Heid Erdrich, knocking over monuments

One of the definitions of the word “monument” is “a stone shaft or other object set in the earth to mark a boundary.” This is not exactly what Heid E. Erdrich had in mind in her brilliant new book of poems, National Monuments (MSU Press), though she leaps across boundaries, knocking over markers. The book is about the nature of the monument as metaphor and endangered sacred space, and “the places indigenous people would consider their national monuments,” and the human body as monument, and a few other things, which all make perfect sense to readers as we follow her developing thoughts, one leaping to the next.

The first and title poem in the book describes a once familiar scene in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan, a scene still familiar from old postcards—an Ojibwe graveyard filled with rough bark houses, covering graves marked with doodemic clan markers: “Doodem signs, national markers/ the body makes by being born/ that speak your only, only name.” Houses like these were meant “to moss and rot and fail,” not to be kept up with a new roof and a new coat of paint or to survive as a monument of appropriation, meaningful in odd ways beyond the communities where they were created.

Hand-colored postcard of an unidentifed Ojibwe burial ground somewhere, in the early 1900s

Hand-colored postcard of an unidentifed Ojibwe burial ground somewhere, in the early 1900s

Erdrich shows the nature of monuments both to the people who create them and to those who have no knowledge of how or why they were made. The geographer J. B. Jackson points out that in American society a traditional monument is civic in nature, meant to remind people of important things: “That is to say it exists to put people in mind of some obligation which they have incurred, a great public figure, a great public event.” People knew of those events and people and traditions kept their meanings alive for generations. Increasingly, he notes, American monuments have taken the form of attempts to reproduce or restore “the original landscape,” in a golden time beyond history. For a society used to appropriating the culture of others, Native Americans and their sacred sites, their monuments, serve this purpose well, providing new ones for people whose own civic monuments have lost their meanings.

These beautiful places are sacred for obvious reasons. As Erdrich writes, the graceful shape of Mahto Paha, or Bear Butte, in South Dakota draws many, after all, “who wouldn’t put their church here?”—even the riders on hawgs, “bound for a bikers paradise,” who drown out “sacred words pines speak with wind.” The hill, an animal form, does “offer retreat” to all, “To gather and praise at Mahto Paha/ cool in the shadow of her curled form/  tucked right under her yawning paw.” Perhaps, she suggests, Mahto Paha has the power to transcend or survive appropriation. 

Mahto Paha/ Bear Butte, as photographed by Linda Brown in 2002

Mahto Paha/ Bear Butte, as photographed by Linda Brown in 2002

In “Black and White Monument, Photo Circa 1977,” Erdrich offers a black and white photograph as a kind of monument, a reminder of what was or is important, an instant of time recorded in 1977. The poem is a truly thick description of the time and place where the photo was taken, even though everything that was important was not in it: “Everything that ever happened/ lies outside the white border/ of this photo taken in the late 1970s.” It is a photo of two girls—including, it seems, the author—holding babies, in front of a distant field. The field she says, was “the real subject of the photo”:

The light on that land, beyond beautiful, went into me so young
It became the color of all learning, all rest to be hoped for,
the face of heaven. Everything.

Just as important as the land beyond the girls, is what is beyond the edge of the photograph, a cabin, a clothesline, people sitting in lawn chairs, a pump. And even more, all things that happened that day, the events never photographed. “Why do we bear the cruelty of photos—the way they suggest anything/ can stop, any moment can be saved?” The poem itself gives the answer, the nature of the photograph as a monument, a reminder, a piece of a living context and memory, what has always seemed to me the starting point of stories.

But without any kind of living context, what purpose does a photograph serve, or a monument, or anything pulled out of the ground from a burial site? People need Erdrich’s “Guidelines for the Treatment of Sacred Objects”—a parody of NAGPRA rules and a sharp, very funny poem that asks questions about objects removed from contexts in museums or more generally found objects that were once important to people and still vibrate with a certain intensity:

If objects were worn as funerary ornament,
admire them verbally from time to time.
Brass bells should be called shiny
rather than pretty. Shell ear spools
should be remarked upon as handsome,
but beads of all kinds can be told,
simply, that they are lookin’ good.

And all of this happens in the first eleven pages of this wonderful book! There is a lot more here. I haven’t even mentioned the series of poems about Kennewick Man, the ancient person’s bones found in Kennewick, Washington, said to date to 9,300 years ago: “Kennewick Man Tells All,” “Kennewick Man Swims Laps,” “Kennewick Man Attempts Cyber-date.” How is it that this ancient First American belongs to all of us? Erdrich gives Kennewick Man an identity to undermine his appropriation, something that seldom happens to the prehistoric peoples dug up and studied for their contribution to prehistoric understanding. Erdrich’s advice, prompted by the sale of tufts of a Pharaoh’s hair on the Internet and their return to the Egypt (after resting in France and being stolen there thirty years ago):

Love your body every moment
It is only yours a while, then no longer
sovereign, if of interest to science,
or souvenir seekers, or other, as yet
unspecified future uses.

Perhaps we all may end up somebody’s monument at some point (our skulls sitting on someone’s dashboard as happened to some of the remains unearthed on Minnesota’s  Oheyawahi/ Pilot Knob),  so the best you can expect is to treat yourself and others well while you’re alive and after you’re gone, to turn to ashes, which are no one’s monument. In the book’s last lines, the author’s friend, a “brilliant playwright/ with attendant torment,” sums it up. “But, really, scatter my ashes, baby—/from said playwright, about says it,/ for after words.”

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