Louise Erdrich: Poetry, Fiction, & the Art of Mythmaking
by Angela Alaimo O'Donnell
ouise Erdrich is known primarily as a masterful story-teller and
accomplished novelist. The author of fifteen novels, a collection of short
stories, six children's books, and a memoir, Erdrich has established her
reputation as a fiction writer who is responsible, in part, for what
Kenneth Lincoln describes as "the Native American Renaissance" in
twentieth-century literature, one in which Native American authors "are
writing prolifically, particularly the women, who correlate feminist,
nativist, and artistic commitments in a compelling rebirth." In addition to
her stature as an influential Native American author, Lincoln places
Erdrich among the great mainstream American writers of the 20th
century: "Louise Erdrich may belong with O'Connor, Fitzgerald, Hemingway,
and Welty. It is…seldom that a writer word for word, character by
character, action to action, story following story, surprises, upsets,
terrifies, delights, saddens, and amazes a reader—this one does"
(Lincoln xi-xvi). Confirming this assessment are the many awards Erdrich
has received, including a
National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction
for Love Medicine, her first novel (1984); an
O. Henry Award
, for the short story "Fleur" (1987); a nomination for a Pulitzer Prize for The Plague of Doves (2009); a
National Book Award for Fiction
for The Round House (2012); the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for
Achievement in American Fiction (2014) ; and the
Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction
(2015). So universally admired is Erdrich's work that the appearance of a
new novel constitutes an event in the literary world, as evidenced by the
release of her latest book, LaRose (2016), which at the time of this
writing has already met with the highest praise by the most stringent
critics and cultural commentators.
Erdrich, as novelist, is regarded as a national treasure. What is less
known about her is the fact that before she became a gifted novelist, she
was a gifted poet, one of rare beauty and power. The author of three
collections of poems, many of which explore the same terrain that her
novels do, the conflict between Native and non-Native cultures, Erdrich was
awarded a Pushcart Prize for poetry in 1983 before her books of poems or
prose appeared. The following year, her first collection, Jacklight,
was published, released the same year as her first novel and the book that
would make her reputation, Love Medicine. Two collections would
follow, Baptism of Desire (1989) and Original Fire: New & Selected Poems (2003). Erdrich's poems possess the same qualities that her prose does. With their strong narrative
bent, they showcase her extraordinary story-telling powers, and the ease
with which she inhabits personae of her own creation demonstrates her
dramatic imagination, what Keats termed "negative capability," the master
poet's capacity to be self-forgetful and explore multiple ways of being in
the world. Thus, Erdrich's fiction represents not so much a break from her
literary methods as a poet but a continuation and deepening of them.
Erdrich describes the development of her writing as an almost inevitable
organic process: "In time, the poems became more story-like—prose,
really—then the stories began to connect" (Halliday). What the reader
experiences in Erdrich's poems are volatile, highly-charged concentrations
of language, voice, and tale-telling that offer brief glimpses into the
lives of characters she later paints on the broader canvas of the novel.
Reading Erdrich's poems alongside her fiction reveals a writer with
considerable skill in multiple genres and enables the reader to observe a
master craftswoman discovering her own gifts as an artist. This
consideration of Erdrich's work will focus primarily on her poetry, with
occasional reference to her novels, to highlight the distinctive ways in
which the gestures and preoccupying concerns of the celebrated fiction
writer are evident in her poems, both early and late.
Erdrich's life is an eventful one, marked by a rich family life, good
fortune, professional success, and tragic circumstance. Born June 7, 1954,
Karen Louise Erdrich was the first of seven children born to Rita Joanne
Gourneau, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe, and Ralph Louis
Erdrich, the son of German immigrants. Erdrich would later drop her first
name as she thought it too common ("Karen was the 1954 name of the year"),
while Louise "had a good, lucky sort of writerliness to it," a named shared
by the likes of Louise Gluck and Louise Bogan, and bode well for her
literary future (Halliday). Born in Little Falls, Minnesota and raised in
the small town of Wahpeton along the North Dakota-Minnesota border, Erdrich
spent a good portion of her early life among the Ojibwe people as her
parents were both teachers at a reservation school run by the Bureau of
Indian Affairs. Her grandfather, Patrick Gourneau, served as tribal chair
of the Turtle Mountain Band, and was known to be a skilled powwow dancer
and fine story-teller. (Clearly, Erdrich's penchant for and dedication to
narrative comes, in part, out of her desire to participate in this
inherited oral tradition.) In addition, the young Erdrich spent time with
her German grandfather and Polish step-mother, who owned a butcher shop in
Little Falls. (Just as versions of her Native American relatives populate
the worlds she creates in her books, the butcher shop and versions of her
grandparents appear in several of Erdrich's novels and also appear in her
poems.) Thus, from early on, Erdrich grew up with a sense of inhabiting two
vastly different worlds—the world of old Europe represented by her
father's family and the ancient Native American culture her mother was
steeped in. This was true of her intellectual and spiritual formation, as
well as her cultural formation. Erdrich and her siblings were raised
Catholic, a religious practice that shaped their lives and her imagination,
but she was especially fascinated by Ojibwe religious ritual, both of which
traditions would show up in various ways in her work. The landscape of the
Midwest of her childhood would eventually become the landscape of her poems
and novels, wherein she would explore the experience of Ojibwe people in
conflict with the dominant Anglo-French-European culture that sought both
to assimilate and exclude them.
