Louise Erdrich | Critical Review by Annie Finch

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Louise Erdrich.
This section contains 694 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Annie Finch

SOURCE: "Poets of Our Time," in Belles Lettres, Vol. 5, No. 4, Summer, 1990, pp. 30-31.

In the following excerpt, Finch praises most of Baptism of Desire but expresses reservations about the final section of the book, objecting to the comparative "ordinariness" of the poems there.

These three books of poetry [Baptism of Desire by Erdrich, Green Age by Alicia Suskin Ostriker, and Toluca Street by Maxine Scates], written by three women coming from very different places as poets at the beginning of the end of our century, make a revealing cross-section. Louise Erdrich, a successful novelist who has written only one other book of poems, presumably uses poetry to write in ways not possible with the novel form. Alicia Suskin Ostriker, well-established as a poet, uses this volume to continue ideas developed in six other books of poems and three books of poetry criticism. Maxine Scates is new to the poetry scene; this first book of poems is published as the winner of an annual national poetry competition.

In the context of the wider poetry scene that these books reflect, Erdrich's Baptism of Desire is probably the most unusual and original of the three books. "Hydra" is typical, a poem full of private imagery and eclectic allusions, as in the following passage:

     Hour of the talk-show hostess.
     Hour of the wolf, of the tree service,
     of the worship of the god whose name adds
     to a single year. Abraxas, the perfect word.

It is not necessary for a reader to struggle through every bit of difficult meaning to find these poems rewarding. They are lush in imagery, fascinating in their suggestiveness, refreshing, often, in their very privacy. At times passages emerge from the obscure background with a startling clear immediacy that is all the more valuable by contrast. The final passage of the poem just quoted is such an instance:

     … Snake of hard hours, you are my poetry.
     According to God, your place is low,
     under Adam's heel, but as for me,
     a woman shaped from a secondary bone,
     who cares if you wrap my shoulders?
     Who cares if you whisper? Who cares
     if the fruit is luscious? Your place
     is at my ear.

This vivid invocation can speak intimately to almost every woman raised in a Judeo-Christian culture; the fact that Erdrich has arrived at this place through a sometimes tortuous path of private meanings makes it, in some ways, that much more marvelously universal. In some of the shorter poems, the difficulty can set a strange image in the mind like salt setting dye. "The Kitchen Mandarins" describes figures on china coming alive in the kitchen at night. It is a queer, disturbing poem that never quite settles down. It ends:

     Now they vanish among the branches in the teacups,
     the whips and rings.
     I know there will be no rest for me.
     No thimbleful of peace.

What are the whips and rings? Why a thimbleful? Nothing in the poem has indicated why there should be no rest for the speaker. But none of this matters; I am glad for these problems, which turn a potentially sentimental thought into a poem you can hold in your mind like a koan and never have to get the better of.

In the last section of the book, however, Erdrich sacrifices much of this strange power for the sake of more common effects. These poems, almost all rooted in a daily experience—a family going to sleep, a child in a basement—tend to rely on the images and stories themselves to create poignancy. The naturalistic language and free verse structure do little to charge or defamiliarize the described world. After the first four sections of the book, I found passages such as "The father pours the milk from his glass / into the cup of the child" (from "The Glass and the Bowl") comparatively unmemorable.

Erdrich's unique strengths as a poet seem to be her gift for powerful incantatory rhythms and her ability to let strangenesses simply be. She can reach such singular places in her poetry that it is almost a shame to see her settling down, at the end of her book, to ordinariness—however well earned. But the reader, at least, has all the rest of the book with which to dream….

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This section contains 694 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Annie Finch
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