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Know the West

In challenging times, love is an act of resistance

Heid E. Erdrich’s new award-winning poetry collection, ‘Little Big Bully,’ seeks resilience through human connection.

 

In Little Big Bully, award-winning writer Heid E. Erdrich (Ojibwe, enrolled at Turtle Mountain)  turns to poetry for resilience, using well-crafted imagery, finely tuned language and sharp humor to navigate both stories of individual abuse and systemic oppression — subject matter that, poorly handled, could re-traumatize the writer or reader. Drawing from a lifetime of experience, Erdrich writes about everything from family history, to current events, to cultural appropriation, ultimately reminding readers that caring for ourselves gives us the strength to care for others.

Erdrich has long been an important voice of American Letters, alongside such respected and celebrated Indigenous writers as Joy Harjo, Luci Tapahonso, James Welch and LeAnne Howe. This new collection, a National Poetry Series Award recipient, is a testament to Erdrich's enduring career as a poet and teacher. Her first collection, Fishing for Myth, was published in 1997. Since then, Erdrich has not only written and published six other collections of stellar verse, but gone on to edit two anthologies of Native American writing, most recently New Poets of Native Nations. Her 2013 book, Original Local, celebrates Indigenous food, stories and recipes. The “Author’s Notes” Erdrich includes at the end of her books share anecdotes about how each poem came to be, speaking to her determination to give her work additional layers of “intimacy and understanding.”

Little Big Bully begins with the poem “How,” which asks two central questions: “How did we come to this” — this rigged and damaged society that we have today? And how can Indigenous people claim a self-definition that pushes beyond caricatures and stereotypes? Throughout the collection, Erdrich’s lyrical, intimate poems fight harmful misrepresentations of Indigenous history. The book’s title, Little Big Bully, is meant as “a passing echo” of the 1964 book (and 1970 movie), Little Big Man. A revisionist Western that sought to be sympathetic to Indigenous characters, Little Big Man is both celebrated by, and problematic to, Indigenous viewers. Erdrich writes of her interest in Indigenous names “successfully holding contradiction,” even if seemingly lost in translation. This can most readily be seen in the poems “Little Big,” “Stone Animate” and “We Singular.”


Stone Animate
Whether creation carved them or not 
my hands are some concretion 
some tawn of rock      washed over 
and over in surf until sand encases the glow 
of quartz      hardness thrust up through earth’s crust 
to tumble a hundred million years 
and here we reach each other 
I reach out with hands that match this skipping stone 
and I think a moment      we know each other      and though
for the purposes of art I should      I will not let you go 


The collection addresses the trauma too often inflicted upon one’s community, tribal nation, body or the natural environment. Despite the profound and tough subject matter of her work, Erdrich employs a dark humor that makes her poems songs of resistance; a poem that references the use of banned weapons and force against unarmed people at Standing Rock, for example, is called “Territory Was Not Virgin and Neither Was I (Virgin).”

Erdrich reminds readers to resist complacency when faced with injustices unfolding today.

Erdrich rejects the quick historical amnesia that too often follows insurrection and brutality, normalizing violence. In “Variations True,” for instance, Erdrich reflects upon her German great-grandparents, killed in the firebombed town of Pforzheim during World War II. She recounts how commonplace the atrocities of war had become for her family, using long pauses to push readers to question that acceptance: “Normal     they said      I never knew how many variations of a vision we can spin.” Erdrich reminds readers to resist complacency when faced with injustices unfolding today.

Cover art by Andrea Carlson

What’s refreshing about Erdrich’s new collection is that it asks questions directly, forgoing the flourishes often seen in contemporary poetry about trauma. Instead, Erdrich experiments with sound and with simple repetition to create emotional complexity. For example, the deliberate repetition in the poem “Not” enacts a language of witness and, eventually, power. The poem’s narrator grows up surrounded by incidents of what, as a young girl, she can only understand to be  “bad things” happening to other girls and women. The experiences blur together until, as a woman, the speaker finds a way to resist: 

Not the girl in the rambler staring out her window every summer—not allowed out

Not the girl whose dad left his pistol under the pillow where we jumped on the bed ...

Not the girl another girl and then another girl then so many many girls while I was still a girl

Not the girl but a woman who was not has not did not would not could not will not not not

Alongside the darkness of this precarious and frustrating human condition, Little Big Bully tells readers, there exists the key to survival: connection. In “Reprieve,” she writes, “Now this/ this shimmer// everlasting lake of time// when every child is born ours/ every child mine.” The Earth will endure beyond current and historic harms — and, with the resilience that comes from community, so might we.

Bojan Louis (Diné) is the author of the poetry collection Currents (BkMk Press, 2017) and is an assistant professor of creative writing and American Indian Studies at the University of Arizona. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

“Stone Animate” appears in the book Little Big Bully published by Penguin Random House (2020) and is republished here with the author’s permission.