact, many stories linked together. What is story to you?
Everybody in my whole family is a storyteller, whether a liar or a storyteller (laughs)—whatever. When I think what's a story, I can hear somebody in my family, my Dad or my Mom or my Grandma, telling it. There's something particularly strong about a told story. You know your listener's right there, you've got to keep him hooked—or her. So, you use all those little lures: “And then …,” “So the next day …,” etc. There are some very nuts-and-bolts things about storytelling. It also is something you can't really put your finger on. Why do you follow it? I know if there is a story. Then I just can't wait to get back to it and write it. Sometimes there isn't one, and I just don't want to sit down and force it. You must find that, too, because you tell a lot of stories.
Yes, there's something about a story that tells itself.
The story starts to take over if it is good. You begin telling, you get a bunch of situation characters, everything together, but if it's good, you let the story tell itself. You don't control the story.
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SOURCE: Jaskoski, Helen. Review of Baptism of Desire. SAIL: Studies in American Indian Literatures, 2d ser., 3, no. 4 (winter 1991): 55-7.
[In the following review, Jaskoski discusses Erdrich's second volume of poetry.]
In Catholic doctrine, Baptism of Desire has a rather technical meaning: a person who is unable to manage conventional baptism of water can, by earnestly and truly wanting to be baptised, gain the benefits of the sacrament, i.e., entry into the church and eligibility for heaven. Longing and will may serve where form and ritual are impossible. In Louise Erdrich's latest collection of poems the technical meaning of longing to be baptised in the Catholic Church is rather a jumping-off point than a core metaphor. Again and again the poems return to Catholic tradition and terminology—not out of unquestioning acceptance, but to explore the legacy of this religion's impossible requirements and extravagant promises. The reader will not look to these texts for the abstruse reaches of theology (a list of sacraments leaves one out; Immaculate Conception is confused with Annunciation) but rather for the earthy details of Catholic legend and the piercing metaphors of popular belief. The occult and the superstitious, the surreal life of dreamer, mystic and seer, all find a place; The Cloud of Unknowing and The Other Bible, as well as lives of the saints, are offered as part of the textual matrix for these poems.
Erdrich calls upon her Chippewa traditions as well, and readers of her first collection, Jacklight, will welcome the return of Potchikoo, that charming adventurer. Potchikoo also, however, encounters Christianity in the tales in this volume; he undertakes something of a Dantean journey through heaven and hell (the hell for white people even has a sign over the gate like Dante's; it reads “Entrance: Hell”) before he is restored to Josette.
Other characters from Jacklight also reappear in this collection. Mary Kroger returns, with stories and memories from her past. She remembers “Poor Clare,” a slow-witted girl, “much too eager for a man's touch,” whose pregnancy and the mysterious absence of issue from it give rise to a story told in small towns everywhere. Mary feels the ghostly presence of love-torn “Rudy J. V. Jacklitch, the bachelor who drove his light truck through the side of a barn on my account,” she senses the ghost of a woman who burned to death, she returns to recollection of a Carmelite nun and the life of renunciation both fascinating and incomprehensible to her. The Mary Kroger poems have loosened in form since Jacklight: they are more discursive in expression, with less of the intensity and focus that metric lines and rhyme permitted in the earlier volume.
Nostalgia and the remembered life figure in other poems as well. One of the most complex poems in Baptism of Desire is “Saint Clare,” which like “Carmelites” explores renunciation, a kind of ecstasy. In the five sections of the poem the voice of Clare recalls her response to the inspiration of her neighbor, Francis of Assisi, and her subsequent life as foundress of the Poor Clare order of sisters. In the last section, addressed to her own blood sister, Agnes, Clare ponders the paradox of renunciation: “It is almost impossible to ask for nothing. I have spent my whole life trying.” She takes on responsibility for the destructiveness of sainthood, in which “density of purpose” creates the impossible demand, “the stone wagon of example.” This poem as well as the poems on Rodrigo de Avila, Mary Magdalen and Mary Kroger, does what Erdrich's fiction does at its best: they explore in the first-person idiom the depths of conflict at the heart of life lived in all dimensions of body, memory and spirit.
Desire of many kinds pervades the poems, which, a note explains, were mostly “written between the hours of two and four in the morning, a period of insomnia brought on by pregnancy.” Longing and fecundity suffuse the diction. The language is rich, the imagery sometimes almost hallucinatory, as words seem to spill over the confinement of lines and lines are stretched out of elasticity. In “The Ritual” a parent meditates on sleeping children “in the hour of the wolf, the hour of the horn, / the claw, the lead pipe, and the oiled barrel of roulette,” and in “The Flood” the persona remembers a basement bedroom where, one summer, “The river hammered and bubbled through the drains, / the line snapped, / their voices grew fierce as mosquitos / dancing on the head of a pin, clouding the wreckage / I passed, as the flood rushed me over its wide surface, / shredding my nightgown, my shawl of stingers.” The language of sensation represents states of the soul: patience “must be tireless as rust and bold as roots” (“Fooling God”); prolonged anger “walked on elbows, / ate and screamed” (“Mary Kroger”); the disorientation of illness imagines that “children turning in their beds / turn dim and weedy” (“Translucence”). Such baroque exuberance promises to overwhelm; these poems push the reader to savor in measured doses, repeated readings, over time.
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SOURCE: Dunn, Carolyn. Review of Baptism of Desire. American Indian Culture and Research Journal 17, no. 3 (1993): 188-93.
[In the following review, Dunn offers a critical overview of the poems contained in Baptism of Desire.]
When classifying American Indian literature, literary critics seek to define just what is distinctly Indian about these writers. Most of the writers today come from varied tribal and nontribal backgrounds, so it is difficult to categorize Indian writers under that simple heading: Indian. Male writers tend to explore themes of ritualistic death and rebirth through a communion within the community; female writers tend to look outward in terms of the whole community, centering on female cyclical rituals of rebirth/death/regeneration and survival of their future generations. Broad themes of anger and isolation are common threads in the work of both male and female writers. But these questions arise: Is there a division between writers of nontribal background and those of tribal background? Does the idea of a “genetic memory” take hold? Are writers from a tribal background describing the same experiences—myth, ritual, ceremony—as writers from a nontribal or nontraditional background?
Contemporary American Indian writers such as Louise Erdrich, Paula Gunn Allen, and Joy Harjo are addressing these questions—acknowledging their traditional tribal heritages as well as their non-Indian backgrounds and creating a new area in American Indian literary studies. What may be seen on the surface as distinctly “Indian” is actually a conglomeration of cultures that comprise the individual. The communal knowledge from each living, breathing heritage makes up the components of what Indian writing is; that, in itself, is a tribal concept. Indian writers take all of their cultures and articulate them as one idea, one concept—the self. One can be Indian, one can be white, one can be Catholic, one can be Black. It is not just one aspect of our lives that we are exploring but many aspects. In recognizing this multiplicity, we recognize our identity.
Louise Erdrich is a mixed-blood poet and novelist who is conscious of all of her traditions: French, German, Roman Catholic, Turtle Mountain Chippewa. Erdrich's first collection of poems, Jacklight (Holt, Rinehart, and Wilson, 1984), demonstrated the author's penchant for telling a good story. In Baptism of Desire, we get not only the stories last shared in Jacklight but a glimpse of the storyteller herself.
In her novels, Love Medicine, The Beet Queen, and Tracks, Erdrich addresses all aspects of her mixed-blood heritage. In Baptism of Desire, she has done this once again, not in a novel but in a collection of poems aimed at gaining some understanding of life within diverse cultures. Erdrich is a mixed-blood, telling stories from a mixed-blood point of view or acting as a signifier or trickster character, an individual whose work speaks with layers of meaning while commenting on the situation at hand. All of Erdrich's work shows her skill at observation—examining her cultures and telling the stories these cultures have created in her. In Baptism of Desire, the reader is able to see all aspects of Erdrich: the writer, the poet, the storyteller, the Chippewa, the French, the German, the trickster.
Part 1 addresses the Catholic aspect of Erdrich's background; part 2 deals with the German-French side of her character; part 3 examines the female/mythological relationship; part 4 is her Indian self; and part 5 is the self-reflexive, the wife and mother, the private Louise Erdrich she has so completely guarded the world against—until now.
Erdrich's pregnancies and her experience of motherhood are the topics she addresses in the poems contained in part 5. In “The Fence,” she likens the vines moving up the fence in her garden to the child residing within her body:
the freeze of the vines, and then the small body spread before me in need drinking light from the shifting wall of my body, and the fingers, tiny stems wavering to mine flexing for the ascent.
The beautiful and complex ascent of vines speaks to Erdrich of the impending birth of her child. Life moves around and within her; watching the garden is like watching her body take on the ripeness of motherhood. The other poems in this section give insight into the home life of Erdrich, her husband Michael Dorris, and their five children. Home for Erdrich is husband, children, comfort in family ties. Her son's rites of passage, the garden's spring yield, and her daughter's dreams comprise her home life. Erdrich examines the connection between all life—plant, animal, human; all are one.
The son must come of age in the margins and hem of his mother's cloak. It is spread over three dark meadows where wind dies.
In “Wild Plums,” Erdrich writes of her son's exuberance for life. As a mother, she recognizes her limits, understands that she does not provide all for her children. She knows that the land takes over where the mother stops:
The roots of cattail, daylillies, the dandelion's sawtooth leaves, the bitterness boiled from the unopened flowers of the milkweed. Even she cannot claim to have provided this. He eats everything in front of him. There is never enough. Fistfuls and mouthfuls of the wild red plums.
Two characters from Erdrich's German heritage speak of the desperation that clouds their lives. “Mary Kroger” and “Poor Clare” are victims of negative Western views of sexuality and motherhood. “Poor Clare” seeks the comfort of men, Erdrich says, because she had no father:
A soft girl, heavy in the hips, with weak blue lashless eyes and curdled cream for skin, she altered herself for each occasion. She wasn't bad, just dull, and much too eager for a man's touch as she had no father. At night, her mother nailed the door, but Clare hid rope and swung down from the eaves and met men there, so some of us believe.
While “Poor Clare” drowns the child she has borne in shame, Mary Kroger laments her own sterility:
I had my nerve, my shackles, and those dreams that killed me with their vehemence and him, who lit red votive candles for my womb, but I was barren that way, it's just one way to be empty, Otto, one and I'd thrive a scheming mind good with numbers.
In addressing the Catholic aspect of her heritage, Erdrich utilizes familiar stories of saints to express her rage at the church—a rage undoubtedly founded on the church's hand in the Allotment Act and on its mission system among the Chippewa. Erdrich's Teresa of Avila, Mary Magdalene, and Saint Clare embody both sacred and profane aspects of Catholic traditions. In “Saint Clare,” she addresses sexism in the church:
… so we slept and woke to find our bodies arching into bloom. It happened to me first, the stain on the linen, the ceremonial seal which was Eve's fault.
