The Northern lilt of Ojibwe poet Heid E. Erdrich bounced off the bookstacks in a room on the fifth floor of the downtown library last night. "I love reading in libraries because I get to talk out loud," she said with a chuckle before cracking into National Monuments, her latest volume of poetry.
Erdrich, who hails from Minnesota, is a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe. Her ancestry and gender figure prominently into her writing. The selections she shared from National Monuments included responses to William Carlos Williams' poem "To Elsie" and Robert Frost's "The Gift Outright." "I speak for people who haunt literature," Erdrich said, meaning American Indian people who may have gotten a short shrift from white writers. Elsie, Williams' flop-breasted maid, haunted Erdrich for years. And so, the Ojibwe poet offers voice, depth and defense to Elsie through multiple poems. In one, she asks, "What if her ample chest had been her pride?"
Erdrich is also concerned with "the haunting of our museums." And though her frustration at the disrespect shown to American Indian remains is at the root of her exploration of this theme, Erdrich's tone is often humorous, even playful. For instance, she imagines the 9,200-year-old bones of the Kennewick Man swimming laps to pass his time interred at a historical storage facility. Her fascination with science and history's claims on human (and pre-human) remains has led Erdrich to ruminate on the the pickled heart of Marie Antoinette's son and the controversial Bodies: Revealed exhibit. As she was composing the poems for National Monument, she said that her RSS feed kept her inspired with such news as the discovery of a possible chimp-human hybrid and the attempted sale of a Hawaiian warrior's skull on eBay. "It's just a crazy world out there -- of bones and hair and stuff," Erdrich said last night. "People are still trading in human body parts."
Erdrich's presentation was the first installment of Park University's 2009-10 Ethnic Voices Poetry Series, which continues on October 22 with a reading by the Latino Writers Collective.