Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1996
Louise Erdrich opens Original Fire with the title poem from the bookJacklight (1984), a depiction of difference and similarity drawn as a confrontation between inhabitants and invaders of the wilderness. Erdrich locates the poetic perspective in the consciousness of deer spirits, whose home ground has been disrupted by the incursion of human beings, for whom the forest is alien but inviting terrain. The meeting of disparate populations is one of Erdrich’s primary themes, exemplified in her novels by the interaction of Catholic missionaries and American Indian tribal communities and by the intermingling of German American pioneers, her father’s family background, and the native Ojibway people of her mother’s family.
Erdrich is primarily known as a novelist. She published seven novels following the continuing popularity and critical success of Love Medicine, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1984. Erdrich says that she “started out as a poet,” inspired by her father’s recital of poems by Robert Frost and George Gordon, Lord Byron, and that her writing method is to “curl up in a chair and just write it like I’m writing a poem.”
The poems in Jacklight are designed to speak as, and for, a native community whose processes of perception might seem implausible and unfathomable to those unfamiliar with American Indian ways of knowing and being. The poem “The Strange People” carries an epigraph fromPretty-Shield: Medicine Woman of the Crows (1932), noting that “The antelope are strange people.” The poem “Captivity,” an imaginative entrance into the mind of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, “who was taken prisoner by the Wapanoag” in 1676, recounts the dislocation Rowlandson experiences as the strange ways of her captors gradually meld into the modes of her previous life. Shifts in perspective to the consciousness of a nonhuman species are presented as natural to the degree that Erdrich does not attempt to explain or justify the opening lines of “The Strange People”: “All night I am the doe, breathing/ his name in a frozen field” or the beginning of “Jacklight,” which does not choose to identify the creature speaking: “We have come to the edge of the woods,/ out of brown grass, where we slept unseen,/ out of knotted twigs, out of leaves creaked shut,/ out of hiding.”
Erdrich describes herself as a writer who functions “as an emissary of the between-world, that increasingly common margin where cultures mix and collide.” In these poems, the collision is not only between Indians and Anglos but also between humans and other species, with the humaness of animals functioning as a commentary on human ways, the animalistic instincts of humans linking them to a wider sphere of creation in the traditions of American Indian cultures. The hunters jacklighting the wilderness, in an attempt to penetrate an alluring and alien dark realm, are described as taking “the first steps, now knowing/ how deep the woods are and lightless/ How deep the woods are.” Their entry into the woods is presented as a return to a place of origins, where there is a possibility of regaining powers of vision neglected for centuries.
However, the Indians themselves have lost something of their ease in the woods through interaction with the invaders of their lands, so that in “I Was Sleeping Where the Black Oaks Move” there is a longing in the recollection, “Sometimes now, we dream our way back to the heron dance” and an ethos of sorrow in the concluding question: “How long must we live in the broken figures/ their necks make, narrowing the sky.” In many of the poems, a sense of unease bespeaks a loss that the poet is trying to understand, and by understanding, achieve some measure of rectification.
The difficulties inherent in this task are implied by the best known of the poems in the first section, which seizes the aura surrounding a major American cultural icon. “Dear John Wayne” begins, somewhat deceptively, with a description of a fundamental mid-twentieth century activity, summer nights spent lounging “on the hood of the Pontiac” at a packed drive-in movie theater. In a typical film, the “death-cloud” of arrows “swarming down on the settlers” calls forth a screen-filling face, “acres of blue squint and eye” that promises a “thick cloud of vengeance.” John Wayne is implacable and irresistible, the representation of a grasping ethic that says “Everything we see belongs to us.” Erdrich acknowledges the futility of resistance, but her chilling final image, declaring “Even his disease was the idea of taking everything./ Those cells, burning, doubling, splitting out of their skins,” is a warning of the effect that this toxic blight has brought to the entire continent.
Following the poems from Jacklight, Erdrich sets a sequence recounting the life and afterlife of a questing trickster she calls Potchikoo, a figure akin to the legendary Coyote present in various incarnations in many Indian stories, who is also an echo of Nanapush, who appears in several of Erdrich’s novels, most recently in The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse (2001). These “stories”—whose appearance in a book of poems is an indication of an indifference to the formalist academic distinction among genres—are a kind of template for Indian existence.
Purporting to cover Potchikoo’s life, the first four stories follow the familiar pattern of birth, marriage, old age, and death but then surge beyond the customary to detail “Potchikoo’s Life After Death,” further exploits in spirit form, followed by restoration to human form, additional reversals, and finally an apotheosis of sorts, “Saint Potchikoo,” which merges Christian and Indian beliefs in a final vision of contentment. The narrative that Erdrich develops has a degree of distance that permits the astonishing antics of Potchikoo to assume a semblance of verity. The storyteller cautions, “You don’t have to believe this,” but this mock admonition pulls the tales into the imaginative space of a folkloric frame, where comments like “You know what. I don’t have to say it” include speaker and audience in a reciprocal exchange that draws on an oral tradition spanning many generations.