Just as Saint Clare embodies the archetypal virgin for many in the Catholic tradition, Mary Magdalene occupies the throne of the whore. Erdrich's Mary Magdalene speaks of the darker side of women's sexuality, the use and abuse of women by men, as sanctified by the church:
I cut off my hair and toss it across your pillow. A dark towel like the one after sex. I'm walking out, my face a dustpan, my body stiff as a new broom.
I will drive boys to smash empty bottles on their brows. I will pull them right out of their skins. It is the old way that girls get even with their fathers— by wrecking their bodies on other men.
Erdrich addresses the Indian part of her self in the stories of Old Man Potchikoo and his Catholic wife, Josette. Potchikoo is a trickster figure, transcending death and defying Saint Peter. For that matter, Potchikoo also defies heaven, hell, and the Mormons. The stories Erdrich tells in part 4, collectively entitled “Potchikoo's Life after Death,” describe just that:
After Old Man Potchikoo died, the people had a funeral for his poor crushed body, and everyone felt sorry for the things they had said while he was alive. Josette went home and set some bread for him by the door for him to take on his journey to the next world.
Potchikoo has many adventures in the afterlife, visiting both the Indians' heaven and the white people's heaven (where he meets Saint Peter and a busload of Mormons). In the white people's hell, Potchikoo discovers that hell is full of people chained to the Sears catalogue:
They were chained, hand and foot and even by the neck, to old Sears Roebuck catalogues. Around and around the huge warehouse they dragged heavy paper books mumbling, collapsing from time to time to flip through the pages. Each person was bound to five or six, bent low beneath the weight. Potchikoo had always wondered where old Sears catalogues went, and now he knew the devil gathered them, that they were instruments of torture.
Potchikoo's adventures continue. He has relations with Josette, and, soon afterward, his evil twin takes over his body and wreaks havoc all around. Erdrich treats Potchikoo's stories with reverence, respect, and responsibility, but also with the humor that is characteristic of her writing. Her responsibility is that of the consummate storyteller, a woman who both respects and reveres her traditions—all of them. Through her telling of the stories of her people, these traditions remain alive.
In the last poem of the collection, “The Ritual,” Erdrich writes,
In the tremor of the long, receding footsteps we awaken. The day is ordinary sunlight fans across the ceiling.
There is nothing ordinary in Erdrich's worlds, in the characters she creates, or in their stories. In these stories, traditions continue; they live, they breathe, they can even be dangerous—in the sense that when one hears the stories, one is changed. The ordinary and the extraordinary are woven into one seamless whole. That is Erdrich's talent, her shining monument to the cultures she embodies.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4867
SOURCE: Hafen, P. Jane. “Sacramental Language: Ritual in the Poetry of Louise Erdrich.” Great Plains Quarterly 16, no. 3 (summer 1996): 147-55.
[In the following essay, Hafen offers a critical analysis of Erdrich's poetry, focusing on her portrayal of culture and ritual through literature.]
As an intensely personal genre, poetry intimately reveals Louise Erdrich's voice as her well-known fiction does not.1 Evident in that voice are elements of the mosaic of cultural experiences that comprise Erdrich's life: Catholicism, German ancestry, working class, university education, and Turtle Mountain Chippewa.2 Erdrich's poetry is her first published work, her own writing without the collaborative effort and editing of her husband, Michael Dorris (Modoc). While some of Erdrich's poems garner their cultural rhetoric from differing points of view and values, most exhibit the variety of experiences that result from marginalization inherent in the omnipresence of race in North American society.
Erdrich bears the heritage of survival and awareness of tribal sovereignty. Her poetry unmasks a rhetoric of oral tradition, presents structural rituals of both the non-literate and the highly ornamented, dramatizes storytelling, and amalgamates literary genres from classical sonnets to short story. The retelling of familiar, historic, mythic, and popular images becomes ritualized itself, thus making ritual both subject and object. The complexity of Erdrich's poetry presents contemporary American Indian life, where tribal distinctions appear in ritualization and myth, yet paradoxically reveals individuals being defined within those very communities that are circumscribed through ritual.
The personal voice in Erdrich's poetry discloses intangible manifestations of communal and tribal culture. As she observes in an early interview with Joseph Bruchac:
I don't think any [theme] was very conscious. Poetry is a different process for me than writing fiction. Very little of what happens in poetry is conscious, it's a great surprise.3
She also remarks that the Chippewa elements are obvious because they are not part of the mainstream. Indeed, much literary criticism of Erdrich's fiction ferrets out traditional and material culture of the Chippewa as evidence or critique of Erdrich's “authentic” identity as an American Indian.4 Such criticisms frequently focus on anthropological evidences in American Indian literatures, are bound in an absolute past, and fail to acknowledge contemporary peoples and their adaptive modes of cultural survival. Nevertheless, all factors of Erdrich's background, including mainstream/American/Western Civilization and Chippewa culture contribute to her source material.
Jacklight, Erdrich's first collection of poems, was published in 1984, the same year as the original edition of her first novel, Love Medicine. Most of the poems in Jacklight were written in 1977 and 1978 with a few additions for the final published version.5 The title poem, “Jacklight,” is set apart from the remaining forty poems, which are divided into the sections “Runaways,” “Hunters,” “The Butcher's Wife,” and “Myths.” The volume presents a holistic view of Erdrich's multifaceted universe. “The Butcher's Wife” section creates characters and images that will be expanded and transformed in Erdrich's 1986 novel, The Beet Queen.
Despite claiming in an interview that she would henceforth publish only fiction because her poetry had become too private,6 Erdrich's second volume of poems, Baptism of Desire, was issued in 1989. This collection is passionate and intimate, more intensely confronting mysticism, religion, and ontological questions than Jacklight. Erdrich notes in Baptism of Desire that “most … poems in this book were written between the hours of two and four in the morning, a period of insomnia brought on by pregnancy.”7 The most frequent observation in reviews is that perhaps Erdrich is a better storyteller than a lyricist. A. Gettner, however, notes the power of her poetic imagery, “Through the experience of motherhood, we suspect, the world's and God's threat may actually subside.”8
Baptism of Desire is divided into five untitled parts. The first section contains poems of ritual and Roman Catholicism. Part Two is a continuation of narratives and characterizations from “The Butcher's Wife” section of Jacklight. The third section is a five-part poem titled “Hydra.” Part Four continues seven short stories of Potchikoo, the trickster cycle begun in the “Myths” section of Jacklight. The volume concludes with a fifth section of twelve exceptionally personal and reflective poems. For the purposes of this paper, following the continuation of subject and narratives from Jacklight to Baptism of Desire, I will consider both volumes together and discuss selected poems in terms of ritual and myth.
Ritual is an enactment of myth or sacred belief.9 Much of Erdrich's poetry is a performance of beliefs derived from her variegated heritage, primarily Catholic and Chippewa. Nevertheless, these poems also reveal a personal and communal voice. As ritual effaces differences in a society, it establishes community or oneness. Erdrich's poems manifest the paradox of individuation occurring within and being defined by communal and tribal relationships.
Erdrich's poetry that alludes to or imitates ritual fulfills Michel Benamou's four characteristics of ethnopoetics:
- To reunify us with the human past … to salute the first shamans and the communal, ecological, and religious functions of poetry;
- To reoralize the poem by performance;
- To reterritorialize language; and
- To retotalize the human community.10
The historical topics of many of Erdrich's poems take the reader into the mythic, fluid past of tribal stories and histories. She reoralizes these stories and histories by presenting them in poetic form. While Erdrich's language of poetry is English, her world view is tribal, Chippewa. Her poems engage the reader in a manner that approaches Chippewa world view but also sees mainstream images from a new perspective. This enigma of individuality and commonality allows distinctions to exist within the totality of the human community.
Another enigma is the relationship between ritual and community.11 Ritual implies structure and pattern. An apparent contradiction exists in the ritual erasing of hierarchy that can take place, making all participants equal and therefore creating communitas. The structure and ritualistic performance of Erdrich's poems reflect an oral or non-literate tradition that emphasizes that communal or tribal society. She relies on both European ritualistic conventions and mythic sources of the Chippewa.
Poems of Baptism of Desire are conspicuously Roman Catholic, but also universal/catholic. Erdrich attended parochial schools and speaks of her religious background:
I guess I have my beefs about Catholicism. Although you never change once you're raised a Catholic—you've got that. You've got that symbolism, that guilt, you've got the whole works and you can't really change that.12
Indeed, the title of the collection stems from Roman Catholic doctrine whereby a person with sincere desire but unable to perform the technical act of baptism may receive the blessings of that ordinance.13 Erdrich melds natural human desires into the ritual structure of Catholic belief. The title, Baptism of Desire, also has a playful meaning, suggesting that desire could be cleansed by baptismal ritual or that one could be purified by being immersed with desire. The coexistent danger and redemption of desire becomes a pharmakos, with the potential to either destroy or deliver.
Erdrich injects these topics with ironic and iconoclastic tensions characteristic of twentieth century Modernism, undercutting the institutional power and divinity of religion. However, unlike the Modernism of James Joyce, who rejects Roman Catholicism for the religious pursuit of art, Erdrich transforms the creed, infusing ritual and history with personal interpretations and Native American imagery. This amalgamation and embracing of religious tradition and modern arts, crossing the virtual natures of the plastic and literary, is evident in “Orozco's Christ” (15).
By referring to this specific painting of political artist José Orozco (1883-1949), Erdrich crosses several cultural boundaries. Orozco was deeply influenced by the traditions of Mexican Indians but painted in the medium of Western Civilization,14 just as Erdrich comes from an oral tradition but writes and publishes in Western genres of poetry and novels. Also, Mexico is a deeply Roman Catholic country that has merged European practices with native beliefs. Orozco's suffering Christ—probably Cristo destruyendo la Cruz from the 1932-34 frescos at Dartmouth College—need not be seen to capture Erdrich's interpretation of art, religion, and ritual of crucifixion.15 The Dartmouth fresco mediates public and institutional space with the privacy of a poet's response to religious faith—or challenge to that faith. The intense style of Orozco's painting is matched by the rhythm and passion of Erdrich's words. The repetition of the words “who” and “whose,” beginning eleven of the eighteen lines of the poem, adds a musical incantation, further blurring the lines between the arts.
This powerful Christ is violent and destructive in the opening line “Who rips his own flesh.” The brutal images are institutionalized by the painting and descriptions of vibrant colors, “blazing ochre, blazing rust,” visual art remaining static in time. This Christ manages his own fate, chopping down his own cross, challenging and defying the Father, consuming the significance of Mary by “roll[ing] the stone from the entrance over his mother” with his own resurrective strength.
