Angry Thunderbird, 1975

A major subject of Morrisseau’s work, the thunderbird held great significance for him as it does for the Anishinaabe in general. In his book Legends of My People (1965) he devotes a chapter to what he calls “Thunderbird Beliefs.” He writes, “The Ojibways of the Lake Nipigon area believed in two kinds of thunderbirds… The latter had a very bad temper, made the loudest noise….”

Of the old stories. The belief in wings of thunder
and eyes of lightning.

You wrapped comfortably in the style of the moment.
Secure in the civilization of your apartment.

This flat image of what seems a bird with a small sack
of something. Electric eyes. Divided circles.

This is your mind on the mid-day road when the sky turns
black and you are suddenly no longer secure or certain.

Because for all your education you still tuck fear
under your pillow and rest your head on it every night.

And for a moment its scream lifts you high above your knowing
into the claws of something huge, immense.

Questions & Answers

What inspired or motivated you to write “Angry Thunderbird, 1975”? How does/doesn’t the poem reflect this inspiration or motivation? What poetic techniques did you try to use in this poem? How did your writing process unfold around this poem? How did you write, edit, and refine it? What did you find particularly challenging in writing this poem?

“Angry Thunderbird, 1975” is from a suite of poems called The Thunderbird Poems,which are based on the life and art of the great Ojibway painter Norval Morrisseau. This type of poetry is called ekphrasis poetry, in that it is based on an external image such as a painting or photograph. Because I was working on a creative biography of Norval Morrisseau — called Man Changing Into Thunderbird — at the time I wrote the poem, I already knew a lot about Morrisseau’s life; the poem therefore combines elements from the painting, of the same name, and elements from Morrisseau’s life. Perhaps the most challenging aspect of writing the poem was understanding the iconography of Morrisseau’s painting.

This poem “Angry Thunderbird, 1975” originally appeared in Contested Migrations. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 219 (Winter 2013): 56.

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