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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.

Early Biography

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 suggest.

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 nonfiction, The Broken Cord: A Family's Ongoing Struggle with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (1989). 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 by writing The Broken Cord: A Family's Ongoing Struggle with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (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." (Halliday)

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 poetry.

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 European invaders.

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,

wearing antlers.

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 cultures.

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.

You accept

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.

Works Cited

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, 1984.

-----"Sacraments, in Baptism of Desire. New York: HarperCollins, 1989.

-----"The Visit," in Baptism of Desire. New York: HarperCollins, 1989.

-----"Wood Mountain," in Original Fire. New York: HarperCollins, 2003.

"Louise Erdrich." Poetry Foundation. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poets/detail/louise-erdrich

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.

Louise Erdrich
Years: 1954-
Birthplace: USA
Language(s): English
Entry By: Angela Alaimo O'Donnell
32 Poems
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