Erdrich's resurrected Jesus embarks on his journey to establish the savage authority of Christianity. The Pauline image of “walking toward Damascus, toward Beirut” implies tumultuous conversion of the ancient world to radical Christianity. Beirut is a modern battlefield, a reminder that bloody conflicts are erroneously justified by religious ideologies. The particular image of Orozco's painted Christ recalls the indigenous cultures that were sacrificed to Catholicism. While there are no specifically identifiable Chippewa elements in this particular poem, the reader's knowledge of Erdrich's Native heritage invites one beyond the obvious Catholic content and reminds one of the tensions between Christian and non-Christian beliefs. Again, unlike Joyce, whose crisis of faith faced nihilism, only to be filled with art, Erdrich's crisis is tragic, knowing that Christianity is culpable for the systematic attempts at deicide for Native gods.
Erdrich struggles with the evils of Christian institutions and personal desires and faith. This inescapable predicament is personalized in “Fooling God” (3-4). The futility of trying to escape God and religious upbringing is juxtaposed against the Nicean characteristics of divinity. The speaker cannot become small enough to hide from God nor large enough to overpower and eliminate him. The poet's attempt to “lose myself” only identifies that self to God. God's knowing is intimate and sexual. Although the poet embraces self reliance—“I must become essential and file everything / under my own system”—God is omnipresent. Doubts prevail, yet the poet longs for those who “taste everlasting life.” The articulation of the poem itself acknowledges the vain effort of “Fooling God.”
“Fooling God”'s confidential topic of a personal struggle with faith is more characteristic of the European influences in Erdrich's life; faith is an acquisition in Western belief but inseparable from a holistic manner of life in non-western cosmologies. Rather than assuming that a Christian/non-Christian dichotomy represents the only choices, many Native people embrace both Christianity and traditional beliefs. Minute clues in the poem indicate the mediation of cultures. The line “I must insert myself into the bark of his apple trees” alludes both to the Edenic forbidden fruit and to the magical transformation of a doubting trickster who could enter a tree. The kneeling women “[o]n the pavement where his house begins” suggest an image of the Cathedral of Guadalupe, a fusion of Catholicism and Mexican Indian supernaturalism.
The collection of “The Sacraments” (18-24) includes the seven ceremonial practices. These Catholic sections present experiences of intimacy and nature and Native American images, characteristic of the reflective poems of Part Five. “Baptism” has ritualistic sun dancers; “Communion” has singing frogs and a wedding bed; “Confirmation” prophesies Erdrich's own three children. “Matrimony” sets the vows of “standard words” in a “landscape” of “willows,” “the sun,” a “tilted earth,” and “snow.” “Penance” expresses guilt over marital conflict. “Holy Orders” are intimate, and “Extreme Unction” uses decaying images of nature. The content of these poems invokes communal liturgical practices and the personal and particular experience of the individual, along with images derived from a culture that depends on the earth. The ritualization of the sacraments thus becomes both personal and communal.
Similarly, “Christ's Twin” (13) uses an Indian approach, suggesting that a shadow of Jesus existed. This doubling corresponds to the hero twins, common in Native American myths. Christ's twin functions as a trickster, playing pranks, manipulating miracles, “clumsy and curious.” This counterpart to a pious Jesus again suggests the duplicitous forces of Christianity from Erdrich's Chippewa perspective.
Ritual in poems with an overt Indian content appears in the title poem of Jacklight and its “Hunters” and “Myths” sections. Many of these poems are narratives, reciting and recreating ancestral tales. The recounting of myth, although presented by Erdrich in a published and public medium, is fundamental to ritual. Storytelling is a sacred and ritual performance and Erdrich enriches this practice with modern metaphors. Once again, the literature of Native America defies conventional categories and genres. An example of Erdrich's mythic and ritual poetry, “Whooping Cranes,” is dedicated to her maternal grandmother, Mary Gourneau.16 It is also narrative, telling the story of a mythic foundling, raised by the tribal community and returned to the cranes.
The reader does not need to know the full canon of Chippewa legend to discern mythological tradition in this poem. The poem begins:
Our Souls must be small as mice to fit through the hole of heaven. All the time it is shrinking over Pembina.
In many Plains origin myths a hole in the sky is an entrance for human beings into this earthly existence. The Pembina hills include the formation for which the Turtle Mountain Chippewa Reservation in North Dakota is named. Pembina County is that part of the Red River valley immediately under the Canadian border. The mystery surrounding the birth and discovery of the child suggests the miracle birth of the monomythic hero. The reference to the Mission and the tea in a baby bottle place the poem in a recent rather than mythical time.
The young boy, however, is clearly in a mythical realm. His strangeness and supernatural strength distinguish him. The killing of the crows suggests a religious sacrifice, but the implication is unclear; the black crows may represent an evil to be eradicated or, if they are incarnations of the trickster, their deaths may represent deicide. Again, Erdrich mixes cultural references as the boy, like the Greek Narcissus, admires his own image.
The drought described in the second full stanza demonstrates the relationship between survival and the natural elements. The boy is once more distinguished as his health and well-being are preserved by the caretaking community during desperate times. The whooping cranes that fly overhead accept the ritualized and sacrificial offering, taking him up in transformation. The white of the cranes suggests purity, another sign of appropriate designation for holy sacrifice.
This poem expresses fear of the parallel disappearance of the sacred boy and venerable traditions. As the cranes take him away, in a “last flight,” they close the sky against the human world below. The “arks” of the breasts of the cranes imply the Judeo-Christianity of Noah, as the boy flees to a new world, closed to those below. The earth is split from the sky, but the boy and the cranes mediate that fragmentation. The moral sense that accompanies this poem presents a divisive world: good and evil, earth and sky, fullness and drought, abandonment and acceptance, mediated by the boy who transforms and joins a community of cranes. He is, nevertheless, not of the world, as he is transported beyond a “barred gate” and a closed sky. That the people take care of the boy, despite his differences, reflects communal values. Wholeness encompasses the natural elements, sky and earth, and the varied cultures represented in the poem through the metaphorical paradox of separation and community. The boy, born of elements of Chippewa mythology and ascending with images of Christianity, becomes the intermediary between the two cultures.
Erdrich invokes her own specific tribal traditions in the title poem, “Jacklight.” The poem has this explanatory note:
The same Chippewa word is used both for flirting and hunting game, while another Chippewa word connotes both using force in intercourse and also killing a bear with one's bare hands. [R. W. Dunning, (1959) Social and Economic Change Among the Northern Ojibwa]
This deconstructive use of language is modulated in the poem to create a dialectical meaning. The hunters and the hunted are indistinguishable as power is transformed. Erdrich comments on this counterpoint of the poem:
I am trying to say something like this: if our relationships are ever going to be human, and not just play-by-numbers, men have to follow women into the woods and women likewise. There must be an exchange, a transformation, a power shared between them.17
Rather than eliminating meaning, the duality of the language creates a new manner of thinking about power of the hunters and the hunted. Not only is this transformation male/female but could represent any power exchange, including that of cultures; “It is their turn now, / their turn to follow us.”
The ritual of hunting is derived from historic subsistence needs. The narrative voice of the poem is the collective “We,” yet the telling and the imagery are individualized. The specificity of experience, of smells, of the “first of us to step into the open” marks the paradox of individual definition within the hunting, tribal community. The ritual recounting in “Jacklight” intimates that, as cultures change, the complexity of the universe becomes both more enlightened and more shadowed.
Erdrich continues the Chippewa traditions with allusions to the mythical hero, Nanabozho (Nanapush), in “The Woods” (23). References are made to his “headdress,” a “breastplate,” and the holy “mittens of blood.” In this poem, however, the trickster cannot escape the speaker and must redefine his mythic purpose.
Other, seemingly mundane, practices are ritualized in Erdrich's poetry. A zoo visit in “Chahinkapa Zoo” (28) becomes “heavy with the ancient life.” Card playing is ceremonialized in “The King of Owls” (29). The ritual of the buffalo hunt is memorialized in “The Red Sleep of Beasts” (80). Erdrich assumes the thoughtful and emotional voice of a transforming antelope, in “The Strange People” (68). The devilish “Windigo” of Chippewa pantheon is personified (79). The myth of the bear and seduction is mixed with the Greek naming of stars in the four part poem, “Night Sky” (33).
Another sky image demonstrates the mixture of cultural images in the first stanza of “Turtle Mountain Reservation,” dedicated to “Pat Gourneau, my grandfather”:
The heron makes a cross flying low over the marsh. Its heart is an old compass pointing off in four directions. It drags the world along, the world it becomes.
The cross is a standard symbol of Christianity, recognizing the Roman Catholic influence among the Chippewa. The sign is deconstructed, though, by identifying it with the center of the sacred compass or hoop used by many Native culture groups. The pronoun “it” is deliberately vague, obscuring whether Christianity or sacred tradition is changing the world, or, ambiguous, perhaps, because both cultures are adapting rituals and surviving.
Erdrich adapts literary structures, erasing the Western distinction between poetry and prose. This blurring is a linguistic reflection of tribal communities where sacred beliefs are expressed without regard to literary structure but with particular attention to ritual retelling and setting. Erdrich's mixture of literary genres is evident in the lyrical imagery of her novels and the prose of the Potchikoo sections of the poetry collections. This ritualistic storytelling functions in a communal sense, as tribal histories and sacred stories are recounted in collective settings. The trickster stories have specific implications for individuals as the listeners become socialized to particular moral behaviors through the antics of Potchikoo.
In Jacklight, “Old Man Potchikoo” has four parts relating his mortal existence: “The Birth of Potchikoo,” “Potchikoo Marries,” “How Potchikoo Got Old,” and “The Death of Potchikoo.” In Baptism of Desire the trickster continues his journey in the group of pieces titled “Potchikoo's Life After Death” and containing: “How They Don't Let Potchikoo into Heaven,” “Where Potchikoo Goes Next,” “Potchikoo's Detour,” “Potchikoo Greets Josette,” “Potchikoo Restored,” “Potchikoo's Mean Twin,” and “How Josette Takes Care of It.”
The potato boy, Potchikoo, is a trickster and his narrative enters the mythic realm. The insemination of his mother by the sun and other events and characteristics originate in sacred Chippewa origin stories. Erdrich puts a new twist on this traditional tale, blending in the various cultural influences of Catholicism and current environment, raising contemporary ethical issues. The apparent contradictions and the intermingling of the concrete world with a mythic universe in Erdrich's rendering of trickster tales lead to moral questions rather than issues of realism. Trickster's life beyond death and his returns to the natural world suggest endurance and survival.18 Through humor, trickster draws attention to inappropriate morals. Trickster humor also socializes the individual about bodily functions; trickster's bawdy excesses are so fantastic that the subject is no longer embarrassing. Absurd consequences result from immoral behavior. Powerful institutions, particularly Western religions, are the butt of Potchikoo's humor.
