As I read Heid E. Erdrich’s Cell Traffic: New and Selected Poems (University of Arizona, 2012), I follow the method I use when reading critically, especially with an eye for writing a review. Throwing book lover no-nos to the wind, I dog-ear the pages that exemplify the poet’s perspective or style, and write liberal marginalia. I star the poems that seem most universal or most personal. My interactions with the poems become a permanent part of them. I use a pen.
A few nights ago, as I sat down to read the last of this book, I realized that I dogeared more than two thirds of Cell Traffic. I scrawled across these pages “lineage!” and “family of humanity!” – “YES!!!” more than one page exclaimed. It was clear that in mapping the tightly knit poems, they had worked to become part of me. Erdrich’s writing does this.
To read Erdrich’s work is to get caught up in the rapids of a powerful river. She transverses broad landscapes easily. Images from the Chinese zodiac, Ojibiwe stories, and Biblical icons rush past, all put to Erdrich’s purpose – that while weight is genetic “…the thrifty gene makes sure/our bodies warm through spring” – she claims it as good fortune – “Spiral of fate, chain of code,/luck genes must match up/with thrift genes somewhere.” So much ground covered in a difficult to discuss topic, body image and heredity, and that’s only the first poem, “Thrifty Gene, Lucky Gene.”
Recently, I watched a TED talk about storytelling, given by Andrew Stanton, the creative mind that brought us Wall-E and Finding Nemo. He claimed that the single most important thing that a storyteller must do – and must do quickly – is to make the reader care (or the listener/viewer in his case). He does not broaden this beyond storytellers, but I believe it’s true of any powerful writing. Erdrich makes her reader care by identifying the role that all of us have in the family of humanity. Again and again she returns to this subject of our common denominator of genes, “a strand of maternal code, thinner than hair,/stronger and lasting long as humanity.” (from “Mitochondrial Eve”)
How generous her beginning, via Walt Whitman. How inclusive. – “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” In “Seven Mothers,” she writes:
“Imagine an engine
in each cell, the furnace
of flesh built in each of us.”
Our mothers, then. I am brought into the family in this poem, which spans the entire book, which reaches out its arms into the world and invites all readers everywhere. How better to make me care, than to help me see that we are all part of this family? Her past is my past is your past.
Her work provides a deep sense of connection because she has connected herself to her readers on the cellular level: her stories become our stories.
“In Search of Jane’s Grave” and the “Kennewick Man” series deepen our understanding of the insidious nature of the sins of the distant past. How difficult they are to right, if not impossible. She doesn’t place blame, she merely retrieves the pieces of history from the floor – finds Jane, whose headstone doesn’t reference her importance to her tribe as war chief’s daughter, her writings, or her place historically as a Native American whose mother’s family stories were taken by Longfellow as inspiration for Hiawatha. Erdrich sweeps up the scattered facts, and arranges them in their proper order so that we can join her in thanking the ancestors – because, she asserts – these are our ancestors, too. To read of past wrongs, done to our grandmother is to take ownership of a story that’s done generations dis-service, to want the story to be corrected. The stories she seeks to mend, to tell fully, are our family stories. We know history has appropriated and contorted these stories, when they have not been outright stolen and purposefully obscured. With Erdrich’s poetry there is a move to relocate and restore the facts.
One of the great treasures of this book is the conversations the poems seem to be having with each other, and the subjects that Erdrich returns to repeatedly. Some are similarly titled, some have an echo feel. This happens in the poems she has translated into Ojibiwe and back into English, done collaboratively with Dr. Margaret Noori. On the other side of this translation, as in reading her paired poems, lines translated assert something subtly different, some deeper meaning than if it was only ground covered on one level. (Although none of her poems are mono-level to begin with.) In “This is the Way We Walk”
We walk this way.
Mii sa ezhi-bimoseyaang.
(This is the way we walk.)
The first line speaks of direction. The second line as translated speaks of mode. I am not a linguist, but in this set of poems, this was an ongoing feeling – that the English language communicates direction and constraint, and as translated, the Ojibiwe communicates mode and quality. In this cascade of language, the lines seemed to open up further, to stretch out for the reader to interpret the myriad of images and nuances.
Part of the two-way highway of this book involves Heid E. Erdrich tenderly talking to her own daughter and her ancestors. Though these poems are deeply personal, she speaks with the voice that we all need to hear coming to us across the pages – inviting us to find our place on the continuum far beyond our individual lives, our lifetimes. That which has been severed and forgotten for generations can be mended, even after the fact, even when the repair may show, even when the lines of communication are knotted and difficult to untangle.
These ideas are part of the literary DNA of this book, which shares links to Frost, and William Carlos Williams, among many other poet ancestors. By the end of the book I have returned to her dedication page – Indinawemaaganidog – all my relations. I somehow feel a part of that.
The Selected Works section begins with “Guidelines for the Treatment of Sacred Objects,” which instructs the reader, whether Ojibewe or not, how to read and reread these poems. They are something all are welcome to honor, all are welcome to invite inside, to allow them to become part of all readers. The poems should not be put behind glass, remain only admired from a distance, and othered. Even in a poem ostensibly about the cells moving back and forth between mother and child, “Microchimerism” situates the self in a larger sense. The “blood river once between you/went two ways/what makes us/own sole and sovereign selves/is only partially us.// The search for God can be called off.” “Forgive me, I am not my self.” Fortunately, with Erdrich, you are with family.
*Be sure not to miss Indigenous Elvis Walks the Medicine Line, HERE .
Sarah Winn is the 2013-2014 Completion Fellow at George Mason University, where she is an MFA candidate in Poetry. She was a 2012 runner up for the Virginia Downs Poetry Prize. Her poems have appeared in Chimes, Crux and most recently in Egg.
She has reviewed and blogged for School Library Journal during her time as a school librarian, and currently teaches writing in Fairfax and Arlington County Schools through a Sally Merton Fellowship.
Read more of her work here or follow her on twitter @blueaisling.