N. Scott Momaday | Critical Essay by Roger Dickinson-Brown

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of N. Scott Momaday.
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Critical Essay by Roger Dickinson-Brown

SOURCE: "The Art and Importance of N. Scott Momaday," in The Southern Review, Louisiana State University, Vol. XIV, No. 1, January, 1978, pp. 30-45.

In the excerpt below, Dickinson-Brown offers a stylistic examination of House Made of Dawn, The Way to Rainy Mountain and several of the poems in Angle of Geese.

The Kiowa Indian N. Scott Momaday came to public attention in 1969, surprising everyone, including himself and his editors, by winning the Pulitzer Prize for his novel House Made of Dawn. He has before and since maintained a quiet reputation in American Indian affairs and among distinguished literati for his genius, his extraordinary range, his fusion of alien cultures, and his extraordinary experiments in different literary forms.

House Made of Dawn is a memorable failure. Some of its passages attain a prose surface brilliance and also a depth, not at all like the historic depth of Macaulay or the ancient, almost etymological depth of Hardy, but a kind of depth of physical perception simultaneous with a post-Romantic understanding of man's relationship to nature—an understanding and a sensory perception which are both great and unique:

He was a young man, and he rode out on the buckskin colt to the north and west, leading the hunting horse, across the river and beyond the white cliffs and the plain, beyond the hills and the mesas, the canyons and the caves. And once, where the horses could not go because the face of the rock was almost vertical and unbroken and the ancient handholds were worn away to shadows in the centuries of wind and rain, he climbed among the walls and pinnacles of rock, adhering like a vine to the face of the rock, pressing with no force at all his whole mind and weight upon the sheer ascent, running the roots of his weight into invisible hollows and cracks, and he heard the whistle and moan of the wind among the crags, like ancient voices, and saw the horses far below in the sunlit gorge. And there were the caves. He came suddenly upon a narrow ledge and stood before the mouth of a cave. It was sealed with silver webs, and he brushed them away. He bent to enter and knelt down on the floor. It was dark and cool and close inside, and smelled of damp earth and dead ancient fires, as if centuries ago the air had entered and stood still behind the web. The dead embers and ashes lay still in a mound upon the floor, and the floor was deep and packed with clay and glazed with the blood of animals. The chiseled dome was low and encrusted with smoke, and the one round wall was a perfect radius of rock and plaster. Here and there were earthen bowls, one very large, chipped and broken only at the mouth, deep and fired within. It was beautiful and thin-shelled and fragile-looking, but he struck the nails of his hand against it, and it rang like metal. There was a black metate by the door, the coarse, igneous grain of the shallow bowl forever bleached with meal, and in the ashes of the fire were several ears and cobs of corn, each no bigger than his thumb, charred and brittle, but whole and hard as wood. And there among the things of the dead he listened in the stillness all around and heard only the lowing of the wind … and then the plummet and rush of a great swooping bird—out of the corner of his eye he saw the awful shadow which hurtled across the light—and the clatter of wings on the cliff, and the small, thin cry of a rodent. And in the same instant the huge wings heaved with calm, gathering up the dead weight, and rose away.

The book glitters with similar passages, a shining tension between the cultural and the wild, between language and wind. But it is also filled with awkward dialogue and affected description ("There was no sound in the house, save the seldom crackling of the fire," etc.). And the novel falls apart rather than coming together: it remains a batch of often dazzling fragments, a kind of modern prose Sutton Hoo—perhaps because the young Momaday yielded to the deadly, fashionable temptation of imitative form in dealing with contemporary identity crisis, here specifically the fragmented personality of the misfit Abel. The book's own fragmentation is not quotable, since the problem is an incoherence of large parts, but any reader will readily grant that the sequence of items—say, the bear hunt and the murder that parallels it; the night scenes with Father Olguin; Abel's flashbacks; his encounter with the enemy tank; and his encounter with Angela—is without fixed order. The parts can be rearranged, no doubt with change of effect, but not always with recognizable difference. The fragments thus presented are the subject. The result is a successful depiction but not an understanding of what is depicted: a reflection, not a novel in the comprehensive sense of the word. (This is ironic, since Momaday's teacher Yvor Winters made such associational forms one of his major bêtes noires, but it is no more ironic than the pervasive associationism of that other great student of Winters, J. V. Cunningham, and of Winters himself.)