Erdrich confronts the issue of believability as the narrative begins. A tentative verb: “Potchikoo claims that his father is the sun” (emphasis added) suggests that the premise is implausible. The teller admits that the story is unbelievable but still asks the audience to continue to pay attention, as if each reader were hearing the story told aloud.
You don't have to believe this, I'm not asking you to. …
There was a very pretty Chippewa girl working in a field once. She was digging potatoes for a farmer someplace around Pembina when suddenly the wind blew her dress up around her face and wrapped her apron so tightly around her arms that she couldn't move. She lay helplessly in the dust with her potato sack, this poor girl, and as she lay there she felt the sun shining down very steadily upon her.
Then she felt something else. You know what. I don't have to say it.
The outcome of this encounter is the birth of Potchikoo, a boy who looks “just like a potato.” Trickster demonstrates that actions have consequences. The moral is verbalized: “‘That's what she gets for playing loose in the potato fields,’ they said.” The girl is not in the historical past but wears an apron and hangs clothes on a clothesline, both modern images; Erdrich ritually retells the old story in a more contemporary mode.
In the “Potchikoo Marries” section, he takes a train to Minneapolis where he falls in love with a tobacco store wooden Indian, Josette, a wonderful play with the Noble Savage stereotype. Potchikoo sets his beloved on fire, then drowns her, trying to extinguish her fire in a lake. Nevertheless, she is baptismally reborn and he marries her. This urban adventure to find a mate correlates to the archetypal hero's adventure and return home. Potchikoo's cultural ignorance of wooden incarnations and his lust for Josette, however, nearly lead to disaster.
Potchikoo gets old with the help of Josette and the social mores of the Catholic Church:
As a young man, Potchikoo sometimes embarrassed his wife by breaking wind during Holy Mass. It was for this reason that Josette whittled him a little plug out of ash wood and told him to put it in that place before he entered Saint Ann's church.
During a sermon on the Ascension, Potchikoo inflates, floats up in the cathedral, and explodes.
Holy Mass was canceled for a week so the church could be aired out, but to this day a faint scent still lingers and Potchikoo, sadly enough was shriveled by his sudden collapse and flight through the air. For when Josette picked him up to bring home, she found that he was now wrinkled and dry like an old man.
There are several trickster morals in this episode: do not unnaturally suppress natural body functions, do not aspire to unnatural bodily functions like flying, beware of taking religion too seriously or of submitting to your spouse. The natural consequences can be disastrous. Ritualization of Catholicism is undermined by the ritualization of this trickster story.
Potchikoo dies from infidelity in a metaphor of a heart attack, but, in Baptism of Desire, his soul continues. St. Peter does not let Potchikoo enter heaven because he is an Indian, so he finds Indian heaven. Since there are only chokecherries and venison to eat, he begins wandering around and finds hell—where people are chained to old Sears Roebuck catalogues. He returns to Josette where in an excessive sexual episode “he found that his favorite part of himself was charred black, and thin as a burnt twig” (55). He recovers by dipping himself in wax but then becomes so large that he must carry himself in a wheelbarrow. He has an escapade with a Mrs. B (perhaps an obscure allusion to lascivious Mr. B of Clarissa) that restores him to normal, and he returns to Josette.
Potchikoo has a bad twin who raises a ruckus until Potchikoo is jailed and the twin exposed. Josette tempts the twin with icons and appetites. He disappears and Josette saves the remains of Potchikoo in her purse.
The trickster cycle of Potchikoo warns against sexual excess, satirizes organized religion and popular culture, addresses the duality of good and evil, and gives power and knowledge to Josette. Erdrich, playing the trickster as author, connects the mythic and natural world with images of trains, radios, catalogues, churches, and tobacco stores. She ritually redefines the trickster with these modern images, through storytelling, and by injecting individual ethics into the communal realm of such storytelling.
Erdrich's poetry raises questions of genre, meaning, culture, and language. She addresses these questions from many angles. Her personal poems are consistent with canonical expectations of lyric poetry, although incorporating her Native experience. Ritualistic poems include religious Euro-American and mythic Chippewa expressions and questions. Narrative poems tell stories, create characters, and, finally, abandon the conventional structure of poetry for the straight narrative of the trickster, Potchikoo. This flouting of traditionally defined “poetry” leads naturally to the condensed language of Erdrich's fiction while recalling the traditions of an oral culture. As a poet, Erdrich demonstrates how the individual voice presents a collective people through culture and ritual.
Erdrich's first novel, Love Medicine, received the National Book Award in 1984. Her subsequent novels The Beet Queen (1986), Tracks (1988), and The Bingo Palace (1994) have garnered much critical attention. Love Medicine was re-issued in 1993 in a “New and Expanded Edition.” Tales of Burning Love (1996) continues the North Dakota saga. Additionally, Erdrich has published a collection of essays, The Blue Jay's Dance: A Birth Year (1995). She is listed as co-author with Michael Dorris for The Crown of Columbus (1991).
“Anishinaabe,” “Chippewa,” and “Ojibwa” are terms that refer to the same peoples. “Anishinaabe” is more historical and traditional. Although Erdrich's more recent work has used the term “Ojibwa,” she refers to herself in her early writings as “Chippewa.” That term will be used generally in this paper.
Joseph Bruchac, “Whatever Is Really Yours: An Interview with Louise Erdrich,” in Survival This Way: Interviews with American Indian Poets, ed. Joseph Bruchac, (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1987), p. 82.
For examples of anthropological criticisms see the following: Catherine M. Catt, “Ancient Myth in Modern America: The Trickster in the Fiction of Louise Erdrich,” Platte Valley Review 19 (Winter 1991): 71-81; Susan Hegeman, “Native American ‘Texts’ and the Problem of Authenticity,” American Quarterly 41.2 (June 1989): 265-83; Debra C. Holt, “Transformation and Continuance: Native American Tradition in the Novels of Louise Erdrich,” in Entering the Nineties: The North American Experience, ed. Thomas E. Schirer, Proceedings of The Native American Studies Conference at Lake Superior University, 27-28 October 1988 (Sault Ste. Marie: Lake Superior University Press, 1991), pp. 149-61; James McKenzie, “Lipsha's Good Road Home: The Revival of Chippewa Culture in Love Medicine,” American Indian Culture and Research Journal 10.3 (1986): 53-63; David Mitchell, “A Bridge to the Past: Cultural Hegemony and the Native American Past in Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine,” Entering the Nineties, pp. 162-70; Lydia Agnes Schultz, “Fragments and Ojibwe Stories: Narrative Strategies in Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine,” College Literature 18 (October 1991): 80-95; Jennifer Sergi, “Storytelling: Tradition and Preservation in Louise Erdrich's Tracks,” World Literature Today 66 (Spring 1992): 279-82; James D. Stripes, “The Problem(s) of (Anishinaabe) History in the Fiction of Louise Erdrich: Voices and Contexts,” The Wicazo Sa Review 7 (Fall 1991): 26-33.
Bruchac, “Whatever Is Really Yours” (note 3 above), p. 84.
Ibid.; Jan George, “An Interview with Louise Erdrich,” North Dakota Quarterly 56 (Winter 1988): 246.
Louise Erdrich, Baptism of Desire (New York: Harper and Row, 1989), p. 48. Hereafter cited by page numbers in parentheses in the text.
A. Gettner, “Review of Baptism of Desire,” Choice 27 (June 1990): 1824.
I use the word “myth” to mean sacred texts which a people believe to contain basic truths. See Mircea Eliade, Myth and Reality (New York: Harper and Row, 1963).
Michel Benamou, “The Concept of Marginality in Ethnopoetics,” in Minority Languages and Literature, ed. Dexter Fisher, (New York: Modern Language Association, 1977), p. 152.
See Victor Turner, The Ritual Process (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1977).
Bruchac, “Whatever Is Really Yours” (note 3 above), p. 81.
Helen Jaskoski, “Review of Baptism of Desire,” Studies in American Indian Literatures 3.4 (Winter 1991): 55.
Robert C. Lamm and Neal M. Cross, The Humanities in Western Culture, vol. 2 (Dubuque, Iowa: William C. Brown, 1988), p. 362.
Erdrich attended Dartmouth 1971-76 and was creative writer-in-residence in the early 1980s.
Louise Erdrich, Jacklight (New York: Henry Holt, 1984), p. 73. Hereafter cited by page numbers in parentheses in the text.
George, “Interview with Louise Erdrich” (note 6 above), p. 243.
Catt, “Ancient Myth” (note 4 above), p. 73.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8475
SOURCE: Fast, Robin Riley. “Resistant History: Revising the Captivity Narrative in ‘Captivity’ and Blackrobe: Isaac Jogues.” American Indian Culture and Research Journal 23, no. 1 (1999): 69-86.
[In the following essay, Fast compares literary treatments of colonial Indian captivity stories, as represented in selected works of Erdrich and Maurice Kenny.]
Many contemporary American Indian writers are engaged in the shared project of complicating and revising the received history of the Americas. Kimberly Blaeser reminds us that survival is at stake here when she says that “the creation and interpretations of histories have … functioned directly as the justifications for possession or dispossession.” In “Captivity” and Blackrobe: Isaac Jogues respectively, Louise Erdrich and Maurice Kenny reread histories of captivity among the Indians recorded by the colonizers. Their revisionary agendas necessarily foreground interpretive conflicts and draw attention to cultural and linguistic dialogism. As Blaeser observes regarding Gerald Vizenor's writings about history, these poems “force recognition of the already embattled visions all readers bring to the text[s].”1 In doing so, the poems become implicitly ironic, as their Native authors turn to colonizers' writings about Indians as sources of inspiration for their own work. As they imagine alternative readings of the European-written accounts, they both highlight the fact that written American history still belongs almost entirely to non-Natives and resist that domination.
