Themes and Meanings

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What is the reader to make of this dream scene in which truth changes into nightmare, a fox changes horses into fish, fish become stars, and a girl changes fox and grief into nightmare? As a successful poem should, “Magic Fox,” to paraphrase Robert Frost, says one thing in terms of another, says one things and means another. Its meaning is layered: It can be interpreted in its present or immediate past, as well as in its historic past. Similarly, it operates at the personal or at the tribal level. It can be located in reservations or western expanses.

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There is a slippery uncertainty to the “present” of the poem: Roles change, objects transmogrify. There is no stability—everything is falling. The leaves that fall are not dead but green, suggesting the destruction of life. Stars fall; the men fall in the dust around the skirts of the blond girl. Though the speaker states that “her magic jangled memories/ of dawn,” the sleepers are too far gone to remember; they feel no grief and, perhaps, no regret. This is a picture of life in free fall, the individual results of which can be seen in the drunk Doris Horseman and her raving son in “Going to Remake this World” and other poems in the collection.

The blond girl is perhaps a too-obvious symbol of the European American influence so foreign to and destructive of the American Indians’ way of life. The destruction is not so much the result of military conquest as of the kind of seduction imaged in the girl’s dance, resulting in confusion, dependency, and loss of control.

The poem is about more than a present nightmare life, but about communal, reservation experience—where, in “The Only Bar in Dixon,” Welch writes, “These Indians once imitated life.” They no longer lived the actual life of the western expanses, but an imitation. Moreover, the subject of “Magic Fox” is plural: The magic fox was their fox; stars fell into their dreams.

The image of the blond girl is echoed in other poems in Riding the Earthboy 40, the repetition suggesting the importance of the motif. The girl in “Blue Like Death,” Welch writes, “prized/ your going the way some people/ help a drunk to fall.” Obviously, she is the downfall of the “you” in the poem. A woman addressed in the poem “In My First Hard Springtime,” who offends the speaker’s friends and mocks him, is described as “white and common.” In “Gesture Down to Guatemala” the “blonde from Montana” is linked with drinking too much.

In these poems as well as in “Magic Fox,” the blond-girl motif represents non-Native seduction and corruption, which results in the destruction of tradition and community as well as individuals. Blondeness or whiteness symbolizes death. In the title poem, Earthboy’s cabin is described as bleached “white as bone” and the poem concludes: “Dirt [burial] is where the dreams must end.”

The beginning of the end occurred in the 1830’s. Falling stars announced the end of the traditional lifestyle of the Blackfeet. In 1837, following the Leonid meteor showers earlier in the decade, smallpox killed two-thirds of the Blackfeet population. Successive outbreaks killed even more. War and forced treaties completed the decimation, and the once free and independent tribe must have assumed a causal relationship between falling stars and end of life as they knew it. One historian described the U.S. Cavalry leading away the horses of the conquered Blackfeet like so many bagged fish on a stringer. This then is the probable inspiration for the image of horses turned into fish and magic turned into nightmare.

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