Monday, July 1, 2013

Featured Poet - Louise Erdrich

An award winning writer, Louise Erdrich has written novels, short stories, children's books, and of course, poetry. Only two years older than me, she seems to have accomplished a bit more than I. (I think that statement is a contender for understatement of the decade!) A look at her bibliography shows that she occupies at least six sections in the library. Not Bad. 

I grew up on western movies. My father watched, I think, every western ever made, and he almost always had a Zane Gray novel in his hand. Ms Erdrich's writing, and I'm mostly concerned with her poetry here, puts the lie to the uncomplicated, black and white narratives put forth by my father's favorites - and our history books.

Sometimes the reading of Ms Erdrich's writing is uncomfortable, but always there is a connection that I can share. Her poetry has a relationship to the land, to nature, that grounds and gives voice to the longing, pain, and tumult of Native American history since the landing of Europeans on this continent.

Her characters, whether in her poetry or her fiction, are always accessible to me and draw me into their stories. That is not to say that I always like them as people, only that I find them realistic, and edifying.

Below, along with her bibliography, I have included three poems and a few links where you can find more information about Ms Erdrich, herself.

Also, hey, she has a blog! - Birchbark Blog. I honestly haven't had the time to settle in and read much of it yet, but it's nestled on the Birchbark Books site. 

Indian Boarding School: The Runaways

Home’s the place we head for in our sleep.   
Boxcars stumbling north in dreams
don’t wait for us. We catch them on the run.   
The rails, old lacerations that we love,   
shoot parallel across the face and break   
just under Turtle Mountains. Riding scars
you can’t get lost. Home is the place they cross.

The lame guard strikes a match and makes the dark   
less tolerant. We watch through cracks in boards   
as the land starts rolling, rolling till it hurts   
to be here, cold in regulation clothes.
We know the sheriff’s waiting at midrun
to take us back. His car is dumb and warm.
The highway doesn’t rock, it only hums
like a wing of long insults. The worn-down welts   
of ancient punishments lead back and forth.

All runaways wear dresses, long green ones,
the color you would think shame was. We scrub   
the sidewalks down because it's shameful work.   
Our brushes cut the stone in watered arcs   
and in the soak frail outlines shiver clear
a moment, things us kids pressed on the dark   
face before it hardened, pale, remembering
delicate old injuries, the spines of names and leaves.

I Was Sleeping Where the Black Oaks Move
- Louise Erdrich

We watched from the house
as the river grew, helpless
and terrible in its unfamiliar body.   
Wrestling everything into it,
the water wrapped around trees
until their life-hold was broken.
They went down, one by one,
and the river dragged off their covering.

Nests of the herons, roots washed to bones,   
snags of soaked bark on the shoreline:   
a whole forest pulled through the teeth   
of the spillway. Trees surfacing
singly, where the river poured off
into arteries for fields below the reservation.

When at last it was over, the long removal,   
they had all become the same dry wood.   
We walked among them, the branches   
whitening in the raw sun.
Above us drifted herons,
alone, hoarse-voiced, broken,
settling their beaks among the hollows.
Grandpa said, These are the ghosts of the tree people   

moving among us, unable to take their rest.

Sometimes now, we dream our way back to the heron dance.   
Their long wings are bending the air   
into circles through which they fall.   
They rise again in shifting wheels.   
How long must we live in the broken figures   
their necks make, narrowing the sky.

The Strange People

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 with weapons, not with a kiss, not with a look.   
Not even with his goodness.

If a man was never to lie to me. Never lie me.
I swear I would never leave him.

from: Original Fire: Selected and New Poems. Copyright 2003.

List of Works:

Novels: Love Medicine, The Beet Queen, Tracks, The Crown of Columbus [coauthored with Michael Dorris], The Bingo Palace, Tales of Burning Love, The Antelope Wife, The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, The Master Butchers Singing Club, Four Souls, The Painted Drum, The Plague of Doves, Shadow Tag, The Round House,

Story collections: The Red Convertible: Collected and New Stories 1978-2008,

Children's literature: Grandmother's Pigeon, The Birchbark House, The Range Eternal, The Game of Silence, The Porcupine Year, Chickadee,

Poetry: Jacklight, Baptism of Desire, Original Fire: Selected and New Poems

Non-fiction: Route Two [coauthored with Michael Dorris], The Blue Jay’s Dance: A Birthyear, Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country,

As editor or contributor: The Broken Cord by Michael Dorris (Foreword), The Best American Short Stories (Editor, with Katrina Kenison),

Sources: here, here, here,


  1. They are beautiful poems! I first read Erdrich my first year in graduate school and have since been collecting her novels to read--though I've still only read her short stories. I actually didn't realize that she wrote poetry as well! I know I need to make some time to crack open a novel by her! Do you have a favorite?

    1. Honestly, *hangs head in shame* the only one of her novels I've read is "Love Medicine," which I really enjoyed. I also discovered her in grad school, but I've focused mainly on her poetry.