Erdrich begins with a story that is virtually a cornerstone of popular American history. Mary Rowlandson, a Puritan minister's wife, was captured in the Narragansett attack on Lancaster, Massachusetts, on February 1, 1675-76, in what became known as King Philip's War, after the English name of its Wampanoag leader, Metacomet. She traveled with her captors for almost twelve weeks, until she was ransomed and returned to Boston. Her account of her ordeal, first published in 1682, went through numerous editions into the middle of the nineteenth century (and has been republished several times in the twentieth). Its full title conveys Rowlandson's intent and some of the impact her story must have had on early readers: The Sovereignty and Goodness of God Together, with the Faithfulness of His Promises Displayed; Being a Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson. Later American editions (and the 1682 London edition) modified the title to deemphasize the “sovereignty … of God” and foreground the dangers encountered by the captive; thus several editions from the late eighteenth century are entitled A Narrative of the Captivity, Sufferings and Removes of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, Who Was Taken Prisoner by the Indians with Several Others; and Treated in the Most Barbarous and Cruel Manner by Those Vile Savages: With Many Other Remarkable Events during her Travels.2
Not only, as its titles suggest, did Mrs. Rowlandson's narrative serve important cultural purposes for generations of European Americans, but it was the first publication in English of what was to become an enormously popular genre of American writing, right up to and beyond the “closing of the frontier” in the 1890s. The genre produced numerous true accounts, which fostered the fascination with “Indian captivity” that has marked American fiction since its beginnings.3
In her poem “Captivity,” Louise Erdrich draws on Rowlandson's language to reinterpret not just this narrative—it is not absolutely necessary to read the poem's voice as that of Rowlandson herself—but possibilities perhaps inherent in many such experiences and accounts. While retaining the point of view of a white woman, Erdrich creates an alternative version of the captivity narrative, a version that, among other differences, contrasts to Rowlandson's as it replaces assertions of moral and theological certainty (Rowlandson's bulwark against the nearly total physical uncertainty she faced—and perhaps also against skeptics in the New England community) with a pervasive, destabilizing uncertainty. The poem makes transparently clear a contemporary Indian writer's dialogue with diverse traditions and heightens the reader's awareness of the generally suppressed dialogic potential of Rowlandson's account; these effects simultaneously multiply the layers of meaning in Erdrich's own text.
Erdrich's poem begins with an epigraph attributed to Mary Rowlandson: “‘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.’”4 This sentence refers to one of Rowlandson's most constant concerns—food—and introduces a theme that surfaces only rarely in the Narrative, sexual fear. She twice expresses wonder and gratitude that she was never imposed upon sexually. In the ninth Remove,5 a little less than halfway through the account, she remarks upon “the goodness of God to me, in that, though I was gone from home, and met with all sorts of Indians, and those I had no knowledge of, and there being no Christian soul near me, yet not one of them offered the least imaginable miscarriage to me” (p. 33). And again, in the twentieth Remove, near her book's end: “I have been in the midst of those roaring lions and savage bears that feared neither God nor man nor the devil, by night and day, alone and in company, sleeping all sorts together, and yet not one of them ever offered me the least abuse of unchastity to me in word or action. Though some are ready to say, I speak it for my own credit; But I speak it in the presence of God, and to his Glory” (pp. 70-71).
In short, the epigraph does not appear in Rowlandson's Narrative.6 Even the epigraph, then, raises questions about history, truth, and their uses (just as seventeenth- and eighteenth-century changes in the title draw attention to interpretive questions). Of course it is possible that this sentence is attributed to Mary Rowlandson in some source other than the Narrative. It seems more likely that Erdrich, who plays freely in the poem itself with incidents and language from the Narrative, is beginning with an intentionally ironic invention: ironic in that, if we accept the epigraph at face value (as most readers must), then we have begun our reading by replicating earlier readers' likely acceptance of Rowlandson's assumptions. Further, our subsequent recognition of ironic complexity in the poem itself must be shadowed by our having granted credence to a questionable text. The questions thus raised by the epigraph parallel questions that the poem differently raises about Rowlandson's and Erdrich's accounts; the epigraph itself becomes part of the poem's project of destabilizing received history.
From the beginning to the end of her Narrative, Mary Rowlandson maintains that her ordeal was a punishment and a test sent to her by God, and thus a sign of God's goodness and concern for “his people” who, so chastised, might be moved to accept divine grace. In this scheme of things, the Indians become agents of the devil, and even though she describes many individual kindnesses to her, her account never really breaks free of this conviction. Even her many references to Quannopin, her master, “the best friend that I had of an Indian, both in cold and hunger” (p. 37), are always in tension with all-encompassing references to “the heathen,” “pagans,” and “our enemies.” Thus a major change in Erdrich's rendition is to focus the captive's attention on one particular individual and to trace the developing complexity of her response to him. The poem's first incident establishes this focus as it revises one from the Narrative. In Rowlandson's text, the sixteenth Remove begins as follows: “We began this remove with wading over Baquag river. The water was … very swift and so cold I thought it would have cut me in sunder. … The Indians stood laughing to see me staggering, but in my distress the Lord gave me experience of the truth and goodness of [His] promise” (p. 49). In contrast, Erdrich's poem begins with the recollection of being rescued from the icy stream by an Indian man.
The poem's second verse paragraph illustrates the frightening disorientation that the captive experiences. It first displays the dichotomous thinking fundamental to Puritan theology and animosity toward indigenous peoples: the speaker characterizes the unknown pursuers of the Indians and their captives either as “God's agents” (colonial troops) or “pitch devils” (another party of Indians). The dichotomy may be slightly blurred when she tells that her child was fed by an Indian woman. That this action has at least jostled her assumptions is implied in the section's final line: “The forest closed, the light deepened.” This ambiguity forecasts the pained ambivalence of the poem's ending.
The sexual theme introduced in the epigraph culminates in the middle of the poem. The speaker recalls that although she intended to starve rather than accept food from her captor, when he killed a pregnant deer, he shared the meat of the fawn with her:
It was so tender, the bones like the stems of flowers, that I followed where he took me.
After that the birds mocked.
He did not notice God's wrath.
In the empty white space between verse paragraphs, something unspeakable happens. In the Narrative Rowlandson, always hungry, does not resolve to starve; she does fear God's wrath, but for her own earlier failings. The Narrative does include this passage in the fourteenth Remove: “As we went along they killed a deer with a young one in her. They gave me a piece of the fawn and it was so young and tender that one might eat the bones as well as the flesh, and yet I thought it was very good” (p. 47). Within the poem, revision proceeds as the captive apparently realizes that sin fails to produce its expected consequences, that what she sees as obvious signs of divine wrath has no effect on the Indian. The certainties on which she has relied for emotional and spiritual survival are crumbling (the same certainties that were used to justify the expansion of the English colonies and later of the United States). And this, not the implied sexual transgression, is what is most devastating.
The captive is rescued, but unlike the historical Rowlandson, she does not claim to find in Scripture the assurance that would sanctify her experience and reinforce her belief. She prays, but her prayer is to no orthodox avail: rather than being reassured of her place within the Puritan community, at night she recalls her exclusion from the Indians' “circle.” Here is the worst of this captive's experience: she has been rescued into the knowledge of unremitting loneliness. (Perhaps this depiction of loneliness implies, too, something of what led a considerable number of white captives to remain by choice with the Indians, even when offered “redemption.”7) She continues, remembering how he “led his company in the noise / until I could no longer bear / the thought of how I was.” Beating with a stick on the earth, she “begg[ed] it to open / to admit me / … and feed me honey from the rock.” These, the poem's final lines, reveal a terrible ambivalence. Twice the words seem to invite one reading, then imply another, and this seeming invitation reveals the cultural heteroglossia and dialogism of the poem: what the speaker can “no longer bear” is not the “noise,” but her isolation; she begs the earth not to swallow her (and her presumed sin), but to unite her with “him”—and to “feed [her] honey from the rock.”
The allusion to Psalm 81 echoes Rowlandson's reflection on her experience, near the end of her Narrative: “I remember in the night season how the other day I was in the midst of thousands of enemies and nothing but death before me. It was hard work to persuade myself that ever I should be satisfied with bread again. But now we are fed with the finest of the wheat, and (as I may say) with honey out of the rock” (p. 78—emphasis in the original). In Rowlandson's account, the allusion implies that God has rewarded her submission to his ways. In the poem, it is virtually blasphemous, a fitting culmination to the subversive potential Erdrich has detected in the captive's response.
Having lived with the “enemy” and returned to Christian civilization, Erdrich's captive knows herself to be effectively excluded from both worlds, her former certainties undone, the possibility of a new way of seeing and being decisively cut off. Perhaps a similar intimation stirs below the surface, as Rowlandson continues, after the passage just quoted, “O the wonderful power of God that mine eyes have seen, affording matter enough for my thoughts to run in, that when others are sleeping mine eyes are weeping” (p. 78). Both Susan Howe and Mitchell Breitwieser suggest that such lines adumbrate an estrangement similar to that imagined in “Captivity,” though not grounded in sexual experience as Erdrich implies.
Howe emphasizes Rowlandson's status as a Puritan woman and implies that she might have told a different story had she not been subject to the requirements of the New England theocracy. On the day of the Narragansetts' attack she finds Rowlandson “look[ing] out at the absence of Authority and see[ing] that we are all alone”; “abducted from the structure of experience[,] Rowlandson wraps herself in separateness for warmth,” and to defend herself against “[l]imitlessness, where all illusion of volition, all individual identity may be transformed—assimilated.” Back in the English colony, “Perhaps she told her story to assure herself and her community that she was a woman who feared God and eschewed evil.” Such persuasion would have been necessary if, in her memory, “captives and captors … [were] walking together beyond … Western culture.”8
In a similar vein, Breitwieser finds Rowlandson's Narrative an “intense and unremitting representation … of experience as a collision between cultural ideology and the real,” a “narrative … which fails to annul the powers of anomaly.” For Rowlandson, he argues.
experience came to mean disconnection from enclosing contexts, not only from the life she enjoyed before the war and the Algonquian life amidst which she survived, but also from the social reality constructed in the aftermath of the war, a labor of construction to which her narrative was supposed to be an important contribution.
He argues that “despite her best intentions,” in the course of her writing “things get loose or come forward that … signal the vitality of a distinctly non-Puritan view of her experience,” and thus her text “allows various anomalous glimpses, not only of her own emotions, but also of her captors.” Rowlandson's narrative thus becomes, “an account of experience that breaks through or outdistances her own and her culture's dominant means of representation.”9
Howe's and Breitwieser's readings complement Erdrich's poem by arguing that Rowlandson's text reveals traces of suppressed doubt and a disruptive vision. As Erdrich, Howe, and Breitwieser look through the surface of Puritan didacticism, they illuminate the dialogism hidden in the Narrative: Prompted by their insights, we can recognize that even the Biblical quotations expose heteroglossia and dialogic potential, as Rowlandson struggles to bring her experiences into line with her culture's most authoritative language.10
Erdrich cannot have read the Narrative without noting Rowlandson's unending search for food and for shelter against the cold and dark; her poem depicts the captive as engaged in a parallel search for spiritual and emotional shelter. One of the poem's most powerful dialogic reversals is its suggestion that she might have been able to find such shelter in the alien world of the Indians. Further, Erdrich recognizes that the need for shelter is the need for inclusion, for community. The historic Mary Rowlandson sought inclusion by reading the Bible she'd been given by an Indian, searching out opportunities to see her children and other English captives, and anticipating her eventual rescue. Perhaps prompted in part by passages in Rowlandson's text that record changes in attitude—toward food, tobacco, herself—Erdrich envisions for the captive an elusive opportunity for integration with a Native community (perhaps prompted too, as Breitwieser suggests, by evidence of Rowlandson's economic integration, as she knits and sews and is paid for her work).