In 1972, Erdrich left the small-town world of Wahpeton to attend Dartmouth
College, part of the first class of women admitted to the school. The
culture shock was considerable, given the scarcity of female students (men
outnumbered women 10 to 1) and the foreign (to her) cultural and social
norms of a New England, Ivy League school. Fortunately, Erdrich's arrival
on campus coincided with the establishment of Dartmouth's program in Native
American Studies, a discipline that would give her the opportunity to
explore the history of her ancestors and her own fraught identity as a
mixed blood Native American. (Originally established as an institution to
educate Native Americans, Dartmouth had strayed from its mission. The
founding of the Native American Studies program was conceived as an effort
to return to the school's original commitment.) It was here that she met
Michael Dorris, chairman of the department who was also of mixed blood
Native American descent; he would become her teacher, mentor, champion of
her work, and, eventually, Erdrich's husband. Their marriage would lead to
one of the most celebrated literary partnerships of the twentieth
century—yet one that was less amicable than appearances would
During her years at Dartmouth, Erdrich majored in English and Creative
Writing, and took courses in Native American Studies. In Dorris' class she
began to work on the pieces that would eventually become her published
poems and stories. In addition, she made friends among the other Native
American students and began to feel a sense of solidarity and community
with them. This experience, together with her later experience editing The Circle, a Boston Indian Council newspaper, after graduate
school, gave her new perspectives on her own complex identity: "I realized
that there were lots of people with mixed blood, lots of people who had
their own confusions. I realized that this was part of my life—and it
was something I wanted to write about" (Poetry Foundation). When she
was a senior, Ms. magazine accepted one of Erdrich's poems for
publication. Though she already had a sense that she wanted to be a writer,
this first acceptance confirmed for her the value of her work and her
commitment to her vocation.
After college, Erdrich returned to the Midwest to acquire work experience
before applying to the MA program in writing at Johns Hopkins University.
One of her posts was as a visiting poet and teacher in the Poets in the
Schools Program through the North Dakota Arts Council, a job that required
her to present workshops in schools, prisons, and hospitals but left enough
time for her to work on her writing. She also worked as a waitress, a
lifeguard, and a construction worker, among other jobs—all of them
providing experience that Erdrich believed to be essential to a writer,
particularly a novelist who wants to portray the lives of ordinary people
with empathy and authenticity. In 1978, she entered graduate school and
received her degree a year later. During her time in the program, she
worked on many of the poems that would later be published in Jacklight and she began to experiment with fiction in the form of a
novel she entitled Tracks. For the next few years, Erdrich would
work on the novel off and on, sometimes borrowing pieces from it to be used
in other works. It would eventually be published in 1988.
In 1979, Erdrich returned to Dartmouth to give a poetry reading and renewed
her friendship with Michael Dorris, who was impressed with her work.
Himself a writer, as well as an anthropologist, Dorris would eventually
publish a novel, A Yellow Raft in Blue Water (1987), and a work of
The Broken Cord: A Family's Ongoing Struggle with Fetal Alcohol
Though he was heading off to New Zealand for a year to do field work,
and she would be spending the year as a fellow at the MacDowell Colony
in New Hampshire, Dorris and Erdrich would correspond, deepening their
relationship. In 1981, she returned to Dartmouth as a writer in
residence, and later that year, on October 10, they were married.
