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About Louise Erdrich's Poetry

Alan Shucard

The Jacklight poems tend to fall into five overlapping thematic categories: poems of Indian heritage in conflict with the dominant white culture; poems of sisterhood and family; love poems; poems peopled with the shadows of figures from her past; and mythic poems, which draw upon Native American myths and the habit of mythmaking.

Among the poems of tension between the Indian and white worlds are some of Erdrich's best and most frequently anthologized poems, including "Indian Boarding School: The Runaways," which recounts the habitual running away of children from an Indian boarding school to the Indian place of their dreams "just under Turtle Mountains." They know that the sheriff will be "waiting at midrun / to take us back," but "Home's the place we head for in our sleep." Like the tracks on the land of the railroad they ride, "The worn-down welts / of ancient punishments lead back and forth." "Dear John Wayne" presents the reaction of young Indians to a John Wayne Western at a drive-in movie. When it is over, they continue to hear his voice speaking its real message: "Come on, boys, we got them / where we want them, drunk, running. They'll give us what we want, what we need."

"A Love Medicine" represents Erdrich's sisterhood-family poems. When "This dragonfly, my sister' feels the boot of her man planting "its grin / among the arches of her face," the speaker responds with her whole feminine being: "Sister, there is nothing / I would not do."

Erdrich's love poems tend to have a poignantly sad note that is echoed in "Train": "Here is the light I was born with, love. / Here is the bleak radiance that levels the world." Mary Kroger is the most powerful figure in the character poems of "The Butcher's Wife" section of Jacklight. Futilely pursued by Rudy J.V. Jacklitch, the sheriff, until he crashed his truck and died cursing her, Mary hears her name destroyed by the townspeople until she "feared to have it whispered in their mouths!"

Among the best poems in the fine "Myths" section of Jacklight is "Whooping Cranes," a haunting poem about a foundling boy, "strange and secret among the others, / killing crows with his bare hands / and kissing his own face in the mirror," who ends up flying into the mystical formation of whooping cranes that "sailed over / trumpeting the boy's name." Noteworthy, too, is the Potchikoo mythical prose poem cycle about a man born as a "potato boy" after "a very pretty Chippewa girl" is raped by the sun in a potato field. Archetypically, Potchikoo dies when his three lovely daughters visit him in his old age, sit on his lap, and block the sun from him: "He hardly knew it when all three daughters laid their heads dreamily against his chest. They were cold, and so heavy that his ribs snapped apart like little dry twigs."

Excerpted from a longer entry in Contemporary Women Poets. Ed. Pamela L. Shelton. Detroit: St. James Press, 1998. Copyright 1998 by St. James Press.

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