And so begins the Louise Erdrich Project: with the poetry collection Jacklight. I should mention that anxiety makes it quite difficult for me to enjoy poetry: because it forces me to focus on each individual word when I read, it denies me the distance necessary to see the whole picture. For this strange reason, I tend to avoid poetry, but since the point of the project is to push myself, I didn’t run away this time. I’ll even share my uncertain thoughts.
Despite being a poetry collection, and Erdrich’s first published book, Jacklight contains many of the elements that will make her novels famous. The reliable and spiritual Midwestern setting first of all, which appears here fully formed, already weaving both reality and myth; and many of the themes she will continue to explore in single novels and her work as a whole: community, women’s power, and Chippewa history and collective memory. The deeper I got into the collection, the more I saw it as a field for her germinating ideas (I saw glimpses of LaRose in ‘Indian Boarding School: The Runaways’, for example, and the recurrent mention of antelopes evoked The Antelope Woman), but also for her development as novelist. There’s a sort of trepidation for storytelling throughout the five segments (“Jacklight”, “Runaways”, “Hunters”, “The Butcher’s Wife” and “Myths”), which Erdrich seems to impose to the poetry format. The culmination of this is the section “The Butcher’s Wife”, which paints the portrait of a family and its town poem by poem. When she reaches the last section, “Myths”, Erdrich breaks down and writes the delightful ‘Old Man Potchikoo’ in prose. Even if I hadn’t been familiar with Louise’s work, I don’t think I would have been surprised to find out that her next book was a novel. For now at least, there are too many stories in her head for her to be at home with poetry.
Which isn’t to say that the writing is clunky- it felt lovely and musical to me. I’m unfortunately too inexperienced with poetry to go into more detail, so I’ll focus on a different aspect of the writing that interested me: the safe space it creates for women. By writing for, about and from the point of view of women, it’s like Erdrich provides a world where they can be protected and validated. This is especially true in this collection, since in verse she can address women in the second person directly. When she dedicates the striking ‘A Love Medicine’ and ‘Rugaroo’ to her sisters, she might as well be talking to her other, figurative, sisters. “Sister, there is nothing I would not do”, she tells us. This caring environment invites you to step into the writing, and I shamelessly did so with ‘Painting of a White Gate and Sky’. It describes the obligation of a grieving girl to fill an empty space in a tableau, and as such, evoked a certain feeling I’ve had since my dad passed away. In many instances, like the funeral or family gatherings, I’ve had to play the part of daughter, at the expense of just being me. Just like in the poem, this form of acting hurts everyone involved, by constantly evoking the loss. All this to say: Erdrich’s writing is warm and nurturing, and I am grateful I found it.
That’s it for now. This collection was challenging for me, but as you can see, reading it was not an altogether irrelevant or unpleasant experience. I recommend it heartily.
The next book in the project is the famous Love Medicine. It will be a re-read for me.
You can order a copy of Jacklight from HarperCollins UK, but it seems to be out of print in the US– it’s not even on the Birchbark Books website. You can always get it second-hand though.