A MONUMENT OF ONE'S
By Britt Aamodt
IN NATIONAL MONUMENTS,
POET HEID E. ERDRICH documents the
strange case of Nefertiti, an ancient Egyptian queen acclaimed as
the "most beautiful woman in the world" after Ludwig Borchardt's 1912 excavation of her
ravishing likeness, in the form of a sculpted head, from the sands of
I know what historians say: Nefertiti vanished until
the bust found—found me radiant eternally.
The pedestal spot brought the Sun upon me again.
Again He spoke my true name: The Beauty Arrived.
Wife of Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten, stepmother to
Tutankhamun, a.k.a., King Tut, Nefertiti bore many titles in her day: Mistress
of Sweetness, Mistress of Upper and Lower Egypt, Exuding Happiness, Beloved One. But withered crone?
"A recent museum study discovered that Nefertiti [as
represented by the sculpture] had lines and wrinkles. I thought, how dare they? How dare they revise her
beauty and qualify it by her middle-agedness," relates Erdrich.
"It cracked me up. So I read more about Nefertiti and
found out that she and her husband were sun worshippers—literally. They worshipped
the sun god Aten. Of course, sun worshippers are going to have wrinkles."
Taking on the mantle of the faded beauty, the poet glories
in "Nefertiti's Close Up":
So the Sun touched me, drew my lips
to His and kissed until I flamed.
How hot His tongue, like the flick of a lizard.
So what if I bear His marks, His flecks and lines?
"The Nefertiti poem was one of the first to come out of
my RSS feed," says Erdrich, whose morning email jolt of the arcane,
outlandish, incredible, historic and scientific news provided a good chunk of
the inspiration and research behind National
published by Michigan State University Press, is Erdrich's third book of
poetry, and her fourth (including Sister Nations, a
book she anthologized) to snag a coveted Minnesota Book Award nomination. Not
that she's counting. Erdrich deals in words, not numbers, and she plays those
words into imaginative leaps that travel across time—from the 9,300-year-old
bones of Kennewick Man and the French Revolution to a modern-day War on Terror
detainee -- and place, over the Black Hills and into Grand Portage, cyberspace,
myth, literature, a lover's arms, and academia.
Her poetry is research-laden, a fact which might sound
snooze alarms in other hands. But with Erdrich's sense for comic turns of
phrase, a poem riffing on the bureaucratese of the Native American
Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) comes out sounding anything
but stodgy: "If an object calls for
its mother,/ boil water and immediately swaddle it", "Avoid using bones as drumsticks/ or
paperweights, no matter/ the actions of previous Directors or Vice/ Directors of
your institution", "Never,
at anytime, sing Dem Bones."
"I started out wanting to write a book based on my
response to national literature, American literature. My response to Indians in
it," says the poet, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibway and a former
professor of literature at the University
of St. Thomas in St. Paul.
Erdrich gave up tenure in 2007 to pursue her writing and to devote
more time to the Native community. A co-founder of the Turtle Mountain Writing
Workshop and Birchbark House, a bookstore specializing in indigenous-language
literature, she is also curator at Ancient Traders
Gallery in Minneapolis.
The transformation in Erdrich's professional life in 2007 roughly
corresponded to a fresh re-visioning of the book she was writing. "Someone
had said, 'There are no national monument markers in places that are sacred to
Native people,'" Erdrich recalls. "So, I thought I was going to write
about that. I examined those sacred places, took trips. But what came to me
were ideas about the body: the body as monument, the body as nation-building
And then there were the tantalizing news stories that came
in through her RSS feed. How could she resist incorporating the true story of
pharaoh Ramses II's stolen hair turning up on eBay, or the 12,000 indigenous
skeletons housed in drawers beneath a university swimming pool, or Amazonian
tribal blood sold to online buyers?
Erdrich divides the poems in National Monuments into these three phases: Grave Markers, American
Ghosts and Discovery—An RSS Feed
Series. Grave Markers takes up
Erdrich's interest in national monuments and explores the notion of the body as
comprises the poems Erdrich crafted as a response to representations of the
Indian in American literature. These include the poet's response to William
Carlos Williams's "To Elsie" poem. Where Williams spoke about his Elsie (calling her
"the half-breed"), Erdrich serves as her psychic host, allowing Elsie
to reincarnate for one day to sit in on a class studying her poem.
She endures the comments about her body,
"the great ungainly hips and flopping breasts."
What if her ample chest had been her pride?...
What if she thought, Ah, at last
A poem about someone I know.
"My poems are a conversation," says Erdrich.
"I think it's the choice of a poem to be able to continue conversations
others might have had. I often speak about thoughts and feelings
that are really not mine." It's a writing habit that leaves some of Erdrich's
editors and close readers feeling cheated. "They complain, 'There's
nothing personal in there,'" she laughs. "The voice I use isn't mine.
It can cut through and join conversations and speak with many voices. I like to
think it's a wiser voice, one with certainties I don't have."
On April 25, National
Monuments was named the 2009 Minnesota Book Award-winner for poetry. Erdrich's
two previous books of poetry are the Minnesota Voices Award winner Fishing for Myth (New Rivers Press,
1997) and The Mother's Tongue (Salt
About the author:
Britt Aamodt BIO
Britt Aamodt is a Minnesota writer living in Elk River. She
has received artist grants for her creative fiction, and currently writes and
produces radio plays with the group Deadbeats On the Air.
Heid Erdrich's website
Gaiman's website provides an author bibliography, information on forthcoming
projects and a blog that seems to follow the author wherever he goes.
Heid Erdrich and her sister Louise founded Birchbark House in 2001 as a
clearinghouse for indigenous-language literature. Birchbark is located in the
Kenwood neighborhood of Minneapolis.
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The Norm screenplay (early draft)