Penguin Books, 2020
112 pages, $20
Winner of the 2022 Library of Congress Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt Poetry Prize
Review by Karen M. Poremski
Heid E. Erdrich’s sixth book of poetry, Little Big Bully, engages issues of power, abuse, violence, revenge, silencing, erasure, and the complexities therein that evade our languages (though Indigenous languages sometimes get closer to expressing complex states of being). It delves into the dark nooks and crannies that we are taught to forget about, that we are told do not exist or do not matter or that we should get over and move on from. By opening up these spaces we see ugliness, meanness, and deceit in a myriad of forms, but we also know what it is to survive abuse: no, it does not leave (the body holds onto it); yes, it hurts, could have killed, and still could; and it changes the way we see the world, requiring vigilance and always asking questions. Little Big Bully is not an easy book to read. But it feels absolutely essential.
The first poem, “How,” leads us into the volume with a question. The poem seems to come from a speaker who wanders from sweet wonderings—“How I love you … How fetching your spectacles … How your eyes warm mine,” to questions that express profound discomfort and even pain: “How full of angst How gut sick … How angry How incensed…” Sentences run together, unpunctuated except by the capitalized “How,” and lines are unbroken, creating a block of text. Phrases lead one to another, associations pulling us along: “How we drink How we drink a health How we care…” The poem ends with a pressing question: “How did we How loves How did we come to this.” This repetition and exhortation expresses not only bewilderment but a frustrated desire for answers that many of us have been asking for these past few years, and they are a fitting way to launch a book delving into abuse and power.
Erdrich, an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Ojibwe tribe, addresses the issue of MMIW—Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women—in several poems. In the almost lighthearted “I Feel Like a Fool Do You?” a poem that references the Fool card in the tarot deck, the speaker mentions a moment in childhood:
He tried to get me to walk under a bridge with him he said he had a great gift
my bigger sister sniggered at that or there’d be
a red dress hanging in a tree for me too
The red dress references artist Jaime Black’s REDress Project, which raises awareness of Indigenous women whose disappearances and murders have gone unsolved and largely unnoticed by law enforcement and the general non-Native public. The exhibit consists of red dresses of different styles hung in trees, and appeared outside the National Museum of the American Indian in March 2019. Under the “sniggering” and the overall wry tone throughout the poem about being a fool, we sense the grave danger Indigenous women are especially vulnerable to.
The question of counting lies at the heart of the poem “Aftermath,” which is a catalog of all the ways the speaker faced sexual harassment, violation, and threats. Each line begins with a number and dash followed by a description of the incident, everything from kids at school who “backed me into lockers or hallways or / fences or trees,” to having her “no” ignored by boyfriends, to perhaps the scariest experience:
the cop who drove me homeI told him no don’t starthe stopped in the fog
to let me know exactly what he could dobefore I’d be deadif he wanted to
The catalog is devastating enough, and yet the speaker realizes “I never thought I’d gotten the worst.” The theme of counting, and what “counts” as traumatic incidents of sexual assault, ring through the poem and its terrifying math. The title “Aftermath” also hints that, though she has survived, there is much more to be reckoned with after the counting is done, much more that will continue to harm her into the future.
Little Big Bully also focuses on the wider effects of uneven power relations, including the ongoing damage of colonization. In “All Nations,” the speaker connects the fates of disappearing animals, especially birds, with the ways that Native people were almost erased by federal legislation in the 1950s, specifically the Treaty Termination policies that sought to end Native people’s special status within the U.S. The poem connects the words “extinction,” “extermination,” and “termination,” while the speaker expresses a desire to re-imagine the fate of finches, flickers, doves, blackbirds, meadowlarks, and other birds: “I would like to think they’ve gone off somewhere safer … Not gone gone just off”
She yearns for a place of safety for the birds as well as for endangered people. In the meantime, “We try / to make a stop for birds a home for beasts” in the yard, imagining “that there’s somewhere still out there / closer to wild.” Even though the space she creates is only imaginary, it reads as a critical act of survival for those who are threatened or traumatized.
Some of these poems are likely about our former narcissistic-bully-in-chief, and it’s quite satisfying to have moments that call out his behavior. There are direct references, as in the title “Melania Won’t Leave You (though she retires to her private island Melanesia where she learns the Tongan word tabu).” The title “I Feel Like a Fool Do You?” seems to echo Melania’s “I Really Don’t Care Do U?” jacket. My favorite probably-about-the-former-president poem is “Big Sir,” which plays with the concepts of the bully who takes up space, takes light and attention, while others must shrink themselves in his presence (“just get smaller”), or hide in the shadows of his “cold eclipse,” echoing the 2017 solar eclipse viewing where he took off his glasses and looked into the sun. The poem starts, “massive block of a man takes the light turns up his chin / sun exists to shine for him,” and turns to instructions on how to deal with a narcissist:
hide behindor step up
but never get between
the mean mass
and his light
In observing this bully, the poem also notes the way people who interact with him have to make choices, adjust their own behavior, and offer him fawning praise.
These poems reveal the ways we are all liable to get caught in the dance of unequal power, or become drawn to ways of thinking that belittle others. In “Melania Won’t Leave You…” the speaker points out, “she groans a human groan and yet you hate her hate her hate her,” recognizing that the subject is human and yet the speaker struggles to find empathy for her. And it only gets worse: “Get on this train it keeps going hate hate hate hate hate,” and then expresses surprise at finding herself here: “This is not your nature someone dragged you here some bully…” In describing an act of violence that led to her loss of empathy, the speaker exposes the complicated layers involved in this turn to rage. We are all implicated here, none of us immune to the pull of power over someone else as a reaction to being hurt.