Marriage & Career: Literary "Partnership"
As is often the case with a living writer still very much in her prime,
there is no proper biography of Louise Erdrich as yet. Given this, one
has to rely on interviews with the author and brief biographical
sketches (some of which present conflicting information) to arrive at
an understanding of the complex nature of Erdrich's and Dorris'
marriage. One thing that is certain is that the relationship shaped her
development as a writer and her literary reputation, for better or for
worse. The marriage would last fifteen years, during which time Erdrich
would go from unknown writer laboring in obscurity to best-selling
author and celebrated winner of multiple literary prizes. It would end
tragically in 1997 with Dorris' suicide following accusations by three
of his daughters of sexual abuse.
The public image of their partnership was almost storybook: here was a
handsome power couple, both brilliant and productive artists who
unselfishly collaborated on one another's work. In addition, they were
devoted parents to six children—three of them Native Americans
adopted by Dorris before the marriage, and three of them their
biological children. The adopted children were sadly afflicted by Fetal
Alcohol Syndrome, at the time a little-known condition many children in
the Native American community suffered from. When the oldest son was
killed by a hit-and-run driver, Dorris responded to this family tragedy
The Broken Cord: A Family's Ongoing Struggle with Fetal Alcohol
(1989), a book for which Erdrich wrote the introduction, thus bringing
the disorder (and the couple) to national attention and helping to
promote preventative measures that would save families and lives. The
book would win the
National Book Critics Circle Award that year, occasion a lengthy interview
of Erdrich and Dorris on national television with journalist Bill Moyers,
and would eventually inspire a TV movie, The Broken Cord, with actor
Jimmy Smits playing the role of Dorris.
During this early period of their marriage, Erdrich seems to have been
supportive of her husband's literary efforts and he of hers, though the
forms his support took is open to some speculation and debate. In 1982,
just after their marriage, Dorris urged Erdrich to finish a story she had
been working on, "The World's Greatest Fisherman," and to submit it for the
Nelson Algren Award. The book won the $5000 prize and would become the
basis for Love Medicine, published in 1984, her first novel and a
book they supposedly collaborated on. That same year, Dorris also helped to
arrange for the publication of Erdrich's first book of poems, Jacklight. In early interviews, most of them conducted with both
Erdrich and Dorris present, Erdrich is less than clear about their
supposedly shared creative effort: in the course of writing a novel "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" (Berkley, 58-59). Such conversations have lead many
interviewers and readers to believe that both Erdrich and Dorris
participated in the actual writing of the books, and the couple said
nothing to dispel this assumption.
Since Dorris' death, however, Erdrich has taken pains to clarify the true
nature of their partnership. At the beginning of their marriage, the two
collaborated on writing some romance fiction under the pseudonym "Milou
North" ("Milou" an ungendered combination of their two first names and
"North" referring to the location of their New Hampshire home). They
published the stories in journals such as Woman (in the U.K.) and Redbook (in the U.S.). These were largely money-making ventures, and
Erdrich regarded the stories as literary exercises. (Stookey, 4). However,
when it came to writing her serious work, Erdrich worked entirely on her
own. The two actually co-wrote only two books, Route 2 (1990), a work of non-fiction, and The Crown of Columbus (1991) , a novel—both of which bear both Erdrich's and Dorris' names.
In an interview with The Paris Review, Erdrich is candid about the
circumstances of their collaboration and the uncomfortable alliance that
developed between them, giving the lie to the storybook image that had
captivated the literary world for a decade:
"I would have loved for Michael to have had his own life as a writer and
not covet my life as a writer. But he couldn't help himself. So in agreeing
to write The Crown of Columbus I really made a deal, at least in my
thoughts, that if we wrote this one book together, then we could openly
work separately—as we always did in truth, of course. I wanted
to make him happy . . . but there was a deep impossibility within him and
he couldn't really be happy. Or he couldn't be happy alone . . . . I hoped
that The Crown of Columbus would be what Michael needed in
order to say, Now it is enough, we truly collaborated. Instead, it
became the beginning of what he wanted for every book. When he told me he
wanted both of our names on every book now, something in me—the
writer, I guess—couldn't bear it any longer and that was the
beginning of the long ending." (Halliday)
In another telling passage in that same interview, Erdrich reveals in
greater detail the forces at work in the marriage from early on that led to
its disintegration. Grateful for his labors in acting as her literary agent
(a role he voluntarily assumed), Erdrich enjoyed having more time for
writing and more time to spend with her family, but gradually Dorris began
to overreach and encroach on her identity as the author of her own work:
"There were signs from the beginning, but I ignored them or even
exhaustedly encouraged them. He took over as the agent for Love Medicine. After it won an award and The Beet Queen
was published, we went to New York for an interview with The New York Times. I was walking out the door to meet the
interviewer, and I noticed that he was dressed up, too. So I asked him
where he was going. He said, "I'm going to be in the interview." And I
said, "No, they asked me." And he said, "What do you mean—I can't
come?" So it was both of us from then on. As long as he was content with
being in on the interview and saying what he needed to say, I wasn't that
unhappy. Actually, I was tired. Love Medicine andJacklight were published in 1984, and I had a baby. The Beet Queen was published in 1985, and I bore my second
daughter in that year. What kind of woman can do that? A tired woman who
lets her husband do the talking because she has the two best
things—the babies and the writing. Yet at some point the talking
infected the writing. I looked into the mirror and I saw Michael. I began
to write again in secret and put together a novel that I didn't show him."