House Made of Dawn has other annoying peculiarities. In such an episodic narrative the reader tends to depend upon clues and keys, thematic links and the like. Momaday increases this tendency with historical parallels and contrasts which are essential to his meaning, such as those between Father Olguin and Fray Nicolàs, and Abel and his grandfather. But the reader is misled by a false parallel between the albino Abel kills and the albino stillbirth recorded in the psychologically superb journal of Fray Nicolàs. Albinism is not uncommon among Native American people, and the record of detail is a traditional and important function of narrative; but the details should not mislead. Momaday once indicated to me in conversation that he was unaware of the possibility of a connection between the albinos, and there is, after all, nothing in the novel to establish a connection. Yet most readers look for one. And there is at least one other important occurrence of the same problem: there seems to be, finally, no particular relationship between the old witch and the young one, in spite of misleading hereditary suggestions.

The book is therefore an intelligent miscellany of more and less well-written facets that together represent a historical and contemporary situation of great importance, but it is not a successful understanding of or coping with that situation, and so it fails as a novel—right through its evasive ending.

What remains is nonetheless sometimes rare photography with scraps of great prose. The prose is often rhythmically distinguished: long in its rhythms, with neither the complex clauses of James and Macaulay nor the streams of Joyce and Faulkner, yet very far indeed from the syntactical and artistic simplifications of Hemingway. And there are other successes. The long unified description of the bear hunt is remarkable for its psychological perception of the sexual relationship between hunter and hunted (the prose, the psychology, and the bear owe something to Faulkner). And the great description of the Eagle Watchers Society approaches the barren courage of Melville's The Encantadas.

But probably the most successful general feature of the novel is its landscape, which is both intensely sensory and symbolic in its implication of a human and historically specific relationship to that landscape:

There is a kind of life that is peculiar to the land in summer—a wariness, a seasonal equation of well-being and alertness. Road runners take on the shape of motion itself, urgent and angular, or else they are like the gnarled, uncovered roots of ancient, stunted trees, some ordinary ruse of the land itself, immovable and forever there.

This is extraordinary physical detail; no one has achieved anything quite like it before. But it is even more abstract than it is physical, with neither quality detracting from the other. Nor is the abstraction figurative; it is implicit in the detail, and the detail is implicit in it. This kind of symbolism was called post-symbolic by Winters and has come to be associated with him, although he did not invent it but only observed, named, and practiced it. In any case Momaday's use of it is peculiar to him and to his Indian culture. It is a landscape and a way of living nowhere else available, and gives us reason to remember the book, if only in the way in which Hume's History of England and the poems of Edmund Waller are remembered.

In The Way to Rainy Mountain (starkly illustrated by Momaday's father Al), Momaday adopts a more apparently associational structure, adapts it to his purposes more distinctively, controls it better, and therefore writes better. The book makes an almost Jamesian symmetry: the whole, brief history of the Kiowa people is recounted, from "The Setting Out" from unknown beginnings in the Northwest mountains, through "The Going On" of a fiery nineteenth-century horse culture in the desert Southwest, to "The Closing In," the murder of their culture by the white European settlers of the same century. Each of these primary sections is composed of "triplets":

Once there was a man who owned a fine hunting horse. It was black and fast and afraid of nothing. When it was turned upon an enemy it charged in a straight line and struck at full speed; the man need have no hand upon the rein. But, you know, that man knew fear. Once during a charge he turned that animal from its course. That was a bad thing. The hunting horse died of shame.

..…

In 1861 a Sun Dance was held near the Arkansas River in Kansas. As an offering to Tai-me, a spotted horse was left tied to a pole in the medicine lodge, where it starved to death. Later in that year an epidemic of smallpox broke out in the tribe, and the old man Gaapiatan sacrificed one of his best horses, a fine black-eared animal, that he and his family might be spared.

..…

I like to think of old man Gaapiatan and his horse. I think I know how much he loved that animal; I think I know what was going on in his mind: If you will give me my life and the lives of my family, I will give you the life of this black-eared horse.

The three primary sections are flanked on either side: at first by a Prologue and an Introduction, both vehicles for recounting the book's occasion, which was the author's personal journey retracing simultaneously both his ancestry and his tribe's migration; and at last by an Epilogue. These in turn are flanked by short beginning and closing poems.