The book’s title and first poem also expose harmful habits of mind that flatten humans into creatures we can hate. While the poem “How” is subtle and beautiful, its title references the first word viewers are likely to hear from the stereotyped Native characters in Hollywood westerns, a mangled version of the Lakota greeting “hau.” The title Little Big Bully echoes the name of the site of the Little Big Horn massacre in 1876. Erdrich’s note also says it is “meant as passing echoes of the book Little Big Man by Thomas Berger and the film directed by Arthur Penn.” Several poems describe the inherent violence in the seemingly benign trend of “Pretendianism,” where non-Native people claim Native status or masquerade as Indigenous. The poem “Fauxskins” assails this problem: if others can put on Native identity as a costume with “war paint and stoic pout,” that disappears actual Native people and their lived experience. But in the act of exclusion, in delineating insiders and outsiders, the speaker discovers, “How small and mean that makes me…” That insidious way of thought was created by the federal government and colonizers in their ongoing efforts to disappear Indigenous people. The conclusion lists policy-related words that dance across the page:
You knowthere but for the
quantum rulestribal rolls
fur trade journalsconversionscensus
bad mathblood math
The play of language here—slant and/or near rhyme and repeated sounds—makes the lines musical, almost light, yet at the same time these are the heavy policies that may someday erase the speaker’s status.
One of the most fascinating poems in Little Big Bully, both in its content and form, is “Zeno’s Indians.” It engages with issues of Native identity as defined by federal edict, versus as lived by Indigenous people. The form is tricky: the first line consists of 12 stars (asterisks), the second line 11, and so on, until just one star appears; then a block of text appears, all run together but with notations at the end of each thought like a footnote indicator, first one *, then two **, and so on. A third section has the footnotes, each one taking up one line, and with the stars/asterisks building up on the left margin again, until the last line is prefaced by 12 stars/asterisks. The first three text thoughts establish complications of Native identity: “There is only one Indian* There is no Native American** There are Native Americans***.” The next thoughts describe different ways of upbringing Native people might experience, “rez-raised … urban-rez-raised … adopted out,” but then bloom from categories to tiny stories of how Native people pursue their lives: “that one giving a perm in an old gas-station remodeled for the beauty parlor she always dreamed on the two-lane blacktop a hundred miles from her reservation… and this one blazing the country—Turtle Island—with empowerment and edutainment …” However, she reveals that none of these ways of pursuing a Native life is accounted for in the mathematics of the federal government’s “CIB”, which the footnotes tell us is “Certificate (Degree) of Indian Blood” that determines legal status. The footnotes explain terms and concepts only Native readers might know, like “Some tribes have done away with the blood quantum requirement” or “Commodity foods are a cheap way Feds meet treaty obligations.” As if this poem didn’t contain enough multitudes, it ends with a smashing together of Zeno’s paradox (everything can be infinitely divided), and a block of commodity cheese (possibly making a fart joke).
Long-time readers of Erdrich’s work will recognize the wry humor that occasionally leavens the heavy topics explored in Little Big Bully, and will appreciate the sprinkling of love poems that are both original and personal. The forms in this volume seem to pick up on those used in the earlier volume Curator of Ephemera at the New Museum for Archaic Media. In Little Big Bully, though, those forms appear even more expansive: the lines are long—so long the book needed a wider-than-standard format—and phrases or words are interspersed with blank spaces, giving time and breath to clusters of sound and meaning as they link across the page. As a result, sometimes a stanza will include phrases aligned in columns, and sometimes those phrases are scattered across the page like seeds. There are a few poems that appear as unbroken, unpunctuated blocks of text, only signaling new thoughts with a capital letter (as in “How”).
The poems soften as we move into the fourth section despite the fact that the last poem takes place in an apocalyptic future. It presents horrors of rising seas and humans’ hair all falling out, even as it describes incredible beauty: “We did not expect the light to break / into prism,” and “Our skins struggled into iridescence.” The poem’s title, “Reprieve,” suggests a consolation to ease the suffering, and that beauty is echoed in its last lines, a vision of life where we are finally, in the end, brought together: “when every child born is ours…”
Personally, I find more consolation in the poem third from last, “If I Give You a Last Lesson.” The speaker, both an adult child and the parent of a young adult, gives instructions for when the speaker nears the end of her life, telling her child “How to watch me go … How to stand here alone when I am gone…” Lines conjure danger and protection, exhortations to remember her instructions “How to jump when an enemy,” and “How to live with the hurt of being human… “ Yet these are also tempered by tender instructions: “How to yearn for blue shores,” and that you must “demand real love / from anyone you give your sweetest self.”The repetition of “how” echoes the first poem in the book. The conclusion offers a last moment in life, a last lesson that we would all be lucky to have. This is where I needed to land in this volume, and where my heart finds solace, even in grief.
In a reading and conversation at the University of Minnesota on Feb. 6, 2023, Erdrich responded to a question about power imbalances, injustice, and how we use writing to express those issues: “In this book I fought back from giving up. I was looking for stories about narcissism and oppression: was there a secret, a subtext, to getting through it, to surviving? I don’t answer the question, but I look for possibility, moving forward with a shield in front of you.” For me, this book becomes part of my shield, a protection as I move forward into the world we have made, vulnerable, maybe doomed, but moving forward all the same.
Karen M. Poremski (she/hers) taught American literature classes as an Associate Professor of English before retiring; her scholarly work, appearing in Studies in American Indian Literatures and Transmotion, explored the ways Native poets depict the complex relationships between Native people and the objects in museums. She lives between the Olentangy and Scioto Rivers and enjoys knitting while watching British mysteries with her cats (three) and spouse (one).Her Twitter handle is @profkarenpski.