The history Erdrich constructs, in dialogic response to Rowlandson's Narrative, is one not of rescue and return, however problematical that might have been, to the colonists' community; rather she tells of a lost opportunity for a new vision of relationship and community. One might ask whether Erdrich's history is too easy—what about the terrible suffering that Rowlandson and other captives endured? But Erdrich does not deny them. Once Rowlandson's name appears in the epigraph, the story she told is unavoidably part of the poem's dialogical struggle, even the focus of that struggle, grounded as it is in the question whether the history might reveal more truths than those Rowlandson could see or acknowledge.
In Blackrobe: Isaac Jogues, Mohawk poet Maurice Kenny, too, exposes the contested nature of history and vision. Like Erdrich's poem, Kenny's poetic sequence engages multidimensional language in dialogic discourse that recreates the political and interpretive conflicts recorded and embodied in historical accounts. Kenny complicates the project and its effects further by recounting his history through the diverse voices of French and Dutch colonists in North America, the Jesuit missionary Isaac Jogues, and Mohawks who encountered him. The history thus becomes a web of stories in dialogue across cultural, geographic, and temporal borders, as Kenny shows us how diverse voices created meanings and realities in the past and continue to do so now as well.
Isaac Jogues' story (documented in his own Narrative and letters, as well as by others) may not be as widely known as Mary Rowlandson's. However, it is evidently quite familiar to Mohawk people. “For generations now,” Joseph Bruchac says, “the Mohawk people have been told they must feel guilty about killing this holy man and approaching that story is like cauterizing an old wound for Kenny.”11 Like Rowlandson's story, Jogues' represents that major theme in European American versions of the history of North America, the colonizers' dedication to a transcendent mission, and their sufferings at the hands of indigenous aliens. Indeed, the pervasive piety of both Rowlandson and Jogues affords Erdrich and Kenny alike an opportunity to expose the Europeans' sense of divinely established prerogative, and to contest the Christian construction of colonial experience as a conflict between “saints” and “savages.”
Jogues arrived in New France in 1636 and joined a mission to the Hurons in southern Ontario. In June 1642 he was sent to Quebec to obtain supplies, and in August, on their return trip, he and his party of forty, mostly Hurons, were attacked by a larger force of Mohawks. Jogues' account of his subsequent captivity graphically details the tortures he witnessed and endured, while it reveals his dedication to his priestly work of instructing, baptizing, absolving, and comforting both the Huron and the French captives and his readiness for martyrdom. In the course of this captivity he may have been adopted into the Wolf clan; in any case, he was sheltered by an older woman of that clan who had recently lost a son and whom he called “aunt.”12 Brought eventually into the vicinity of the Dutch colony at Renselaerwyck (Albany, New York), he became the object of unsuccessful Dutch efforts to ransom him; finally, after Jogues had persuaded himself that by fleeing he could better serve God, the Dutch helped him to escape. He returned to France, but only to recover his strength and secure permission to return to Canada, which he did in the spring of 1644.
Back in Montreal, he accepted an assignment to establish a mission among the Mohawks, with whom a tenuous peace agreement had recently been made. He set out in May 1646 as an ambassador from the French. The Mohawks “welcomed [him] as a friend”; he dispatched his ambassadorial duties by exchanging greetings and gifts, then “turned to his spiritual avocations,”13 but the Indians pressed him to leave, and he turned back to Canada in mid-June. Eager to return to the Mohawks, he was delayed until September by rumors that the peace had failed. On this final journey, Jogues, his assistant, Jean de La Lande, and Otrihoure, a Huron envoy, were captured by a Mohawk war party and taken to Ossernenon, the town where Jogues had previously been a captive. As had happened before, he was told that he would die. Though the Turtle and Wolf clans were opposed, members of the Bear clan were determined to kill the missionaries. (Kenny describes the Bear clan as “holding a strong religious persuasion” [p. 68], perhaps suggesting an additional motive.) On October 18, 1646, while a council of Mohawk leaders was meeting in another town to determine the prisoners' fate, he was summoned to eat in a lodge of the Bear clan and was killed on the way. De La Lande was killed within a day. A letter from the Dutch governor indicates that some of the Mohawks believed that religious paraphernalia left behind by Jogues in June had blighted their corn.14 Jogues was canonized in 1930.
Kenny's Blackrobe tells not only of Jogues' life and death, but also of the French in North America and the Mohawk people—and of the rifts among the Mohawks perhaps occasioned, or at least aggravated, by European colonization, trade, and proselytizing. The sequence is framed with history and prophecy. Two poems, titled “Peacemaker” (pp. 3, 5) and “Aiionwatha” (p. 6), tell of the establishment of the Iroquois confederacy for peace and protection. An ominous note is sounded, though, by the first “Wolf” poem (p. 4), in which the forest is “trampled” by “heavy footsteps.” “Little People” (p. 7) seems to identify the intruder as a Christian priest who enters the woods and fails to acknowledge the presence of the little people, protectors and benefactors of the Iroquois. The poem which follows, “Wolf (Snakes)” (p. 8), intensifies the sense of foreboding as it alludes to “the Mohawk Prophecy” of two devouring snakes, Canada and the United States (p. 67). These first poems, then, both establish the context of traditional values and ways of life, and foreshadow the impending cultural disruptions.
In the body of the work, Kenny creates direct speech, journal entries, letters, commentaries, and accounts by Jogues, individual Mohawks, and observers of or participants in the French colonial effort. Thus we read statements by Cardinal Richelieu, the explorer La Salle, and the Jesuit Father Superior of New France, Vimont, as well as letters from Jogues to his mother and an assessment of the missionary by a Dutch official, Arendt Van Corlear; there are also recollections from Jean de La Lande and Hoantteniate, “Jogues' Adopted ‘Wolf Brother.’” Kenny follows a basically chronological order, from Jogues' eager but somewhat fearful first voyage to Canada (“how happy I am … that now / I will have the opportunity / of saving these lost souls for God” [p. 10]; “I shall / manage this boat! This storm! / This fear! God is in my heart.” [p. 11]) to his death. However, he condenses and somewhat conflates Jogues' several sojourns and two captivities so that the sequence not only tells the French priest's story but also evokes cultural conflicts and explores the meanings of Jogues' entry into the Native world. A number of poems dramatize a difference in views and feelings between “Bear” and “Wolf ‘Aunt’”; far from simply illuminating the Jesuit's impact, these poems deepen the depiction of the Mohawk people, whom he wished to convert.
The sequence concludes as Kenny completes the frame of history and prophecy: first, two later historical Mohawk converts speak, in poems that bear their names. “Tekakwitha (Kateri)” (p. 57) combines full commitment to the new faith with alienation from the earth, the Mohawk community, and the flesh; “Aroniateka” (p. 58), who also speaks in “Hendrik” (p. 59) using his European name, suggests a return, perhaps after death, to older ways. Then “Turtle” (p. 60) offers a prophecy about the colonizers' descendants. This poem is somewhat ambivalent, yet it represents, I think, an effort to be hopeful: “Someday they will come / to learn … not to teach” (Kenny's ellipsis). However, it is followed by “Rokwaho” (p. 61), dated 1978, which returns to history and grief:15
From his prayers flowed death of salmon and trout in mercury pools. … settlers followed soldiers behind hooded priests.
In his pouch he carried raisins to cure the influenza his people brought to the shores of the lake. … My hair and tongue are cut!
Only after so painfully testifying to the ongoing consequences of colonialism can Kenny bring his book to end with serenity and unambiguous hope. He does so in a poem dated 1979 (p. 62), in which Rokwaho speaks directly to Kenny, reminding him that though “we do not speak [the Peacemaker's] name / in an act of respect,” still
His thought moves among us through the pine, and his power.(16)
This final poem reveals most clearly Kenny's commitment not only to historical reclamation, but also to continuity and survival.
The struggle for survival is embodied in the dialogic contests of the poems that make up the book's core, particularly those that juxtapose French and Indian voices and the differing perspectives of Wolf “Aunt” and Bear. A number of poems tellingly counterpoint Jogues' voice to those of Indians with whom he came into contact. In “First Meeting with Kiotsaeton” (p. 19), Jogues responds (inwardly) to the Mohawk chief sent both to welcome the Jesuits as visitors and persuade them not to stay (p. 67). The poem begins in the vein of exoticism with which Kenny has already had Jogues, in his journal, describe the Hurons (“Les Hures,” p. 14). “Like some marvelous bird,” Kiotsaeton “stood on the river bank in plummage [sic], … in rainbow colors.” The Natives' physical presence is powerful: Kiotsaeton's “air of royalty stunned my sensibilities”; and Jogues fears the motives of his warriors, “whose faces—on which I can discern / paint!—margin the woods.”17 Jogues “exchange[s] gifts of food” with Kiotsaeton, but he resists recognizing Native prerogative: “I / represent the French crown! / and shall not be … denied my route”; secure in his knowledge that he is “son of God and priest / of Christ's blood,” he comes away from this meeting determined to prevail. The following poem, “Kiotsaeton,” gives us the Mohawk's speech to Jogues (p. 20). He counters European claims with indigenous authority when he begins, “through my lips / the Nation speaks.” He offers Jogues reassurance and hospitality, but also defines his people's terms: they “will respect your customs / and invite you into the lodge / if you maintain respect for ours.” Placing this poem after the preceding one throws into relief Jogues' failure to accept the requirement of mutual respect. These two poems together highlight his (and the Church's) breach of the rules of the traditional culture, and prepare us for his part in the fulfillment of the prophecy of “Wolf” (p. 8) when he becomes in effect an accessory to the devouring snake.
Jogues' perspective is next voiced in “Approaching the Mohawk Village,” an excerpt from his “Journal” (p. 24). Defying advice, he “enter[s] the village” holding his “silver cross … upright” before him.18 The rest of this “journal” entry demonstrates that converting the Indians would in essence mean possessing them:
Iroquois, give me your children, .....Iroquois give me your chieftains. Give me your pride and arrogance. Give me your wildness. Give me your souls for God and your sins for hell.
Further, a “Marginal Note” implies material wealth to be had, if not by Jogues then by others, for he comments on the “Richly furred / beaver pelts” at the lodge entrances.