These symmetries are simple and the story is simple, and dignified, and rich in coherent detail. Much critical comment upon it would be offensive and tedious. The prose resembles that of the better parts of House Made of Dawn, but the associationism succeeds here because no larger structure than a chronological anthology of details is attempted; the parts accrue rather than compose. Here and elsewhere Momaday's diction, rhythm, or syntax can be inflated and sentimental, but the fault is not usually ruinous and is often entirely avoided:

In the Kiowa calendars there is graphic proof that the lives of women were hard, whether they were "bad women" or not. Only the captives, who were slaves, held lower status. During the Sun Dance of 1843, a man stabbed his wife in the breast because she accepted Chief Dohasan's invitation to ride with him in the ceremonial procession. And in the winter of 1851–52, Big Bow stole the wife of a man who was away on a raiding expedition. He brought her to his father's camp and made her wait outside in the bitter cold while he went in to collect his things. But his father knew what was going on, and he held Big Bow and would not let him go. The woman was made to wait in the snow until her feet were frozen.

It is surprising that Momaday has published so few poems. Angle of Geese contains only eighteen—the considered work of a great poet around the age of forty. But the poems are there, astonishing in their depth and range. "Simile," "Four Notions of Love and Marriage," "The Fear of Bo-talee," "The Story of a Well-Made Shield," and "The Horse that Died of Shame" are variously free verse (the first two, which are slight and sentimental) or prose poems. They partake of the same discrete intensity that characterizes the storytelling in The Way to Rainy Mountain, and which makes them some of the few real prose poems in English.

The poems written in grammatical parallels are much better: "The Delight song of Tsoai-talee" and "Plainview: 2." In the latter, Momaday has used a form and created emotions without precedent in English:

      I saw an old Indian
      At Saddle Mountain.
      He drank and dreamed of drinking
      And a blue-black horse.
 
      Remember my horse running.
      Remember my horse.
      Remember my horse running.
      Remember my horse.
 
      Remember my horse wheeling.
      Remember my horse.
      Remember my horse wheeling.
      Remember my horse.
 
      Remember my horse blowing.
      Remember my horse.
      Remember my horse blowing.
      Remember my horse.
 
      Remember my horse standing.
      Remember my horse.
      Remember my horse standing.
      Remember my horse.
 
      Remember my horse hurting.
      Remember my horse.
      Remember my horse hurting.
      Remember my horse.
 
      Remember my horse falling.
      Remember my horse.
      Remember my horse falling.
      Remember my horse.
 
      Remember my horse dying.
      Remember my horse.
      Remember my horse dying.
      Remember my horse.
 
      A horse is one thing,
      An Indian another;
      An old horse is old;
      An old Indian is sad.
 
      I saw an old Indian
      At Saddle Mountain.
      He drank and dreamed of drinking
      And a blue-black horse.
 
      Remember my horse running.
      Remember my horse.
      Remember my horse wheeling.
      Remember my horse.
      Remember my horse blowing.
      Remember my horse.
      Remember my horse standing.
      Remember my horse.
      Remember my horse falling.
      Remember my horse.
      Remember my horse dying.
      Remember my horse.
      Remember my blue-black horse.
      Remember my blue-black horse.
      Remember my horse.
      Remember my horse.
      Remember.
      Remember.

A chant or a parallel poem is necessarily bulky and especially oral. I have often recited this poem to individuals and groups, in part to test its effect upon an English-language audience. My own voice is consciously based upon the oral readings of Pound, Winters, and Native American chant, with a dash of childhood Latin Mass. I read the lines without musical intonation but with emphatic regularity and little rhetorical variation. The results are extreme: about half the listeners are bored, the other half moved, sometimes to tears. The poem is obviously derived from Momaday's experience of Indian chant, in which, as in most other cultures, small distinction is made between music and poetry. In this respect "Plainview: 2" is a part of the abandoned traditions of Homer, The Song of Roland, oral formulas, the Christian, Muslim, and Jewish chant, and even certain Renaissance poems. The various forms of repetition in these works are still common in the Islamic and black African and certain other worlds, but they survive in the West (where individual originality has destroyed community), only through such traditional popular genres as commercial song (which, unlike "modern intellectual" poetry and "classical" music, preserves the fusion), nursery rhymes, and among the non-white minorities. These are our surviving traditions of form, which is by nature repetitive.

In addition to the obvious repetitions in "Plainview: 2," the repetition of stanza 1 at stanza 10, and the two-line rehearsal of the four-line stanzas turn the poem. The whole poem is, in fact, simply a subtle variation, development, and restatement of the first stanza, with the extended, reiterated illustration of both the beauty of the horse's actions and its death. The ninth stanza occupies the poem like a kernel of gloss, but even its third and fourth lines are simply restatements of its first and second.