The latter chilling detail—of the need to write in secret—would
later become a central trope in her novel, Shadow Tag (2010), a
harrowing story in which a woman discovers that her domineering artist
husband has taken to reading her diary and resorts to keeping a second
diary, stashed away in a safe deposit box, where she reveals the true
nature of her marriage and their life together. As the couple tries to keep
up the appearance of a happy life together, the two engage in an escalating
charade of manipulation and deception that will lead to disintegration.
Prior to this, Erdrich would reflect on her marriage in one of her poems,
"The Sacraments," written while Dorris was still alive and published in the
collection entitled Baptism of Desire (1989). Each section of the
poem corresponds to one of the seven sacraments, the fourth of which is
devoted to marriage:
It was frightening, the trees in their rigid postures
using up the sun,
as the earth tilted its essential degree.
Snow covered everything. Its confusing glare
doubled the view
so that I saw you approach
my empty house
not as one man, but as a landscape
repeating along the walls of every room
papering over the cracked grief.
I knew as I stepped into the design,
as I joined the chain of hands,
and let the steeple of fire
be raised above our heads.
We had chosen the costliest pattern,
the strangest, the most enduring.
We were afraid as we stood between the willows,
as we shaped the standard words with our tongues.
Then it was done. The scenery multiplied
Around us and we turned.
We stared calmly from the pictures.
The primary emotion in the poem seems not to be love, as one might expect,
but fear. Instead of images of plenty, here is a landscape of absence and
privation, an emptiness at the center that cannot be filled. Marriage is
"the costliest pattern," a code of life that would require vows and
obligation, some suppression of the self for the good of the other. In the
midst of the weary winter world (harbinger of things to come), the bride
and groom stand calm, vulnerable, staring blindly at what the future will
bring. Clearly, both early and late, Erdrich understood the dark forces at
work in her relationship with Dorris and attempts to deal with—and,
perhaps, counteract—them, as writers do, in her fiction and in her
Even under these difficult circumstances, as her marriage gradually
unraveled, Erdrich would produce six acclaimed novels, her second
collection of poems, Baptism of Desire (1989), and The Bluejay's Dance (1995), a memoir on early motherhood.
Their marriage and partnership officially came to an end in 1996 when the
couple separated following the allegations of sexual abuse. Dorris' suicide
the following year brought the criminal investigation to a close, leaving
Erdrich a single mother and the focus of unwanted public scrutiny of her
personal and family life.
Grieved but undaunted even by this grim tragedy, Erdrich continued (and
continues) to write with regularity, publishing a third book of poems,Original Fire (2003); a collection of short stories, The Red Convertible: Collected and New Stories 1978-2008 (2009);
six children's books, and a series of award-winning and best-selling
novels, including The Antelope Wife (1998), a story that contains a
character who is a self-destructive husband; The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse (2001), a
National Book Award Finalist telling the story of a woman who has spent a
lifetime posing as a priest, Fr. Damien, a beloved and trusted figure of
authority on an Ojibwe reservation; The Master Butchers Singing Club (2003), another National Book
Award Finalist telling the story of post-World-War-I German immigrants who
come to America to make a new life; A Plague of Doves (2008),
the first novel in a trilogy of stories about an unsolved murder in a
small North Dakota town that rocks the local community and the nearby
reservation, short-listed for the Pulitzer Prize;
The Round House
(2012), the second novel of the trilogy and National Book Award
winner, and LaRose (2016), the conclusion of the trilogy recently
released and received with glowing reviews. In each of these books, Erdrich
pursues her characteristic themes: sexuality, power dynamics between the
sexes, the lasting effects of European colonization on Native Americans,
the problem of identity for people with mixed blood ancestry, and the power
of nature to redeem the sins of civilization.
