Ojibwe poet Heid E. Erdrich tackles a big canvas with her new and selected poems, Cell Traffic (University of Arizona Press, 2012).
“The title of this collection suggests movement, small units passing back and forth, busy telecommunications, Internet chatter and terrorist groups, the sale or traffic in DNA or body parts or bones, indigenousness and ancestral inheritance, migration through procreation, and other biological processes,” she writes.
In addition to this wide-ranging catalog, laden with potential metaphor, “cell traffic” also has a physical meaning. It refers to a process in which actual cells of the mother move into the child and vice versa. Ancestral inheritance and indigenousness, check!
All good poets are in love with words, and Erdrich is no exception. But she is fascinated with words both in English and Ojibwe. So “cell” can also mean prison, as well as the body’s or soul’s DNA. And it is clear that the author took delight in using this centipede Ojibwe word for blueberry pie: Miiniibashkimiinasigunbatagiingweijiiganbiitooingwesijiiganibakwezhigan. Thus does she show her shared love of language with her sister, Louise, whose The Round House won a 2012 National Book Award.
The first half of Cell Traffic is unified by the DNA theme. These are the new poems; selected poems from Erdrich’s first three books follow. Erdrich also incorporates artistic DNA into her work—for example, in writing about the Ojibwe poet mother Jane Johnston Schoolcraft (1800–1842). Called Bamewawagezhikaquay in Ojibwe (Woman of the Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky), Schoolcraft may have been the first American Indian to write poetry in her Native language. She also managed to beat Walt Whitman to “Song of Myself ” by a number of years. “In Search of Jane’s Grave” is a valuable pilgrimage to make to this important American and American Indian poet.
Erdrich also ponders poets from the dominant culture like Robert Frost, Gerard Manley Hopkins and William Carlos Williams. The latter comes in for some sharp ribbing in a couple of poems about his “Elsie” character, for instance.
There is a wonderful confluence of English and Ojibwe in a section of Erdrich’s previously uncollected works. These are poems she writes in English and Margaret Noori translates into literal Ojibwe, “re-expressing” them
in a poetic Ojibwe that she then translates back into English, with translations that are often at least as poetic as the originals. Hence, Erdrich’s “Hot from the pan, green and garlicky—all the energy of sun turned to leaf and ours to eat,” filtered through Ojibwe, returns to English as, “Hot-green-wild-onions we fried. The energy is in the leaves, so we are eating the sun.”
Many Native poets are angry and smart-alecky, and Cell Traffic indulges in a bit of that as well. Thus, the wonderful “Guidelines for the Treatment of Sacred Objects” hisses, “Avoid using bones as drumsticks/or paperweights, no matter/the actions of previous Directors or Vice/Directors of your institution.”
But Erdrich isn’t a one-trick pony. There is sweetness as well, as in the love poem “That Green Night.” There is wisdom, too, in how to be able to live in the cell traffic/DNA/ancestor bone (Kennewick Man makes a couple of appearances) world she explores so meticulously.
Witness “Wearing Indian Jewelry”: Erdrich wonders why a man dresses in so many Native motifs. But, he says, “these things/are sacred, these things are prayer.” This allows Erdrich to conclude, “Then I knew I could live this life/if I had blue horses /painted around and around me.”