Erdrich’s poem serves as a critique of popular culture, specifically through the Western film genre. It describes how film has distorted history and shaped our understanding of Native Americans. By intertwining scenes from the drive-in with symbolism, the poem highlights the enduring impact of these images and calls attention to the real, often brutal history of colonization.
Explore Dear John Wayne
‘Dear John Wayne’ by Louise Erdrich is set in a drive-in theater, where the narrator watches a Western film filled with stereotypes of Native Americans as antagonists.
The poem explores the imagery of mosquitoes, warfare, and Hollywood’s portrayal of history, with John Wayne symbolizing a conquering hero. The metaphor of disease in the poem’s final lines ties into the overarching theme of the destructive influence of these historical narratives.
Structure and Form
‘Dear John Wayne’ by Louise Erdrich is a seven-stanza poem that is divided into uneven sets of lines. The poet does not use a single rhyme scheme throughout these stanzas or a structured metrical pattern. This is a modern literary form known as free verse which can be seen throughout much of her verse.
In this poem, the poet uses a few different literary devices. These include:
- Metaphor: this can be seen when the poet compares two things without using “like” or “as.” Throughout the poem, Erdrich uses metaphor to create connections between different elements. For instance, the mosquitoes that pierce through the smokescreen are likened to the persistence of painful historical truths.
- Imagery: occurs when the poet uses particularly evokative descriptions. For example: “acres of blue squint and eye” in the sky, the “death-cloud of nerves,” and the “hot spilled butter.”
- Juxtaposition: occurs when the poet intentionally contrasts two elements. For example, Erdrich places contrasting elements side by side to highlight differences and create tension. The casual atmosphere of the drive-in theater is juxtaposed with the grave historical and cultural themes.
August and the drive-in picture is packed.
We lounge on the hood of the Pontiac
surrounded by the slow-burning spirals they sell
at the window, to vanquish the hordes of mosquitoes.
Nothing works. They break through the smoke screen for blood.
The first stanza of this poem sets the scene. The action takes place at a drive-in theater on a summer night. The mention of “August” and the “Pontiac” evoke a quintessentially American, peaceful setting.
The imagery of “slow-burning spirals” used to ward off mosquitoes is particularly interesting. It introduces an underlying tension. These spirals are meant “to vanquish the hordes of mosquitoes,” but they fail in their purpose. “Nothing works,” the poet writes.
The mosquitoes’ persistence to “break through the smoke screen for blood” can be interpreted as an allusion to the larger theme of inescapable historical truths that the poem will dive into.
Always the lookout spots the Indian first,
spread north to south, barring progress.
in spectacular columns, ICBM missiles,
feathers bristling in the meaningful sunset.
The second stanza turns to focus on the movie. The opening line’s observation that “the lookout spots the Indian first” speaks to the tendency in Western films to depict Native Americans as antagonists who are immediately identified as threats.
The mention of “The Sioux or some other Plains bunch” emphasizes the lack of differentiation and understanding of the various Native American tribes.
All the tribes are lumped together without acknowledgment of their unique identities and cultures, something that often happens in media. In this stanza, Erdrich critiques the way Western films – and, by extension, American culture – have historically portrayed Native Americans. She reveals how these portrayals are not only inaccurate but also carry a strong undercurrent of hostility and fear.
The drum breaks. There will be no parlance.
together: this wide screen beneath the sign of the bear.
The poet also uses personification in these lines, describing the “arrows whining, a death-cloud of nerves.” The arrows become alive with intent and menace, portraying the Native Americans as unyielding and relentless.
Additionally, the settlers’ deaths are described as beautiful. They are depicted as ”tumbling like dust weeds.” This metaphor romanticizes their demise, turning it into something poetic and almost graceful. They disappear into the “history that brought us all here,” the poet writes. Here, she’s making sure to include all the readers in the poem. Everyone is influenced by this history is some way.
The sky fills, acres of blue squint and eye
Everything we see belongs to us.
In the fourth stanza, the imagery takes on an almost surreal quality as the sky fills with “acres of blue squint and eye.” The image is both expansive and intimate. It creates a connection between the sky and the eyes of the characters in the film, particularly John Wayne.
The poet likens the landscape’s ruggedness to the scars and marks on Wayne’s face. This helps to draw a powerful parallel between the land and the violence enacted upon it.
The stanza ends with a warning or a challenge: “It is not over, this fight, not as long as you resist.” This line may be interpreted in several ways. It could be a call to the Native Americans in the film not to surrender, reflecting the ongoing struggle. Alternatively, it could be a different kind of commentary, suggesting that the struggle for understanding and reconciliation is ongoing.
A few laughing Indians fall over the hood
the credits reel over, and then the white fields
In the fifth stanza, the poet describes the “Indians” falling and slipping, creating what’s meant to be a thought-provoking scene, asking readers to consider how this kind of imagery is used. This juxtaposition serves to both mock and highlight the absurdity of such portrayals.
The stanza is, in part, also addressed to John Wayne. The reference to the eye seeing much but the heart being blind underscores the disconnection between what is visually presented in the films and the emotional and moral blindness of those watching.
“He smiles,” the poet writes, and his smile goes on forever, over the “white fields” and as the “credits reel.” This implies that it continues far beyond the end of the film.
again blowing in the true-to-life dark.
The dark films over everything.
We get into the car
scratching our mosquito bites, speechless and small
as people are when the movie is done.
We are back in our skins.
In the second to last stanza, the poet describes how darkness fell on the drive-in as the movie ends. The characters get into their car, scratching their mosquito bites, and are “speechless and small” in their reaction to the movie. This captures the sense of deflation and reflection that often follows the conclusion of a powerful film.
Finally, the phrase “We are back in our skins” holds multiple layers of meaning. On one level, it describes the return to reality, shedding the roles and identifications that the moviegoers may have assumed while watching the film.
On a different and deeper level, it could also speak to a return to self-awareness and recognition of one’s own identity.
How can we help but keep hearing his voice,
In the final stanza, the poet extends the reflection long after the movie is over. Those who’ve seen the film can’t help but keep “hearing his voice” or feeling Wayne’s influence. The imagery of the “flip side of the sound track, still playing” furthers the idea that these narratives persist beyond the screen.
The images are part of society, playing along like a soundtrack. This portrayal is critiqued as one-sided and lacking in nuance.
The stanza then takes an unexpected turn with the mention of “his disease.” This could be a reference to John Wayne’s battle with cancer. The description of the disease as “the idea of taking everything” and the cells “burning, doubling, splitting out of their skins” serves as a metaphor for the uncontrolled expansion and consumption that the poem associates with colonialism and the myths of the American West. This is something that’s been seen throughout the poem.
The main theme is history and a critical examination of American cultural myths, particularly those surrounding the conquest of the West. The poet delves into how these myths are perpetuated through media.
The tone of this poem is critical and reflective. There’s a sense of disillusionment and skepticism towards the romanticized and simplistic narratives often found in Western films.
‘Dear John Wayne’ is important because it offers a nuanced perspective on a significant aspect of American culture and history. Erdrich skillfully uses poetry to ask readers to reconsider how they interpret these films.
Louise Erdrich is a well-loved American author of novels, poetry, and children’s books. Born in 1954, she is a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians and is known for her works exploring Native American themes.
Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some other Louise Erdrich poems. For example:
- ‘Windigo’ – depicts a menacing interaction between the mythical windigo and a child.
- ‘Indian Boarding School: The Runaways’ details the lives of children forced to live at a Native American boarding school.
Another related poem is: