Monday 20 August 2012

Louise Erdrich's 'Jacklight'

From the occasional reviews file - Louise Erdrich's Jacklight


I am slowly tuning my ear in to poetry. I no longer need regular rhythms to carry me through a piece, or bind me to it. 

But I'm still on the hunt for beauty. I can't help it. I want to be touched and moved. Beautifully. I don't want to be made uncomfortable by imagery, even as I master less familiar structures and rhythms.

Louise Erdrich unsettles me. She hints at beauty and paces out a circle around it and uses it to draw you in, and then takes it away from you, leaving something rougher and scarier in its place. She scares me.

But she scares me in such a way that I can't tear my eyes off the words. 'The Strange People' has travelled from being one of the poems I found hardest to read to being the one I have gone back to the most frequently.

The antelope are strange people ... they are beautiful to look at, and yet they are tricky. We do not trust them. They appear and disappear; they are like shadows on the plains. Because of their great beauty, young men sometimes follow the antelope and are lost forever. Even if those foolish ones find themselves and return, they are never again right in their heads.
Pretty Shield, Medicine Woman of the Crows, transcribed and edited by Frank Linderman (1932)

All night I am the doe, breathing
his name in a frozen field,
the small mist of the word
drifting always before me.

And again he has heard it
and I have gone burning
to meet him, the jacklight
fills my eyes with blue fire;
the heart in my chest
explodes like a hot stone.

Then slung like a sack
in the back of his pickup,
I wipe the death scum
from my mouth, sit up laughing
and shriek in my speeding grave.

Safely shut in the garage,
when he sharpens his knife
and thinks to have me, like that,
I come toward him,
a lean gray witch
through the bullets that enter and dissolve.

I sit in his house
drinking coffee till dawn
and leave as frost reddens on hubcaps,
crawling back into my shadowy body.
All day, asleep in clean grasses,
I dream of the one who could really wound me.

Not everything is frightening. Some poems strike deep and clean. This was particularly true for me in the sequence 'The Butcher's Wife', which sets the life of a widowed woman against a small Midwest town at the start of last century. The last poem in the series is 'New Vows':

The night was clean as the bone of a rabbit blown hollow.
I cast my hood of dogskin
away, and my shirt of nettles.
Ten years had been enough. I left my darkened house.

The trick was in living that death to its source.
When it happened, I wandered toward more than I was.

Widowed by men, I married the dark firs,
As if I were walking in sleep toward their arms.
I drank, without fear or desire,
this odd fire.

Now shadows move freely within me as words.
These are eternal, these stunned, loosened verbs.
And I can’t tell you yet
how truly I belong

to the hiss and shift of wind,
these slow, variable mouths
through which, at certain times, I speak in tongues.

Part Chippewa Indian, Erdrich's poems in this collection often weave Ojibwa myths and legends into Western poetic forms. Another favourite work in this collection shows this, and also the strong and sinewy yet lyrical nature of these pieces - 'Night Sky':


Arcturus, the bear driver,
shines on the leash of hunting dogs.
Do you remember how the woman becomes a bear
because her husband has run in sadness
to the forest of stars?

She soaks the bear hide
until it softens to fit her body
She ties the skinning boards over her heart.
She goes out, digs stumps,
smashes trees to test her power,
then breaks into a dead run
and hits the sky like a truck.

We are watching the moon
when this bear woman pulls herself
arm over arm into the tree of heaven.
We she her shadow clasp the one rusted fruit.
Her thick paw swings. The world dims.
We are alone here on earth
with the ragged breath of our children
coming and going in the old wool blankets.


Does she ever find him?
The sky is full of pits and snagged deadfalls.
She sleeps in shelters he's made of jackpine,
eats the little black bones
of birds he's roasted in cookfires.
She even sees him once
bending to drink from his own lips
in the river of starlight.

The truth is she cannot approach him
in the torn face and fur
stinking of shit and leather.
She is a real bear now,
licking bees from her paws, plunging
her snout in anthills,
rolling mad in the sour valleys
of skunk cabbage!


He knows she is there,
eyeing him steadily across the hornbeam
as she used to across the table.
He asks for strength
to leave his body at the river,
to leave it cradled in its sad arms
while he wanders in oiled muscles
bear heft, shag, and acorn fat.
Her goes to her, heading
for the open,
the breaking moon.


to tear free
stripped and shining
to ride through crossed firs

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