After Dorris' death, in pursuit of new ways to highlight the presence and
contributions of Native Americans to American culture, Erdrich founded
Birchbark Books and Native American Arts, a small independent bookstore in
Minneapolis that focuses on Native American crafts and writing and on the
Native community in the Twin Cities. (The couple had left New Hampshire in
1993, where they had spent much of their married life, and returned to her
native Midwest, taking up residence in Minneapolis.) A visit to this
bookstore, which Erdrich runs along with the assistance of her daughters,
is a moving experience in a number of ways. Erdrich's dedication to
promoting the work of other artists—literary and
otherwise—speaks to her generosity of spirit and serves as a visible
demonstration of her devotion to the enterprise of preserving a culture
that is very much at risk of being lost. One of the most remarkable
features of the bookstore is the dedication of space on several prominently
placed shelves to scores of copies of Michael Dorris' novel, A Yellow Raft in Blue Water. The shelves seem to serve as a kind of
altar to her dead husband, former partner, and father to her children, the
books themselves a species of relic—a precious item that once
belonged to the departed. Erdrich's deeply religious imagination—one
that synthesizes her Catholic and Ojibwe formation— informs the store
in other ways as well. In addition to many religious
artifacts—statues of saints, rosaries, and figures from Native
American spiritual lore—the store contains an elaborately carved
wooden confessional taken from a church and repurposed as a quiet niche for
readers. (The implied metaphor of reading—and writing—as a form
of sacrament is all but inescapable.) In a sense, entering Birchbark Books
is an analogous experience to entering the world of her novels, stories,
and poems, all places of enchantment where the browser/reader can
experience Erdrich's deep and powerful vision.
Erdrich's Poetry : Overview
Erdrich's three volumes of poems body forth the themes and concerns that
preoccupy the poet during three different periods of her life. In Jacklight (1984), Erdrich addresses the dark history of
Native-European relations in America. Often-anthologized poems such as
"Dear John Wayne" and "Indian Boarding School" reflect on the savage
violence visited on Native Americans, both overtly and covertly. In
addition, she addresses her own European heritage in a section entitled
"The Butcher's Wife," a series of dramatic monologues exploring the inner
life of a German-American immigrant and her adjustment to life in a new
world. Counterbalancing these intimate, domestic poems are "The Potchikoo
Stories," a collection of prose poems that tell the story of a Native
American trickster figure, "Potchikoo." Written in lyrical prose, Erdrich's
gifts as a story-teller are on full display (indeed, we can almost see the
young poet beginning her slow transition to novelist). These poems engage
in mythmaking, telling tall tales of magic and mischief (many of them
hilarious), borrowing from Ojibwe folklore and ringing changes upon the
inherited stories as Erdrich makes them her own.
In Erdrich's second collection, Baptism of Desire (1989), she
engages more intimate material—matters of faith and doubt, sexuality,
gender identity, pregnancy, and motherhood. The title is an adapted version
of the Catholic concept of "Baptism by Desire," meaning that if a person
longs for baptism but does not have the wherewithal to enact the sacrament,
he or she can still be baptized virtually, reborn, and relieved of original
sin. In altering the term, Erdrich subtly shifts the emphasis, suggesting
that perhaps human desire itself might be what saves us and constitutes a
kind of sacrament. This re-appropriation of the rigid Catholicism of her
youth occurs throughout the volume as strong elements of Native American
religious ritual enter into her depictions of Catholic observance. Some of
these poems are quietly domestic, as when the poet explores the unwritten
interior lives of female saints, while others are grand and mythic in their
approach to portraying the experience of pregnancy and childbirth and the
ways in which these uniquely feminine experiences empower women.
Interestingly, the volume also contains five new "Potchikoo Stories," most
of them highlighting the figure of the trickster's wife, Josette, combining
Erdrich's feminist-focused vision with her continued fascination with
Ojibwe mythmaking and the prose poem.
