Louise Erdrich,
Original Fire:
Selected & New Poems

(HarperCollins, 2003)

One of the nice things about reviewing books is that it offers the opportunity to experience authors that I might otherwise never encounter. I'm sure you all know the syndrome: "I really must read So-and-So ... someday." A good example of this is Louise Erdrich's Original Fire: Selected & New Poems, which, were it not for Rambles.NET, I might never have read.

Right up front, these are not easy. It is not a matter of Erdrich's diction, her erudition or her concerns with the formal values of poetry. It is really, and fundamentally, a matter of her experience and her vision. These are poems that demand of the reader total engagement in a world that to many of us is foreign and discomforting, sometimes cheerless, but that contains a very deep and compelling reality.

Erdrich is a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of the Ojibwe, and it is that experience, the experience of the American Indian as seen through the eyes of one woman, that colors these poems -- although I don't want to leave the impression that they are only about that experience. It is more the vehicle that they ride than a purpose for their existence.

The first word that came to my mind in an attempt to characterize the imagery in these poems is "blood." The second is "sex." Don't settle for the first picture that comes to mind, given those cues: it won't be accurate. These poems operate on a bedrock level, peeling away the layers of our reactions to get at what for lack of a better phrase I have to term "fundamental truths." Granted, this is what poetry is supposed to do, but Erdrich's vision is such that those truths come to us from small, subtle cues that hold up to us the possibility that we've misunderstood things all along.

Erdrich, in fact, makes this the point of the final poem, "Asiniig," which is advice cum admonishment from stones, out of their stillness and endurance: death is the immortality we've been seeking, we've just been looking in the wrong places.

Reading the various sections, one is led into that larger area: the impact of Christianity on the American Indian, the ostensible subject of the section titled "The Seven Sleepers," leads to thoughts that go far beyond a single faith and its effect on the world. Small-town life, community, the bizarre characters that form part of the stock in trade of American folklore, get a sometimes mordant, sometimes wry treatment in the section titled "The Butcher's Wife," while "The Red Sleep of Beasts" is a subtle, distanced lament for the loss of wildness in our heritage -- really a loss of wealth, of a particularly valuable and intangible sort -- brought about by our own thoughtless and destructive urges.

Ultimately, the message is one of endurance: patience, acceptance, holding fast to that private area of the soul, even humor. ("The Potchikoo Stories" are just that: a series of tales about the life and afterlife of Potchikoo, full of that bawdy humor that inhabits Native folktales and has largely been expunged from European traditions.) And, implicit in Erdrich's poems is the idea that memory is the prime weapon of those who would endure.

I normally do not recommend that one read an entire collection at one sitting. In this case, it's very hard not to; they are that magnetic, that engrossing and ultimately reach a level of truth that holds its own reassurance, no matter the hard road it took to get there.

- Rambles
written by Robert M. Tilendis
published 11 June 2005

Buy it from Amazon.com.