The form of this poem distinguishes with rare clarity what we call denotative and connotative. In a literate age of recorded language, where memory and repetition—sides of a coin—have each faded from our experience, we are inclined to regard such hammering as a waste of time—but it can, instead, be an intensification and a kind of experience we have lost. That is precisely the division of modern response to the poem.

The rest of Momaday's poetry is traditionally iambic or experimentally syllabic. Winters has called the iambic pentameter "Before an Old Painting of the Crucifixion" a great poem, and perhaps it is, in spite of a certain stiltedness and melodrama, reminiscent of the worst aspects of House Made of Dawn. Yet the iambic poems are certainly among the best of their kind in Momaday's generation, and it is only the exigency of space that limits me to a few lines from "Rainy Mountain Cemetery":

        Most is your name the name of this dark stone.
        Deranged in death, the mind to be inheres
        Forever in the nominal unknown….

Momaday's theme here is an inheritance from Winters, though it is as old as our civilization: the tension, the gorgeous hostility between the human and the wild—a tension always finally relaxed in death. Winters did a great deal to restore and articulate that consciousness, after and in the light of Romanticism. And it was Winters too who taught Momaday one of his greatest virtues, the power and humanity of abstraction—heresy in the cant of our time: deranged is a pure and perfect abstraction.

And there is more Winters:

      … silence is the long approach of noon
      Upon the shadow that your name defines—
      And death this cold, black density of stone.

We have already seen this in House Made of Dawn. Winters called it post-symbolist method. The physical images carry the full force, often through double sense, of abstraction: the shadow defines; and death is the impenetrability, the incomprehensibility, of black density. Yet the images are not metaphors, for they are not subservient to the abstractions they communicate, nor are they synecdochical.

They persist in the very mortal obstinacy which they mean. This style is everywhere in Momaday, but it is something which Winters could not have duplicated, for it is also profoundly Kiowa….

Momaday's syllabic poetry is his best and experimentally most exciting work. Even deprived of the rest of the poem, the middle stanza of "The Bear" seems to me among the perfect stanzas in English, rhythmically exquisite in its poise between iamb and an excess of syllabic looseness, utterly comprehensive in its presentation of the motionless wild bear and its relationship to time:

           Seen, he does not come,
       move, but seems forever there,
           dimensionless, dumb,
       in the windless noon's hot glare.

"Comparatives" is a tour-de-force of alternating unrhymed three- and four-syllable lines, again with Momaday's abstract and physical fusion. Momaday succeeds in presenting such unrhymed, short lines rhythmically, in spite of a necessarily high incidence of enjambment; the faint lines convey a melancholy appropriate to the antiquity and death which are the consequence of his juxtaposition of the dead and the fossil fish:

        … cold, bright body
        of the fish
        upon the planks,
        the coil and
        crescent of flesh
        extending
        just into death.
 
        Even so,
        in the distant,
        inland sea,
        a shadow runs,
        radiant,
        rude in the rock:
        fossil fish,
        fissure of bone
        forever.
        It is perhaps
        the same thing,
        an agony
        twice perceived.

Momaday's greatest poem is certainly "Angle of Geese," a masterpiece of syllabic rhythm, of modulated rhyme, of post-symbolic images, and of the meaning of language in human experience. Although perhaps none of its stanzas is equal to the best stanza of "The Bear," each functions in a similar way, shifting from perfect to imperfect to no rhyme with the same supple responsiveness Dryden mastered, but with more range. Nevertheless the largest importance of this poem, even beyond its extraordinary form is its theme, which is probably the greatest of our century: the extended understanding of the significance of language and its relation to identity—an understanding increased not only by the important work done by the linguists of our century but also by the increased mixture of languages which has continued to accelerate over the last hundred years or so: French or English among Asians and Africans, often as first or only languages among nonetheless profoundly non-European people; Spanish established on an Indian continent; and, of course, English in America. These are non-native native speakers of English, as it were, further distinguishing literature in English from English literature. Their potential has much to do with their relative freedom from the disaster and degeneracy which Romantic ideas have created among their European-American counterparts: many of these new English writers still have deep connections with their communities, instead of the individualistic elitism which characterizes contemporary European-American art, music, and poetry. They are more like Shakespeare, Rembrandt, and Homer. And they often have fewer neuroses about the evils of form. Momaday, as a Kiowa, a university scholar, and a poet of major talent, is in an excellent position to take advantage of these multi-cultural possibilities. The result is "Angle of Geese":

            How shall we adorn
         Recognition with our speech?—
            Now the dead firstborn
         Will lag in the wake of words.
 