Erdrich's third volume, Original Fire (2003) features selected poems
from her first two books along with nineteen new poems. Here Erdrich
reclaims the best of the Jacklight poems, including "The Butcher's
Wife" series, all thirteen of "The Potchikoo Stories," and a selection of
poems that meditate on the saints and sacraments. Interestingly, the poems
that are excluded are the intense accounts of pregnancy and childbirth.
Though some of the nineteen new poems address these experiences, they are
treated more practically, less viscerally and less mythically—as if,
with distance, the poet can approach them in a more measured way. Emphasis
in the new poems is upon the experience of motherhood, childhood, and the
connections between the current generation and generations past. Whereas
the focus in her second volume is on the power of women, the focus in the
third is on the image of the child as a source of solace and hope,
consolation in the face of the inevitable ravages of time, a promise of the
future set against the losses of the past.
Selected Poems & Analysis
Seema Kurup, in her study of Louise Erdrich's work, asserts that "the
literary space of the poem offers a distilled version of those themes that
are addressed in her novels" (Kurup, 92). While this is certainly evident
in her collections of poems, it is also true that Erdrich's poems provide a
remarkably personal perspective that is absent in the novels. When creating
plots and characters for her novels, Erdrich is able to externalize the
experiences of sexuality, motherhood, genocide, violence, and loss of
various kinds. But there is something about poetry, even when the poet is
inhabiting the persona of a speaker other than herself, that cleaves the
bone, calls for the full emotional engagement of the writer, and reveals
sympathies and intimacies that might not normally manifest themselves in
prose. Erdrich, herself, recognized this phenomenon. In a 1988 interview
she asserted that she would publish only fiction in the future because her
poetry had become too private (George, 246). (Nonetheless, two books of
poems would follow, thus suggesting that writing poetry fulfilled a need in
Erdrich that writing fiction could not.)
The title poem of Erdrich's first collection, "Jacklight," demonstrates
this heightened intensity and emotional engagement with her material.
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.
At first the light waved, glancing over us.
Then it clenched to a fist of light that pointed,
searched out, divided us.
Each took the beams like direct blows the heart answers.
Each of us moved forward alone.
We have come to the edge of the woods,
drawn out of ourselves by this night sun,
this battery of polarized acids,
that outshines the moon.
The term "jacklight" refers to a method hunters sometimes employ to catch
their prey, using a blinding light to disorient and paralyze the creatures
they hunt. It is regarded as unsportsmanlike, a cheap form of human
technology to trick prey into being caught, rather than using strategy and
skill to out-think and out-maneuver them. The opening stanzas of the
poem—as well as those that follow—use the pronoun "we"
repeatedly. The speaker identifies fully with the prey, not the predator,
in a thinly veiled allegory that describes the ways in which the white
man's tricks have lured Native Americans for centuries from the safety of
their native woodlands into the clearing where they are vulnerable to
attack. The result, as history has shown, has been cataclysmic. Entire
peoples have nearly disappeared from the earth—the "we" of the
poem—having, in their innocence, succumbed to the dissemblance of
We smell them behind it
but they are faceless, invisible.
We smell the raw steel of their gun barrels,
mink oil on leather, their tongues of sour barley.
We smell their mothers buried chin-deep in wet dirt.
We smell their fathers with scoured knuckles,
teeth cracked from hot marrow . . .
We smell their breath streaming lightly behind the jacklight.
The use of anaphora here—the insistent repetition of "we
smell"—emphasizes the communal orientation of the Native American, as
opposed to the individualistic ethos of the European, as well as the degree
to which the former live by their senses. The particularities that separate
the two cultures are palpable. But just as the reader is prepared for the
catch, the moment when the hunter can claim his prey, the poem turns, and
the hunter becomes the hunted:
We have come to the edge of the woods,
out of brown grass where we slept, unseen,
out of leaves creaked shut, out of hiding.
We have come here too long.
It is their turn now,
their turn to follow us. Listen,
they put down their equipment.
It is useless in the tall brush.
And now they take the first steps, knowing
how deep the woods are and lightless.
How deep the woods are.
Erdrich's poem calls for a revolution, a break from the destructive pattern
of previous centuries, in which the hunted take advantage of their superior
stealth, their heightened senses, their knowledge of the terrain, and use
them to lure their would-be captors beyond the comfort of the clearing into
unfamiliar territory. The poem takes us—as well as the hunters—
into the world of nature, the world of the Ojibwe, who have persevered in
the face of genocide and affliction, where they have continued to flourish,
despite all odds. Thus, "Jacklight," as the invitatory poem, sets the tone
for the rest of the collection, ushering the reader into territory that is
ancient as it is original.