Using the church's language in such a compromised circumstance, Kenny has already drawn attention to its heteroglossia and conveyed his own dialogic intention. In “Bear” (p. 25), the poem that immediately follows (and the first of five so titled), he draws attention to the dialogic struggle between Jogues and the Indians. The priest had offered “French raisins / to cure your influenza” (p. 24); now Bear begins angrily, “What do I want with his raisins!” His challenge continues as he claims that “[t]here is blood on that cross he wears” and that Jogues' rosary “beads are / the spittle of a snake.” That the Mohawk's objection is political, too, is apparent: “Didn't he come / from Huron country[?]” Bear seems to demonstrate a limitation analogous to Jogues' when he questions the humanity of one who doesn't conform to his own cultural expectations: “What kind / of human is this who does not hunt for his own food[?]” Then he voices his primary concern, one certainly not limited to his own culture: “If he would leave / the children alone … children make men … / I would not interfere” (Kenny's ellipses). In fact, Jogues' Narrative indicates that another French captive, Rene Goupil, was killed precisely because, “taking off the cap of a child in the hut where he lived, he made him make the sign of the cross on his breast and forehead” (pp. 30-31). An act of piety and love to a devout young European Catholic, this gesture evidently conveyed dreadful possibilities to the child's Mohawk grandfather; Goupil might be said to have died of cultural heteroglossia.
Bear, I think, can be read as one member of the Bear clan or as several speaking in succession; he might perhaps be read as speaking for his clan. The five “Bear” poems give this voice an importance almost matching that of Jogues. Bear speaks next in two consecutive pairs of poems that juxtapose his words to those of Wolf “Aunt” (the name Kenny gives to the Wolf clan elder who sheltered Jogues). In the first pair, the speakers justify their actions: Wolf “Aunt,” her “adoption” of “Blackrobe” (“I had the right to choose. / It is customary,” p. 37), and Bear, his anticipated killing of Jogues (“Our corn withers! … We will starve / if this Blackrobe remains,” p. 38).
In the second pair, each tells the story of Jogues' death. Wolf “Aunt” speaks from inside her lodge (pp. 39-41). She describes her efforts to persuade the priest to leave the village and to instruct him in propriety and respect, her hope that “he would learn our ways,” his obstinacy, and finally the moment of his death: “they came to the door, / called him by name,” he stepped out of the lodge, and she “heard a thump and … knew / his body crumpled under the club.” Bear (pp. 43-45) recounts Jogues' offenses, focusing on “his preaching, / his determined wish to change, … his power to strike out a past / that has taken centuries to build”; he also admits his own dislike of “the hook of his nose,” an ironic echo of Jogues' “journal” description of the Hurons (p. 14) and further evidence that Kenny sees these figures as complex and flawed—there are no paragons in Blackrobe. After affirming that the Mohawks had “carr[ied] out the law” by offering “sanctuary” and “hospitality … to satisfy the demands / of the Seneca,” Bear recalls the night of Jogues' death: his own preparations, how he and two friends summoned Jogues and heard “his aunt's … arguments,” her last effort to protect the priest. “Then the clubs rained upon his head.” Afterwards, Bear “returned to [his] lodge,” where “the doctors purged [his] flesh / with burning cedar smoke,” and he “awaited the Seneca runners.” Mentioning the Senecas again, Bear alludes to the dissension not only among the three Mohawk clans, but also among the peoples of the Iroquois League over how to deal with the French; Kenny thus silently reminds us that by killing Jogues, the Bear clan members preempted the right of the council to decide on an appropriate, communal resolution. These paired poems spoken by Wolf “Aunt” and Bear powerfully demonstrate the dialogism of history. Both accounts are true, and both Bear and Wolf “Aunt” justify their attitudes and actions in terms of their culture's traditional expectations, yet obviously their emphases and implications differ, even while each leads to the same conclusion, Jogues' death.
If Wolf “Aunt” and Bear reveal a dialogics of conflict within Mohawk culture, an analogous dialogic tension is evident within European culture, for Kenny gives us not only poems from Jogues' perspective, but others in the voices of more secularly oriented Europeans. “The French Informal Report” (p. 51) is representative. It shares the Natives' assessment of Jogues as a fool; it also shares with the fourth “Bear” poem (p. 50), which precedes it, a view of the commercial-political agenda as primary for the French in North America. Bear states that “The French … demand retribution, / but will settle for beaver pelts, … and an opened gate to the Mohawk / Valley.” And the “Informal Report” rages that Jogues “foiled our plans. The Dutch laugh / in our face, and the English frigates / approach New Amsterdam harbor.” Ironically, Bear is the speaker who most unambiguously honors the courage of La Lande and Jogues. In the fifth “Bear” poem (p. 52), his last word, he acknowledges that “It is that very courage, bravery / in men that I fear most.”
In Blackrobe: Isaac Jogues, Maurice Kenny revises the documentary record in a number of significant ways, each of which foregrounds the inherent heteroglossia and intensifies the dialogism of the history—or histories—and the telling. He does so, perhaps most importantly, by giving voice to Native speakers who've been “heard,” if at all in writing, in records written by the French and their successors; in so doing, he implicitly counterpoints and revalues the oral and the written. Conversely, he barely alludes to a major theme of Jogues' Narrative, the excruciating tortures suffered by the Mohawks' Indian and French prisoners. This may have been a choice he felt necessary if he was to lead his audience to think beyond stereotypes; it may also be appropriate to his focus on his Mohawk characters' (and ancestors') motives.
Kenny also complicates the position and characterization of Isaac Jogues by suggesting his implication in worldly motives. First, there is the suggestion that Jogues may not have escaped complicity in the French pursuit of wealth. His “journal” note delightedly describing the “[r]ichly furred / beaver pelts” in the Mohawk village (p. 24) and his statement in a “letter” to his mother that the pelts “will make handsome chapeaux for our French / gentlemen and the grandees of China” (p. 29) might imply such complicity. That he was expected not to interfere with commercial interests and, if only by deferring, to promote them, is implied in the “French Informal Report.” That he in effect served the larger European agenda of conquest foretold in “Wolf” (p. 8) is the claim of the sequence's penultimate poem: “Out of his black robe came Kraft, / feedmills, blight, Benson Mines” (p. 61). Ironically, perhaps tragically (and even if unwittingly), the man who would be a tool of God became a tool of commerce, and worse.19
More difficult to assess are the passages in which Kenny attributes sexual interests to the priest. Sexual fear—somewhat akin to that implied in Rowlandson's Narrative and directly attributed to Rowlandson in Erdrich's epigraph—is evident in the first such passage from Jogues' “letter” to the Jesuit Father Superior in France:
… I hardly dare speak of the danger there is … amongst the improprieties of these savages. I understand adultery flourishes throughout their country.
This passage might echo one from near the end of Jogues' account of his first captivity: “Purity is not, indeed, endangered here by delights, but is tried, amid this promiscuous and intimate intercourse of both sexes, by the perfect liberty of all in hearing and doing what they please; and, most of all, in their constant nakedness” (p. 45).20 Kenny gives Jogues himself only one other expression of sexual interest. It comes in the “journal” passage entitled “Les Hures” (p. 14), which focuses on the exotic physicality of “[n]aked, reddishbrown bodies” and concludes (the ellipsis is Kenny's):
It is exciting to be here among these fetching people … rogues which we Jesuits will change into angels and saints.
This poem's evident fascination with the Indians' bodies and its language (exciting, fetching, rogues) make the more directly stated suspicions of Bear and Wolf “Aunt,” that Jogues is unusually interested in boys, seem not implausible. Bear objects that “[h]is eye / is always either on pelts or dis- / tracted by the boys” (p. 25); after Jogues' death, Bear elaborates:
he could not bear the sight of naked flesh, nor two people coupling in the shadows of the lodge. Chastity, he called, chastity!
… Yet, he stared at the young boys swimming nude in the river. And flew to make signs over their heads.
Wolf “Aunt,” concerned for Jogues' safety, fears that “one day … some boy would resent his stares” (p. 41). And in “Hoantteniate” (p. 53), “Jogues' Adopted ‘Wolf Brother’” remembers “trembl[ing] / when his warm hand touched / my bare shoulder”; Hoantteniate says that he
… will miss the touch of his fingers and his whispering through the corn fields while reading his book, and the sweet raisins he offered the boys and myself. …
These passages don't lend themselves to a clear, singular conclusion about the meanings of the characters' (including Jogues') statements, suspicions, and memories. Each is entangled in her or his own needs and commitments. Would Bear, for example, condemn a homoerotic interest as such? Another passage (p. 44) might suggest that he would. Is he rather objecting to the possibility of an adult's exploiting the young? His earlier statement that if Jogues “would leave / the children alone” he, Bear, would “not interfere,” might suggest that interpretation. Could these objections of Bear's actually be ironic, revealing his own intolerance? And is Hoantteniate remembering Jogues' seduction, or the seductiveness of unfamiliar sensory experiences? These questions, I think, are unanswerable. Two things do seem clear. First, by inviting such questions Kenny again undercuts the image of Jogues as a purely religious person, one who transcended worldly needs and desires. Second, he may be responding critically and ironically to the Europeans' sexualization of the American landscape and of Native peoples as “parts of” the landscape, which converted land and people into objects to be enjoyed and exploited by outsiders.21 (Erdrich, too, may respond to the implications of such a view; in “Captivity,” though, the dread that follows from sexualization is subverted, as the captive's perception is transformed.)
Another possibility is that implying Jogues' perhaps homoerotic interest in the boys might be a way for Kenny, a gay poet, obliquely to signal sympathy for him. Walter Williams includes the Iroquois among “aboriginal American cultures [that] did not recognize berdaches” (men who do not conform to standard men's roles, usually blending men's and women's work and roles) “as a respected status.”22 Kenny himself, in his essay “Tinselled Bucks: A Historical Study in Indian Homosexuality,” does not refer specifically to Mohawk or Iroquois attitudes, though he maintains that “[h]omosexuality was found in all American Indian tribes.” A young man, he says, who had “forfeit[ed] his right to masculine privilege” by choosing not to take the warrior's path, “possibly exposed himself to insulting ridicule and abuse though rarely would he have been castigated, ostracized, or expelled.”23 His poem “Winkte” emphasizes the respect accorded berdaches in Sioux, Cheyenne, Crow, and Ponca cultures, contrasting such acceptance with the intolerance that, it implies, gay Indians and berdaches meet elsewhere—and perhaps met even in some traditional communities.24 Bear's words about Jogues, then, could anticipate and echo scornful words that gay and lesbian Indians have heard even from within Native communities.25 If so, Bear's remarks might veil Kenny's own engagement in dialogic discourse with tribal forebears and contemporaries.