Each of the five sections of the book depend on the establishment of a distinct voice which orders and controls the poems. The third section, “The Butcher’s Wife,” contains what might be called the seed of Erdrich’s most recent novel, The Master Butchers Singing Club (2003). The eponymous butcher’s wife introduces herself in the title poem with the declaration “Once, my braids hung heavy as ropes” and recalls the meeting with and marriage to the butcher, Otto Kröger, as an intense interlude ended by his death. The poems are like entries in a diary of her days with him, in “the dark of the shop” and in their home. She has married him, a widower, and adopted his children, responding to his proposal—“Otto asked me on the westbound bus/ to marry him,”—by acting on the ethic of the community: “I could not tell him no—/ We help our neighbors out. I loved him though/ It took me several years to know I did/ from that first time he walked in to deliver/ winter food.”
The couple’s lives are intertwined with those of their friends and neighbors, distinctive characters, often irritating, like “Step-and-a-Half Waleski” whose “headlong occurrence unnerved even Otto” but for whom “mine is a good word, and even that hurts./ A rhyme-and-a-half for a woman of parts,” or unsettling, like Otto’s sister Hilda, whose words “cut/ me serious—her questioning my life” but who touches the butcher’s wife, who says “I think I loved her too/ in ways that I am not sure how to tell.”
The sheer physicality of life is evident in the frequent references to the body’s responses, which are paralleled by the requirements of the profession, constantly involved with animals, graphically and indelibly present “blood smeared on the lintel./ Mallet or bullet they lunge toward their darkness.” One of the butcher’s wife’s most endearing thoughts about Otto is her fond recollection that “there was no one so deft/ as my Otto. So true, there is great tact involved/ in parting the flesh from the bones it loves.”
After ten years of life with Otto’s family and the idiosyncratic people of the town, the butcher’s wife undergoes a transition and reformation. The last poem, “New Vows,” implies a return to an earlier aspect of existence, something like a resurrection of primal values from native life that have been temporarily displaced by Euro-American ones. “Widowed by men, I married the dark firs,” she declares. Although she “can’t tell you yet/ how truly I belong,” she has rediscovered an ancient language “through which, at certain times, I speak in tongues.”
The section that follows, “The Seven Sleepers,” has been described by the publishers as “a passionate search for the divine in all its forms.” The poems are not as systematically organized as those in previous sections, but they constitute a journey of exploration that includes a review of a life cast in terms of “The Sacraments,” starting with “Baptism” and continuing on to “Extreme Unction.” The title section is a meditation on “Seven Christian youths of Ephesus” who hid in a cave to escape persecution in 250 c.e. and emerged, still young, two hundred years later. Erdrich notes that the seven sleepers are the patron saints of insomniacs, and the poems are replete with dream images, visions, and suggestive symbols. Other poems touch on well-known personages like Mary Magdalene and Jesus Christ in various guises. In an abrupt, even seismic shift, the last two poems in this section radically alter tone and stance as Erdrich, acting as “emissary of the between-world,” adopts the structure of Christian prayer to fashion two sardonic supplications from an American Indian place. “The Buffalo Prayer” is addressed to versions of debased or destroyed Indian relics, setting a downward progression from “Our Lady of the Buffalo Bones” to “Our Lady of Destruction Everywhere” to “Our Lady of the Testicle Tobacco Pouch,” ending with a request: “pray for us whose bones have nourished/ the ordered cornfields that have replaced/ the random grass which fed and nurtured and gave us life.”
The dark humor of this poem is considerably exceeded by the bitterly hilarious catalog of plagues infecting Indian culture in “Rez Litany,” an example of the comic counterattack employed by some American Indian writers. This stinging, satiric song of anger functions as a purgative agent, permitting a gentle final section, “Original Fire,” with some poems on personal subjects, a retelling of another tribal story from the saga “Wampum Hair” by Nawaquay-geezhik (Charles Kawbawgam), a triad about a “New Mother,” a note of “Advice to Myself,” and the six-poem cycle “Asiniig,” which is based on the Ojibway word for stone,asin. “Stones are alive,” a prefatory note explains, and the poems in the cycle are cast as an abbreviated creation myth. “When the original fire which formed us/ subsided,” the poet explains, the human species was created by the spirits of the stones, who “are still deciding whether that was/ wise.” In these poems, the diction is direct, the rhythms straight and simple, the stanzaic structure basic.
These works lead toward the last poem in the volume. “Infinite Thought” is a kind of summation (although not a conclusion, as the poem is open-ended), expanding outward toward the entire cosmos. The stones are an emblem of a primal substance, and the poem suggests that human life on earth has deteriorated in terms of the separation of the human from the eternal. The poem is like a message. “Listen,” it begins, “there is no consciousness/ before birth or/ after death/ except the one you share/ with us,” and concludes with the reminder of how the world was viewed before the time when cultures mix and collide: “Your consciousness/ is the itch, the ghost of consciousness,/ remembered/ from how it felt/ to be one of us.”
Booklist 100, no. 2 (September 15, 2003): 195.
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