In ‘Windigo’ Erdrich explores contrasting themes of warmth/life and cold/death. She taps into human emotions just as fear and terror as she lays out a short but impactful story. The mythology of the windigo is at the heart of this poem. The creature’s nature is laid bare.
Summary of Windigo
The poem takes the reader through a series of images that describe the landscape and the windigo in dark and foreboding terms. The scene is a terrifying one. It is made even more so by the windigo’s determination to abduct a young child from his home. The creature accomplishes this ad drags the child off into the woods. The poem ends without a clear conclusion. It forces the reader to make their own assumptions about what happens to the two when the last line ends.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure of Windigo
‘Windigo’ by Louise Erdrich is a five stanza poem that is separated into stanzas of either four or five lines. These are known as quatrains and quintains. Erdrich did not choose to structure this piece with a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. It is written in free verse. Despite the fact that there is no rhyme scheme or meter at play in ‘Windigo’ the poem’s rich imagery and narrative qualities make it very interesting to read out loud.
A reader should also take note of the epigraph at the beginning of the poem. In italics, Erdrich provides the reader with a definition of the word “windigo”. It is a “flesh-eating, wintery demon with a man buried deep inside of it”. This creature can only be vanquished, she continues on to say, by “forcing boiling lard down its throat”. This is a dark and quite grim way to begin a poem. It certainly sets the mood and creates a foreboding atmosphere with which to enter into the first stanza.
Poetic Techniques in Windigo
Erdrich makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Windigo’. These include but are not limited to alliteration, enjambment, and imagery. The last of these is the most important in this particular poem. Imagery refers to the elements of a poem that engage a reader’s senses. Traditionally, the word “image” is related to visual sights, things that a reader can imagine seeing, but the imagery is much more than that. It is something one can sense with their five senses.
In ‘Windigo’ Erdrich uses rich images, such as in the first line of the second stanza. It reads: “In the hackles of dry brush a thin laughter started up”. This phrase taps into multiple human senses, helping to carry on the dark and strange atmosphere that started in the epigraph.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For example, the transition between lines two and three of the second stanza and lines two and three of the fourth stanza.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “dog” and “deepest” in lines four and five of the first stanza and “hands hummed” in line one of the sixth stanza.
Analysis of Windigo
You knew I was coming for you, little one,(…)to the deepest part of the woods.
In the first stanza of ‘Windigo’ the speaker, a windigo, begins by addressing “you”. The poem is written with a specific listener in mind. This person is never named although they are referred to as “little one” and “child” throughout. A reader can assume that the windigo is planning an attack, and then attacking, a young child.
The child knows that the windigo is coming for him, at least that’s what the windigo thinks. This is a very ominous line that alludes to the danger and possible death that results in the following stanzas.
The next lines throw a series of images at the reader. The dog is creeping through the woods “groaning” and the “Towels flapped on the hooks” as if they too are aware that something is going on. There is a good example of alliteration with “dog” and “deepest” in lines four and five of this stanza. There is another technique at work in these lines as well, half-rhyme. For example “little” and “kettle” in lines one and two and “the” and “deepest” in line five
In the hackles of dry brush a thin laughter started up.(…)New one, I have come for you, child hide and lie still.
The second stanza of ‘Windigo’ is also five lines long. The first describes the “dry brush” that would’ve covered the forest floor. In it, the dog is creeping. Its hackles merge with the plant life and a “thin,” humorless laugh rises up from them.
While all this darkness is going on outside, the other of the young child who is about to be taken is cooking inside. She is unaware of what’s going on. There is an interesting juxtaposition at play here. First, that of the dark outside world and what should be the warm inside world, as well as that between the windigo’s nature and the food within. This specific creature is born from a world of starvation and famine, the presence of food represents a different kind of existence and a temptation. It is tied to the dog’s determination to take the child.
The windigo’s voice comes out from the trees, speaking directly to the child once more. It is unclear in these lines whether or not the child can hear the dog’s words or if he knows exactly what’s going on. There are more examples of half-rhyme in these lines with “child,” “hide,” and “lie”. The pleasurable nature of these connected words, especially when read aloud hauntingly emphasizes the coming violence and fear.
The sumac pushed sour red cones through the air.(…)You dug your hands into my pale, melting fur.
In the third stanza of ‘Windigo’ Erdrich makes use of several good examples of imagery. She describes the sumac and the copper burning in the raw wood. These images are juxtaposed against one another and the windigo’s pale fur. The creature takes the child and drags him into the woods. He has completed what he came there to do. The word “melting” relates back to the cold internal nature of the beast as referenced by Erdrich in the epigraph.
I stole you off, a huge thing in my bristling armor.(…)until they stood, naked, spread like the cleaned spines of fish.
The fourth stanza is only four lines long. It is known as a quatrain. The change from five lines to four is a purposeful one. It helps to draw the reader’s attention to this particular passage. It also marks a change in the story. Now, the windigo has the child.
There is a metaphor in the first line where the windigo refers to his fur as “bristling armor” and a simile in the last line where he plants, devoid of leaves, are described as “spines of fish”. This is another reference to food, something that is important in this poem as well as in the larger mythology of the creature.
Then your warm hands hummed over and shoveled themselves full(…)a river shaking in the sun.
In the final stanza of ‘Windigo’ the child’s “warm hands” are contrasted against the windigo’s coolness. The child is a part of these final images as is a frozen river in the sun. The poem ends without a clear conclusion. It requires the reader to determine for themselves what happened between these two. Did the dog eat the child? Did the child somehow manage with its warmth to melt the windigo’s icy core?