Jogues has his last word in “His Visions” (pp. 47-48), which follows the accounts of his death. Here Kenny alludes to visions that may allow us more directly to sympathize with Jogues. In the poem itself, Kenny only implies the import of these visions, but their significance becomes clear if we read this poem's tone and language in the context of words earlier attributed to Jogues. The most important element of the visions is contained in these lines (emphasis added):
What greater sacrifice can I make for God and the salvation of these brothers who I shall and must lead to God.
I will example my life for Jean and for these innocents who are in need of God's love
No longer do we hear him speaking of “lost souls,” “savages,” “rogues,” or the “wildness” of exotic and dangerous warriors, for he has had a vision of the Natives' humanity. Kenny makes this clear when he responds to Bruchac's observation that his picture of Isaac Jogues is “almost sympathetic.” He reveals his own ambivalence when he responds at first, “No, it's not really sympathetic at all. … I try to show him in the round as much as possible.” However, as he speaks of the visions, Kenny seems to modify his position:
But what did happen with Isaac was that he had two visions when he came to this land … totally believing the bilge that Indian people were just plain wild savages … he had his first vision in which was told, and he came to understand and accept, that the Indian people … were his brothers and sisters. … That's a lesson we can all still learn, not just about Indian people but about each other. … And his second vision told him that because he had finally accepted the people as his brothers and sisters that he must remain with them and die.26
As Kenny describes them here, the visions offer a way of imagining a sympathetic potential in Jogues. The Jogues of “His Visions” has already moved beyond the insistent preacher who “openly refute[d the Indians'] foolish tales / that the world was built on a turtle's back” (p. 36). But Kenny sees in these visions the potential for further growth, foreclosed though it was by Jogues' death: in accepting the need to remain with his “brothers and sisters,” Kenny believes, Jogues
was throwing The Crown away. He would eventually, I am sure, have fought against The Crown … it would have been a different story. But because of Isaac Jogues the state of New York … and … the United States of America is a different place. … He was the first missionary to come to this area and survive for any length of time. … So it is directly upon his head. So you see where I might favor him a little bit. … had he lived longer, it might have been different.27
Like Erdrich, it seems, Kenny sees at least the intimation of a different relationship between Europeans and Indians. Though in each case the possibility is cut off, perhaps simply suggesting an alternative (albeit a tenuous one) to stark animosity may be taken as a hopeful consequence of reinterpreting history. Or perhaps not.
“What should we make of this man-priest … [?]” Kenny has the Dutch official Arendt Van Corlear ask (p. 31). In the poems of Blackrobe and his comments to Bruchac, he demonstrates his knowledge that we do make something of Jogues, and of history, and that history is susceptible to revision. The successive monologues, speeches, journal entries, letters, and recollections of Blackrobe illuminate each other, complicating and deepening the meanings of the parts and the whole. In doing so they demonstrate the vitality of history and show that true history, or history that approaches being adequate to lived experience, must be polyvocal and dialogic. Early on, Kenny allows the explorer La Salle to assert confidently that “we have all plotted our places in history” (p. 9), but he proceeds to show that the stability La Salle takes for granted is illusory. Every voice, every piece, in Blackrobe implies dialogic struggle in some sense, even if only (as is probably so for La Salle's) in the relationship between a voice or a poem and its contexts.
Like Erdrich, then, Kenny shows us that the still-contested histories and interpretations of colonization demand, even create, dialogic discourse. As they write against such colonialist impositions as the “saints-vs.-savages” construction of colonial history, both poets complicate received history and raise questions about the meanings and limits of documentary truth. Erdrich does so by revising Rowlandson's Narrative; Kenny, through the proliferation of invented “documents” in Blackrobe, as well as by indirectly responding to published accounts of Jogues' life. Directly confronting and reimagining the victors' accounts, they offer resistant alternatives, imply the possibility of reclaiming other stories, and implicitly challenge their readers to respond.
Kimberly M. Blaeser, Gerald Vizenor: Writing in the Oral Tradition (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1996), 84, 85.
The first title is from the second edition published in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1682 by Samuel Green. The second title is from the 1773 edition, printed in Boston by John Boyle. I quote from the 1930 “Lancaster Edition,” based on the 1682 Cambridge edition: Mary Rowlandson, The Narrative of the Captivity of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, Lancaster Edition (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1930).
See Alden T. Vaughn, Narratives of North American Indian Captivity, A Selective Bibliography (New York: Garland, 1983). Vaughn lists narratives published into the 1890s and even some publications of new accounts, as well as re-publications, into the 1940s. Continuing popular interest in captivity narratives is evident in Frederick Drimmer, ed., Scalps and Tomahawks: Narratives of Indian Captivity (New York: Coward McCann, 1961), and in movies like Little Big Man and Dances with Wolves, to cite just a few examples. For other examples, see Raymond William Stedman, Shadows of the Indian: Stereotypes in American Culture (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1982). For another poetic reimagining of the meanings of captivity, see Mary Oliver's “The Lost Children,” in American Primitive (Boston: Little, Brown, 1983), 12-15. Among recent studies of captivity narratives are those by Annette Kolodny, in The Land Before Her: Fantasy and Experience of the American Frontiers, 1630-1860 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984), 17-89, and Richard Slotkin, in Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860 (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1973), especially 94-145.
Louise Erdrich, Jacklight (New York: Holt, Rinehart, Winston, 1984), 26-27. All subsequent quotations from Erdrich's poem are from this text.
Remove is the term Rowlandson uses to designate chapters, each of which recounts one leg of her journey with the Indians.
I've consulted photocopies of the first London and the second American editions (the earliest extant), both published in 1682, as well as two other editions taken from the latter.
See, for example, Kolodny, The Land Before Her, 68-81.
Susan Howe, The Birth-mark: Unsettling the Wilderness in American Literary History (Hanover: Wesleyan University Press/University Press of New England, 1993), 94, 96, 123, 124.
Mitchell Breitwieser, American Puritanism and the Defense of Mourning: Religion, Grief, and Ethnology in Mary White Rowlandson's Captivity Narrative (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990), 4, 6, 8-9, 10. Slotkin's assertions about Rowlandson's “insights” probably overstate matters; still, like Howe and Breitwieser, he reads her text as undermining the Puritan community's expectations (Regeneration Through Violence, 111-12). I mention him here especially because he is the one of these critics whose book could have been available to Erdrich before she wrote “Captivity.”
See, for example, Howe, The Birth-mark, 97 and 124.
Joseph Bruchac, “New Voices from the Longhouse: Some Contemporary Iroquois Writers and Their Relationship to the Tradition of the Ho-de-no-sau-nee,” in Coyote Was Here: Essays on Contemporary Native American Literature and Mobilization, ed. Bo Schöler (Aarhus, Denmark: Seklos, 1984), 158.
For information on Jogues' life and death see Francis Talbot, Saint Among Savages: The Life of Isaac Jogues (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1935); see also Isaac Jogues, Narrative of a Captivity Among the Mohawk Indians, and A Description of New Netherland in 1642-3, with John Gilmary Shea, A Memoir of the Holy Missionary (New York: Press of the Historical Society, 1856; rpt. New York: Garland, 1977). See also the other documents published in the same volume: the Memoir by Shea, letters from Jogues to various people, and letters from others announcing his death.
Regarding the “adoption” of Jogues, Shea refers to his having been “incorporated” into the Wolf “tribe” (Memoir, 10); Talbot says that when he visited the Mohawks as an ambassador, he was welcomed into the Wolf clan's “special protection and their adoption” (Saint Among Savages, 389). Describing his first captivity, Jogues himself refers to “a good old woman, who from her age and her care of me, as well as from her compassion for my sufferings, called me her nephew, as I called her aunt” (48). Kenny states that this elder woman “did not legally, in ceremony, adopt Isaac Jogues, but simply took him into her protective house.” Obviously, adoption is a term rife with the contending intentions of heteroglossia. See Maurice Kenny, Blackrobe: Isaac Jogues (Saranac Lake, NY: North Community College Press, 1982), 68. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations from Blackrobe and Kenny's notes on that work are from this edition; page numbers will be noted parenthetically in the text.
The name, Kenny tells us, means “Wolf-robe” (69); it is also the name of a younger Mohawk poet and artist, one of the people Kenny acknowledges in the dedication of Between Two Rivers: Selected Poems, 1956-1984 (Fredonia, NY: White Pine Press, 1987).
Discussing Kenny's first “Peacemaker” poem, Bruchac illuminates “that dominant Iroquois image of the great pine (under whose four white roots the weapons of war were buried and at whose top an eagle always perches, vigilant, watching for any disturbance of the peace).” “New Voices,” 158.
I quote these two lines from the poem as it appears in the selections from Blackrobe included in Between Two Rivers (109) because I think Kenny has not so much improved as corrected the lines printed in the original: “whose faces margin the woods / on which I can discern paint.”
The descriptive words Kenny attributes to Jogues at the beginning of this poem (“some marvelous bird … in plummage”) may ironically echo Talbot's description of “Kiotsaeton and the Mohawk leaders, sharp featured and barbaric in their head-dress of brilliant plumage” (Saint Among Savages, 386-87).
The Algonquian who advised Jogues not to wear his habit when he visited the Mohawks as an ambassador explained that “‘nothing [is] more repulsive at first, than this doctrine, that seems to exterminate all that men hold dearest,’” and the habit “preach [ed the doctrine] as strongly as your lips'” (Jogues, 9).
In a note Kenny says, “There is definite thought that Jogues was sent as a pawn by the French government … to keep a keen eye out for beaver pelts and other valued furs. Jogues may well have been duped in the veils of his religious ardor and zeal” (68).
Kenny's lines are even closer to words Talbot attributes to Jean de Brébeuf, Jogues' mentor at the Huron mission: “‘I hardly dare speak of the danger there is of ruining oneself among the impurities of these savages, in the case of one whose heart is not sufficiently full of God to resist firmly this poison’” (Saint Among Savages, 69). Recognizing such a likely source increases our sense of Kenny's complex dialogism.
See Annette Kolodny, The Land Before Her and The Lay of the Land: Metaphor as Experience and History in American Life and Letters (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1975).
Walter Williams, The Spirit and the Flesh: Sexual Diversity in American Indian Culture (Boston: Beacon, 1986; 1992), 39.
Maurice Kenny, “Tinselled Bucks: A Historical Study in Indian Homosexuality,” in Living the Spirit: A Gay American Indian Anthology, ed. Will Roscoe (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988), 18, 20.
Kenny, Between Two Rivers, 61-62.
Chrystos alludes to such tensions within Indian communities in “Askenet, Meaning ‘Raw’ in My Language,” in Inversions: Writing by Dykes, Queers, and Lesbians, ed. Betsy Warland (Vancouver, BC: Press Gang, 1991), 237-47.
Joseph Bruchac, Survival This Way: Interviews with American Indian Poets (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1987), 153-54.