            Custom intervenes;
         We are civil, something more:
            More than language means,
         The mute presence mulls and marks.
 
            Almost of a mind,
         We take measure of the loss;
            I am slow to find
         The mere margin of repose.
 
            And one November
         It was longer in the watch,
            As if forever,
         Of the huge ancestral goose.
 
            So much symmetry!
         Like the pale angle of time
            And eternity.
         The great shape labored and fell.
 
            Quit of hope and hurt,
         It held a motionless gaze,
            Wide of time, alert,
         On the dark distant flurry.

The poem is difficult and a little obscure, mostly because the subject is—but also because Momaday has indulged a little in the obscurantism that makes modern poetry what it is—and an explication of the poem is therefore necessary.

The first stanza presents the subject and observes that the Darwinian animal which we were, who is our ancestor, cannot be rediscovered in our language, which is what moved us away and distinguished us from the animal.

The second stanza explains the divorce: we have become civilized, but not wholly. "The mute presence" may, by syntax, seem to be the presence of language, but it is not. It is the presence of wilderness which is mute. We live in connotation, which is wild response. "Mulls" and "civil" are odd diction.

The third stanza contemplates this ambivalence, this incompleteness, and moves from the general to the particular. We are almost whole, or wholly civilized and conscious, and to precisely this extent we have lost our own wilderness. The speaker, introduced at this point, is slow to realize, outside language, what is wild in him. The language is typical of Momaday in its outright and exact abstraction: "mere" in the old sense of pure or unadulterated—here, by language and civilization; "margin" because this is where humans, with their names and mortality, overlap with wilderness, which has neither; "repose" because what is wild is forever and at every moment perfect and complete, without urgency, going nowhere, perpetuating itself beautifully for no sake at all. It is useful to remember wilderness here primarily in terms of immortal molecules and galaxies, without number or name—except those collective names imposed upon them by men who have to that extent simply perceived and thought about that which is unaltered by thought, which does not know the thinker, and which is, finally, a kind of god—not a god, as Stevens said, "but as a god might be." It is a kind of altered Romantic god, but one supported rather more by the pure sciences than by Deism and Benevolism: a nature pure and perfect, composed of sub-atomic particles and framed in an unimaginable universe with no edge. Language contradicts itself with this god, who is its enemy. It is the wilderness of our century, deprived of Romantic benevolence but retaining its old terrifying innocence and immense and nameless beauty, which ignores us and must destroy us, one by one. It is a god of mere repose. The goose, which the hunter waits for one November, is almost perfectly a part of the god (Momaday only implies the word), although a goose shares with men certain forms of individual consciousness of itself and others. Some animals have some language, and to this extent the goose knows the same clear and lonely condition we do, and is an imperfect symbol of the wilderness. The long watch, in any case, implies the eternity which is the whole of which the goose is an indiscriminate part: as if forever. The goose is huge because it is inseparable from the wild deity: what Emerson called the "not I," which neither names nor knows itself, which cannot die—whatever is, like the grasshopper of the ancient Greeks, immortal because the individuals have no name. That is our ancestor who does not know us, whom we hardly know.

So, in the fifth stanza, the symmetry of the angle or V of the flock of geese implies the perfection for which geometry and symmetry have always served as imaginary means. A goose is shot, and falls out of the angle, into the speaker's world.

The last stanza gives the goose a little of that hope and hurt which grants this sophisticated animal a part of what will kill the speaker: a conscious identity. But the goose is essentially wild, and it holds, like an immortal cockatrice, an inhuman gaze—motionless, outside the time in which we live and die, wildly, purely alert—fixed on the receding flurry of the flock out of which it fell, growing as dark and distant physically as it is in truth to the dying speaker who watches it too and for whom, alone, something has changed. The word "flurry" fuses with the flock all the huge vagueness which is our blind source.

"Angle of Geese" seems to me the best example both of Momaday's greatness and his importance to contemporary literature: it profoundly realizes its subject, both denotatively and connotatively, with greater art in an important new prosodic form than anyone except Bridges and Daryush. It also presents better than any other work I know—especially in the light of what has only recently been so developed and understood—perhaps the most important subject of our age: the tragic conflict between what we have felt in wilderness and what our language means.

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This section contains 4,304 words
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