National Monumentsby Heid Erdrich
Pub. Date: 11/11/2008
Publisher: Michigan State University Press
Many of the poems in National Monuments explore bodies, particularly the bodies of indigenous women worldwide, as monumentsin life, in photos, in graves, in traveling exhibitions, and in plastic representations at the airport. Erdrich sometimes imagines what ancient bones would say if they could speak. Her poems remind us that we make monuments out of/i>… See more details below
Many of the poems in National Monuments explore bodies, particularly the bodies of indigenous women worldwide, as monumentsin life, in photos, in graves, in traveling exhibitions, and in plastic representations at the airport. Erdrich sometimes imagines what ancient bones would say if they could speak. Her poems remind us that we make monuments out of what remainsmonuments are actually our own imaginings of the meaning or significance of things that are, in themselves, silent.
As Erdrich moves from the expectedly "poetic" to the voice of a newspaper headline or popular culture, we are jarred into wondering how we make our own meanings when the present is so immediately confronted by the past (or vice versa). The language of the scientists that Erdrich sometimes quotes in epigraphs seems reductive in comparison to the richness of tone and meaning that these poemsfilled with puns, allusions, and wordplayprovide.
Erdrich's poetry is literary in the best sense of the word, infused with an awareness of the poetic canon. Her revisions of and replies to poems by William Carlos Williams, Robert Frost, and others offer an indigenous perspective quite different from the monuments of American literature they address.
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Heid E. Erdrich has written this book of free verse poems in the hope of opening peoples minds to the problems of digging up resting graves and poking at the content for scientific exploration. Through these poems, she shows us that past people were buried in the thought of it being a forever resting place where their bones wouldn't be disturbed. In her poem "Body Works" she lets us know that she is proud of her body and that she wants it respected when she dies. But she also says that it is up to the individual person to decide what is respectful for their own body. It is up to you if you want to be buried forever or have your body donated to science; it is your choice. It's scientist's digging up graves for historical purposes that is disrespectful. Heid mainly writes from the perspective of the defilement of Native American's graves because that is her background but she does add that it's not just an American Indian issue, that the pyramids of Egypt apply. This is a very insightful read that I highly recommend, especially for a book club; it'll keep you talking for hours.
From her marginalization as a woman and a Native American (an Ojibway), Erdrich tries to weave herself into the wider world. The fit is always awkward to some degree however. "There are roles no one can fill/in the movie of my life...In the movie of my life/I will just have to play myself. Though my talent lags/who else could I cast?" [from Personality] Erdrich is no good at playing roles others would require of her so she would fit. It's not that she's so committed to or proud of her identity. It's just that she doesn't know how to. Others though know how to fit the marginalized in; as the one who sells the unearthed skull of an aboriginal woman in "eBay Bones": Her tribe "should have buried her more deeply.../Should have known the web would one day/hold our dead in its sacred sites."
Edrich holds no bitterness towards those who make it problematic for her to find a good fit or who would commercialize relics of native cultures. These do not do so out of meanness or prejudice. They have no more idea than Erdrich how she would smoothly fit in. Erdrich sees the futility and also the comic aspect of this ideal. "Ki yippee ki ya yaay!/Howah!/Hokah hey...," she chants in "Goodnight."