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Thursday, May 26, 2011

Number 167: Louise Erdrich "Dear John Wayne"

Dear John Wayne

August and the drive-in picture is packed.
We lounge on the hood of the Pontiac
surrounded by the slow-burning spirals they sell
at the window, to vanquish the hordes of mosquitoes.
Nothing works. They break through the smoke screen for blood.

Always the lookout spots the Indian first,
spread north to south, barring progress.
The Sioux or some other Plains bunch
in spectacular columns, ICBM missiles,
feathers bristling in the meaningful sunset.

The drum breaks. There will be no parlance.
Only the arrows whining, a death-cloud of nerves
swarming down on the settlers
who die beautifully, tumbling like dust weeds
into the history that brought us all here
together: this wide screen beneath the sign of the bear.

The sky fills, acres of blue squint and eye
that the crowd cheers. His face moves over us,
a thick cloud of vengeance, pitted
like the land that was once flesh. Each rut,
each scar makes a promise: It is
not over, this fight, not as long as you resist.

Everything we see belongs to us.

A few laughing Indians fall over the hood
slipping in the hot spilled butter.
The eye sees a lot, John, but the heart is so blind.
Death makes us owners of nothing.

He smiles, a horizon of teeth
the credits reel over, and then the white fields

again blowing in the true-to-life dark.
The dark films over everything.
We get into the car
scratching our mosquito bites, speechless and small
as people are when the movie is done.
We are back in our skins.

How can we help but keep hearing his voice,
the flip side of the sound track, still playing:
Come on, boys, we got them where we want them, drunk, running.
They’ll give us what we want, what we need.
Even his disease was the idea of taking everything.
Those cells, burning, doubling, splitting out of their skins.

-- Louise Erdrich

Hap Notes: Louise Erdrich (born 1954) was born in Little Falls, Minnesota and is a member of the Anshinaabe Nation (Ojibwa and Chippewa). It's John Wayne's birthday today and this poem came into my head as I read that fact online this morning.

Erdrich's parents were teachers at the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) school and her grandfather was a tribal chair for the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa. Her father was of German-American descent, her mom was French and Anshinaabe. She grew up in North Dakota. She went to Dartmouth and got her M.A. at Johns Hopkins in creative writing. She's won the Pushcart Prize for her poetry, the O. Henry Award for her short stories and the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction.

Erdrich is primarily considered a novelist and her books are wonderfully written stories that have gotten much acclaim (Love Medicine, The Beet Queen, Tracks, The Antelope Wife, Shadow Tag, etc.) I consider her a poet who occasionally writes narratives (it's my blog, so there.)

In today's poem we see a group of Native Americans watching a John Wayne movie at a drive-in theater, where his face can fill the sky under the stars (Ursa Major- the great bear, of which the Big Dipper is a part.) She has loaded this poem with ironies and sadness from the Pontiac (named for an Ottowa chief, who urged his tribe to shun "white" goods and customs because they diluted the Indian culture. That's a painting of him in the masthead) the group is sitting upon, to the final words describing Wayne's death from cancer. The poem is filled with acquisition from the mosquitoes out for blood to the settlers taking land from the Native Americans by force to the cancerous cells overtaking the body.

I have to break off not so briefly to say that while the death of anyone diminishes us and I'd not wish cancer on anybody, I have never cared much for John Wayne. Okay, change that "never cared for much" to "always detested." I loathed his politics and despise most all of his movies. He came to epitomize, for me, everything that is wrong with this country- our misaligned affections, our cowardly attacks with machinery and guns, our lionization of guys who acted for a living (not worked in a factory, or on a road, or picking up trash- he sat in a trailer putting on make-up and drinking iced tea- what a wuss!) He never fought in any real war. Never. He just put on costumes and pretended. I'm sure he had his finer points but they get obliterated by this wave of jingoist junk.

Martial victory is a flaccid thing, really. No bells peal at the time, no soundtrack swells with the attacks, no happiness blooms in the hearts of those that have committed murder. Conflicts are sweaty, stinky, noisy, vile, brutal and idiotic and those weary folks that were in them, if they are decent human beings, are wracked with guilt, shame, anger, confusion and despair. I went to college with a lot of Vietnam vets and I saw what war does to a regular human – a good half of those guys had mental disorders from their war experiences. (Did you know that almost 50 percent of the homeless problem in the 80s and 90s was Vietnam vets? We treat veterans shamefully, which seems to illustrate that we don't want to think about what we made them do for our comfort. It's despicable. Where was I? Oh, yeah, John Wayne/Erdrich/poem- sorry. Kinda dropped the tranny there.)

Erdrich's poem points out that there are creatures who must be crudely and constantly acquiring and nothing seems to stop them; not the spiral bug coils lit to keep away mosquitoes nor the cancerous cells that just keep on splitting. These creatures are not human. Note the use of the word skin throughout the verses also. The spilled butter always seems like blood to me, in the poem- maybe that's just me though. It's interesting that she says the dark "films" over everything too, yes?

Here's a good Erdrich quote:
"My father used to give me a nickel for each story I wrote, and my mother wove strips of construction paper together and stapled them into book covers. So at an early age I felt myself to be a published author earning substantial royalties."

You can find more Erdrich here:

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