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Baptism of Desire: Poems. Louise Erdrich. New York: Harper and Row, 1990. 78pp. ISBN 0-06016213-9.

In Catholic doctrine, Baptism of Desire has a rather technical meaning: a person who is unable to
manage conventional baptism of water can, by earnestly and truly wanting to be baptised, gain the
benefits of the sacrament, i.e., entry into the church and eligibility for {56} heaven. Longing and will
may serve where form and ritual are impossible. In Louise Erdrich's latest collection of poems the
technical meaning of longing to be baptised in the Catholic Church is rather a jumping-off point than
a core metaphor. Again and again the poems return to Catholic tradition and terminology--not out of
unquestioning acceptance, but to explore the legacy of this religion's impossible requirements and
extravagant promises. The reader will not look to these texts for the abstruse reaches of theology (a
list of sacraments leaves one out; Immaculate Conception is confused with Annunciation) but rather
for the earthy details of Catholic legend and the piercing metaphors of popular belief. The occult and
the superstitious, the surreal life of dreamer, mystic and seer, all find a place; The Cloud of
Unknowing and The Other Bible. as well as lives of the saints, are offered as part of the textual matrix
for these poems.
Erdrich calls upon her Chippewa traditions as well, and readers of her first collection, Jacklight,
will welcome the return of Potchikoo, that charming adventurer. Potchikoo also, however, encounters
Christianity in the tales in this volume; he undertakes something of a Dantean journey through heaven
and hell (the hell for white people even has a sign over the gate like Dante's; it reads "Entrance: Hell")
before he is restored to Josette.
Other characters from Jacklight also reappear in this collection. Mary Kroger returns, with
stories and memories from her past. She remembers "Poor Clare," a slow-witted girl, "much too eager
for a man's touch," whose pregnancy and the mysterious absence of issue from it give rise to a story
told in small towns everywhere. Mary feels the ghostly presence of love-torn "Rudy J. V. Jacklitch,
the bachelor who drove his light truck through the side of a barn on my account," she senses the ghost
of a woman who burned to death, she returns to recollection of a Carmelite nun and the life of
renunciation both fascinating and incomprehensible to her. The Mary Kroger poems have loosened in
form since Jacklight: they are more discursive in expression, with less of the intensity and focus that
metric lines and rhyme permitted in the earlier volume.
Nostalgia and the remembered life figure in other poems as well. One of the most complex
poems in Baptism of Desire is "Saint Clare," which like "Carmelites" explores renunciation, a kind of
ecstasy. In the five sections of the poem the voice of Clare recalls her response to the inspiration of
her neighbor, Francis of Assisi, and her subsequent life as foundress of the Poor Clare order of sisters.
In the last section, addressed to her own blood sister, Agnes, Clare ponders the paradox of
renunciation: "It is almost impossible to ask for nothing. I have spent my whole life trying." She takes
on responsibility for the destructiveness of sainthood, in which "density of purpose" creates the {57}
impossible demand, "the stone wagon of example." This poem as well as the poems on Rodrigo de
Avila, Mary Magdalen and Mary Kroger, does what Erdrich's fiction does at its best: they explore in
the first-person idiom the depths of conflict at the heart of life lived in all dimensions of body,
memory and spirit.
Desire of many kinds pervades the poems, which, a note explains, were mostly "written between
the hours of two and four in the morning, a period of insomnia brought on by pregnancy." Longing
and fecundity suffuse the diction. The language is rich, the imagery sometimes almost hallucinatory,
as words seem to spill over the confinement of lines and lines are stretched out of elasticity. In "The
Ritual" a parent meditates on sleeping children "in the hour of the wolf, the hour of the horn, / the
claw, the lead pipe, and the oiled barrel of roulette," and in "The Flood" the persona remembers a
basement bedroom where, one summer, "The river hammered and bubbled through the drains, / the
line snapped, / their voices grew fierce as mosquitos / dancing on the head of a pin, clouding the
wreckage / I passed, as the flood rushed me over its wide surface, / shredding my nightgown, my
shawl of stingers." The language of sensation represents states of the soul: patience "must be tireless
as rust and bold as roots" ("Fooling God"); prolonged anger "walked on elbows, / ate and screamed"
("Mary Kroger"); the disorientation of illness imagines that "children turning in their beds / turn dim
and weedy" ("Translucence"). Such baroque exuberance promises to overwhelm; these poems push
the reader to savor in measured doses, repeated readings, over time.

Helen Jaskoski