Heid Erdrich's National Monuments

May 01, 2009 by susan

Last Saturday, Heid Erdrich, sister to writers Louise Erdrich and Lise Erdrich, won the Minnesota Book Award for her latest book of poetry, National Monuments. (And Louise won in the fiction category for A Plague of Doves.
For no other reason than a respite from The First 100 Days and now the Next 100 Days and Swine Flu, and because I want to promote Heid's book, I'm posting below the review that I wrote for our neighborhood newspaper, the Hill and Lake Press.

Let’s be clear. Most of the academic constructs of poetry are lost on me, and I cannot tell you what makes a great poem soar or a bad poem limp.

That said, when I started reading Heid Erdrich’s new book of poems, National Monuments, I could barely hang on to it. This is a book of poems that soar, despite the heavy themes that run through it.

Erdrich, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibway, writes about the destruction of ancient cultures, and the desecration of bones, hair and sacred objects. But she’s much too smart, and too good a writer, to do so with a didactic recounting of cultural genocide. Instead, she gives those ancient bones names and thoughts, turns them into mothers or someone’s lover, and in some cases, gives a nod to their current location. In “Kennewick Man Swims Laps”, she responds to a 2008 news report that the bones of 12,000 Native Americans had been kept in drawers under the swimming pool of Hearst gymnasium at Berkeley University. She wryly imagines one of the ancients, identified by archaeologists as 9000-year-old Kennewick Man, swimming laps.

Lap, lap, lap, then turn in aqua agua.
I’m used to water, lay dead along
a river’s edge nine millennia.

But water here’s unnatural, vivid.
Still, I am older than religion,
--gotta keep limber. Lap, lap.

Aqua’s such an off color,
new to me like rubber, milk,
electricity and jealousy.

And although Erdrich is clearly outraged by the callous display and marketing of bodies and bones, including the remains of her ancestors, she illuminates the anger from behind, so instead of being blinded by a harsh light, we see things more clearly in front of a glowing scrim. In “Guidelines for the Treatment of Sacred Objects” the light that shines through is suffused with humor.

Guidelines for the treatment of sacred objects
that appear or disappear at will
or that appear larger in rear view mirrors,
include calling in spiritual leaders such as librarians,
wellness-circuit speakers and financial aide officers.

If an object calls for its mother,
boil water and immediately swaddle it.
If an object calls for other family members,
or calls collect after midnight, refer to tribally
specific guidelines. Reverse charges.

Using vivid imagery and historical references and facts -- some pulled from the Internet – and by including victims of recent earthquakes as well as the falling bodies of 9/11, Erdrich makes the relics we’ve so casually viewed over our lifetimes into a part of real people’s lives, into somebody’s body, as familiar to us as our own.

Her poems leap from the so-called prehistoric to the modern, from dark to light, from the obscene to the tender. With the same sly wit and gasp-inducing truth that she uses to write about our ancestors, she writes about contemporary life -- growing up Native, being a girl, a woman, a mother, and growing old. Her words tell us to love our bodies, our fleshy hungry sacred bodies, and remind us that no one should be sold -- as flesh now or as bone later. No matter how much later.

Perhaps because these poems span such a range of time we are constantly reminded how precious our own lives are, and how fleeting. In “Black and White Monument, Photo Circa 1977”, she looks at a poorly lit snapshot (“Dark and light divide the shot.”) of herself and her cousins, pony-legged girls lugging unknown babies, and asks, “Why do we bear the cruelty of photos – the way they suggest anything/ can stop, any moment can be saved?”

But she’s more interested in the setting, in what was going on “outside the white border” of the photo.

Those beyond the border who would too soon die sick,
or senselessly, or go unrecognizable
in a life both dark then slashed with too bright light.

And just because she can, and because these are poems after all, Erdirch plays with words, meter and sound. In “Full Bodied Semi-Setsina” she flips words like “iron” into something different in nearly every verse. In “Girl of Lightning” she dances through a meteor shower of sound and rhythm.

Thunder loves you,
mumbles charms to warm
you – folded cold body.

Lightning’s pity picks you,
licks a kiss, but what’s left
to wick?

It’s the gift of the poet to be able turn something so slightly that we see it in a new way, to wring a new emotion from the familiar, and sometimes, to draw us over the lip of the falls.

There are nearly 50 poems in National Monuments – angry poems, funny poems, love poems, literary poems, sexy poems and even a dog poem. Read them all, because Heid Erdrich has that gift in abundance. And because she is your neighbor.

~ ~ ~

National Monuments, by Heid E. Erdrich, published by Michigan State University Press, 2008

Available at Birchbark Books in Minneapolis -- and elsewhere. Support you neighborhood bookstore!

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Anne Gibert (not verified) | May 9, 2009 - 12:18pm

Oh, I'm convinced. I'll buy that book.


TropiGal (not verified) | May 9, 2009 - 6:38pm

I especially like the way you sum up the reasons to buy this book of poems. :)


club penguin (not verified) | June 1, 2009 - 7:54pm

This book has helped me tremendously…making simple tasks simpler and the hard ones easy enough to understand.