Erdrich's second collection, as a whole, continues and intensifies this
personal approach, only instead of focusing on Native American history, she
explores the lives of women—both Native and non-Native, historical
and fictional, mythic and ordinary—and in doing so breaks down the
differences that would seem to separate these women from one another. What
binds them all together is the experience of being female in a
male-dominated world, an identity that is paradoxically powerful and
vulnerable. Erdrich, the poet, actually enacts this unification by taking
on the roles and voices of various women in the book, imaginatively
becoming one with each them. In one of these remarkable poems, "The Visit,"
the poet conveys an unconventional account of a celebrated event in
Catholic-Christian mythos, the Annunciation, wherein the Virgin Mary is
impregnated by God with the Messiah. The speaker is the mother-to-be:
It was not love. No flowers or ripened figs
were in his hands, no words
in his mouth. There was no body
to obstruct us from each other.
The sun was white-hot, a brand
that sank through me and left no mark.
Yet I knew. And Joseph,
poor Joseph with his thick palms,
What could he do but wash
the scorched smell from the linen?
What could he do but fit the blades
of wood tighter into the cradle?
In this opening verse paragraph, Erdrich's Mary (who is never named in the
poem, unlike her husband, Joseph) offers a very different version of the
story from the one conveyed in the Gospel of Luke. She begins by telling us
what the Annunciation was not—it did not involve love, courtship, or
sex—the human rituals that typically precede the conception of a
child. And unlike the gospel account, there is no angelic messenger, no
greeting ("Hail Mary, full of grace"), no conversation between Mary and the
angel, no opportunity for her to refuse or acquiesce. Instead there is the
white-hot imprint of the Ojibwe sun-god, Gee' sis (or Grandfather), who
cleaves her, body and soul, touching her more intimately than any mortal
man ever could. Meanwhile, her husband-to-be, a humble, ordinary man, has
now become a cuckold (his antlers, the Ojibwe version of the European
cuckold's horns and reminiscent of the origins of the iconography, the
mating rituals of stags). Impotent, at the mercy of the irresistible forces
of nature and divinity, he is reduced to domestic labor (washing his wife's
soiled linen) and to the work of his occupation, carpentry.
Their helplessness in the face of the miraculous is mutual, as Mary and
Joseph become unwitting actors in the inscrutable designs of the universe:
The rain fell and the leaves closed
over us like a shield.
A small light formed and the taper
that held it aloft
was dipped many times into my blood.
Now the being rests in the bowl of my hips.
There is no turning. Already
the nails are forged.
The tree thickens.
Erdrich's Mary conveys here one of the most powerful aspects of the
experience of pregnancy—that of inevitability. The large forces at
work in the universe are also at work inside of her, as life quickens, as
the "being" grows, a stranger occupying the most secret part of her self.
There is no turning back time or turning away from the imminent prospect of
childbirth. The baby will come. Yet, instead of focusing on the promise of new life, the
expectant mother anticipates the dangers that await this child. The
concluding images of the poem are ominous and speak for themselves.
Somewhere in the world, the nails that will fix her son to the cross have
been fashioned. Even as he grows, so does the tree from which the cross
will be cut.
The overall effect of this brief poem is to humanize the figure of Mary,
who is, in traditional Catholicism, often placed on a pedestal, seemingly
removed from the agonies and joys of ordinary women. Rather than reverence,
the poem elicits sympathy, for Mary is subject to the same mysterious
forces we are, has to live the same day-to-day life we do, and fears for
the safety of her child, as do the rest of us. At the same time, the poem
also blends elements of two competing mythic traditions to create a new
mythos. Elements of the Catholic-Christian story meet elements of Ojibwe
tradition, effectively making Mary a universal figure, simultaneously
occupying different worlds (just as Erdrich herself does), and thereby
representing the circumstance of all women across the centuries and across
As was mentioned earlier, Erdrich's third and final collection brings
together work from her first two books and offers new poems, effectively
synthesizing the competing voices and visions of her earlier life to create
a third. The narrative arc of this volume seems to be the search for
completeness and closure as the poet builds bridges between the past and
the present. Ghosts haunt this volume, including the ghosts of the poet's
former self, and Erdrich graciously, courageously welcomes them. One of the
most moving of the new poems is "Wood Mountain," an elegy addressed to
Abel, Erdrich and Dorris' eldest adopted child, who was killed in a
hit-and-run accident decades ago:
I saw you walk down the mountain yesterday.
