POETRY: The Sacraments by Louise Erdrich


1 Baptism

As the sun dancers, in their helmets of sage,
stopped at the sun’s apogee
and stood in the waterless light,
so, after loss, it came to this:
that for each year the being was destroyed,
I was to sacrifice a piece of my flesh.
The keen knife hovered and the skin flicked in the bowl.
Then the sun, the life that consumes us,
burst into agony.

We began, the wands and the head crowns of sage,
the feathers cocked over our ears.
When the bird joined the circle and called,
we cried back, shrill breath
through the bones in our teeth.
Her wings closed over us, her dark red
claws drew us upward by the scars,
so that we hung by the flesh

as in the moment before birth
when the spirit is quenched
in whole pain, suspended
until there is no choice, the body
slams to earth,
the new life starts.

2 Communion

It is spring. The tiny frogs pull
their strange new bodies out
of the suckholes, the sediment of rust,
and float upward, each in a silver bubble
that breaks on the water’s surface
to one clear unceasing note of need.

Sometimes, when I hear them,
I leave our bed and stumble
among the white shafts of weeds
to the edge of the pond.
I sink to the throat,
and witness the ravenous trill
of the body transformed at last and then consumed
in a rush of music.

Sing to me, sing to me.
I have never been so cold
rising out of sleep.

3 Confirmation

I was twelve, in my body
three eggs were already marked
for the future.
Two golden, one dark.
And the man,
he was selected from other men,
by a blow on the cheek
similar to mine.
That is how we knew,
from the first meeting.
There was no question.
There was the wound.

4 Matrimony

It was frightening, the trees in their rigid postures
using up the sun,
as the earth tilted its essential degree.
Snow covered everything. Its confusing glare
doubled the view
so that I saw you approach
my empty house
not as one man, but as a landscape
repeating along the walls of every room
papering over the cracked grief.

I knew as I stepped into the design,
as I joined the chain of hands,
and let the steeple of fire
be raised above our heads.
We had chosen the costliest pattern,
the strangest, the most enduring.
We were afraid as we stood between the willows,
as we shaped the standard words with our tongues.
Then it was done. The scenery multiplied
around us and we turned.
We stared calmly from the pictures.

5 Penance

I am sorry I ruined the oatmeal
which must remain in the bowl. Sorry
my breath hardened on the carpet and the slashed fur
climbed, raving, off the wall.
I am sorry for the ominous look, for using tears.
Sorry for the print on the page,
for wearing the shoes of a dead woman
bought at a yard sale.
She still walks, walks
restlessly, treading the mill. I am
sorry I could not lift out the stain
with powerful enzymes, with spit, with vinegar.
Sorry I pickled your underwear
and froze my hands to the knob
so that you had to turn me to gain entrance
to the kingdom without spots or wrinkles.
I am sorry I have failed so I am not allowed
to leave the table, to which my knees are strapped.
Sorry I cannot leave you behind. For you are mine.
You are everything. And I am sorry.

6 Holy Orders

God, I was not meant to be the isolate
cry in this body.
I was meant to have your tongue in my mouth.

That is why I stand by your great plaster lips
waiting for your voice to unfold from its dark slot.

Your hand clenched in the shape of a bottle.
Your mouth painted shut on the answer.
Your eyes, two blue mirrors, in which I am perfectly denied.

I open my mouth and I speak
though it is only a thin sound, a leaf
scraping on a leaf.

7 Extreme Unction

When the blue steam stalls over the land
and the resinous apples
turn to mash, then to a cider whose thin
twang shrivels the tongue,
the snakes hatch
twirling from the egg.

In the shattered teacup, from the silvering
boards of the barn,
in the heat of rotting mulch hay,
they soak up the particles of light

so that all winter
welded in the iron sheath
of sludge under the pond
they continue, as we do,
drawing closer to the source,
their hearts beating slower
as the days narrow
until there is this one pale aperture
and the tail sliding through

then the systole, the blackness of heaven.

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