You were wearing your stained blue jacket,
your cheap, green boots.
You disappeared into a tree
the way you always did, in grief.
I went looking for you.
In the orchard floored with delicate grass,
I lay down with the deer.
A sweet, smoky dust rose
from the dead silver of firs.
When I stand in the circle of their calm black arms
I talk to you. I tell you everything.
And you do not weep.
how it was
night came down.
Ice formed on your eyelids.
How the singing began, that was not music
but the cold heat of stars.
Wind runs itself beneath the dust like a hand
lifting a scarf.
Mother, you say, and I hold you.
I tell you I was wrong. I am sorry.
So we listen to the coyotes.
And their weeping is not of this earth
where it is called sorrow, but of another earth
where it is known as joy,
and I am able
to walk into the tree of forgiveness with you
and disappear there
and know myself.
In this poem, Mother and son meet in a dream-like landscape that is
reminiscent of the ordinary world, with its mountains and trees, its deer
and coyotes, but it is a landscape transformed and redeemed by forgiveness.
The world between the living and the dead is fluid, permeable—and so
a boy can disappear into a tree, and so a mother can join him there. This
is the Ojibwe vision of nature, wherein all is sacred: all objects and
creatures possess a spirit, and human beings live in harmony, rather than
in competition, with these spirits. It is a kind of heaven, where the
weeping of animals (and humans, too, we can assume) is translated into joy.
In this setting, the poet is able to confess her failings, to tell her son
all of the sorrows that have transpired since his passing, and be absolved.
In addition, this confession (which clearly serves a sacramental purpose,
as did the ritual of confession Erdrich enacted in her Catholic childhood)
also enables the poet to receive the elusive blessing of self-knowledge.
The vision itself, together with the act of creating the poem, has brought
about the redemption the speaker has sought for so long. Mother and son are
healed, and at the very point of arrival on the altar of self-knowledge,
they disappear together, accompanied by the coyotes' joyful cries. Clearly,
Erdrich has set aside the concern voiced earlier in her career that poetry
was "too private" an art for her to practice. It's safe to say that what
she once believed to be a weakness in the genre she came to recognize as
the source of its strength. In another interview, she once noted, "Poetry
is a very different process for me than writing fiction. Very little of
what happens in poetry is conscious, it's a great surprise" (Bruchac, 82).
Each of these representative poems—and each of Erdrich's three
collections—provides readers with a glimpse into the poet's
imaginative, intellectual, and practical life at three key moments of her
career: as a young artist learning her craft, as a skilled practitioner in
search of sources of strength while caught in the throes of a consuming
marriage, and as a mature woman and writer who has weathered tragic loss
and finds consolation through her family, her ancestry, and her art. It's
not clear whether Erdrich continues to write poetry. It has been suggested
that perhaps her preference for writing fiction stems from her fidelity to
her Native American roots, whose ancient story-telling tradition is famous
and ancient. Poetry, on the other hand, is a practice associated with the
European linguistic and cultural tradition she has inherited—a
tradition she values but feels strong ambivalence towards. The fact that
Louise Erdrich has written in both genres, and written in both so well,
further attests to her ability to inhabit the two warring worlds she
belongs to and the power of art to make peace between them.
Miriam Berkley, "Publishers Weekly Interviews: Louise Erdrich." Publishers Weekly, August 15, 1986, 58-59.
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, pp. 78-85.
Louise Erdrich, "Jacklight," in Jacklight. New York: Henry Holt,
-----"Sacraments, in Baptism of Desire. New York: HarperCollins,
-----"The Visit," in Baptism of Desire. New York: HarperCollins,
-----"Wood Mountain," in Original Fire. New York: HarperCollins,
"Louise Erdrich." Poetry Foundation.
Jan George, "An Interview with Louise Erdrich," North Dakota Quarterly, 56, Winter 1988, pp. 243-247.
Lisa Halliday, "Louise Erdrich: The Art of Fiction No. 208. The Paris Review, Winter 2010, No. 195.
Seema Kurup, Understanding Louise Erdrich. Columbia, South Carolina:
University of South Carolina Press, 2016.
Kenneth Lincoln, Native American Renaissance. Los Angeles:
University of California Press, 1992.
Lorena L. Stookey, Louise Erdrich: A Critical Companion. Westport,
Conn: Greenwood Press, 1999.