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Critical Review by Scott Edward Anderson
SOURCE: A review of In the Presence of the Sun: Stories and Poems, 1961–1991, in The Bloomsbury Review, Vol. 13, No. 4, July-August, 1993, pp. 14, 22.
Here, Anderson provides a thematic and stylistic review of In the Presence of the Sun.
There have been a number of notable collected and selected volumes of poetry over the past few years, including award-winning books by Mary Oliver and Hayden Carruth, as well as important editions from Gary Snyder, Donald Hall, Derek Mahon, Cynthia Macdonald, Adrienne Rich, and others. The significance of this is not lost: As we approach the end of the millennium, many of our poets are at the top of their form. These collections allow us to assess their accomplishments as well as gauge the state of the art over the past several decades.
We are fortunate to add to the growing list of retrospective collections this new book from N. Scott Momaday. In the Presence of the Sun offers "stories," poems, and drawings from over 30 years. Many of us first became aware of Momaday through his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, House Made of Dawn, but it was as a poet that he first appeared on the literary scene.
Momaday's early work, still some of his best, bears the influence of his teacher at Stanford, Yvor Winters. These are, nonetheless, poems of grace and resonance. Winters encouraged the young Momaday to work in a variety of traditional forms, including syllabic verse, in which the number of syllables in a line determines the rhythmic structure. Momaday used this method to great effect in such early poems as "Buteo Regalis," and again in "The Bear":
What ruse of vision,
escarping on the wall of leaves,
into countless surfaces,
would cull and color
his somnolence, whose old age
has outworn valor,
all but the fact of courage?
In "Angle of Geese," from the same period, the poet examines the differences between the human concept of death and death in wild nature:
Almost of a mind,
We take measure of the loss;
I am slow to find
The mere margin of repose.
So much symmetry!—
Like the pale angle of time
The great shape labored and fell.
This is perhaps the first of Momaday's poems to reject, philosophically if not technically, Winters' influence. In the wake of this poem, Momaday turned increasingly to nature and to his Kiowa heritage, exploring native themes and the old ways and employing forms that more accurately present these concerns. This change is further exemplified by the incantatory style of his "The Delight Song of Tsoai-talee":
I am a flame of four colors
I am a deer standing away in the dusk
I am a field of sumac and the pomme blanche
I am an angle of geese in the winter sky
I am the hunger of a young wolf
I am the whole dream of these things
You see, I am alive, I am alive
Momaday participates annually in the Gourd Dance Society, where he is the successor to his grandfather, Mammedaty. His poem "The Gourd Dancer" is at once an homage to his grandfather and an expression of respect for the tradition:
Someone spoke his name, Mammedaty, in which his essence was and is. It was a serious matter that his name should be spoken there in the circle, among the many people, and he was thoughtful, full of wonder, and aware of himself and of his name.
Here magic and tradition, reality and the dreamland come together for the poet and, through his storytelling, for the reader.
Myth, too, plays an important part in his work. Included in this volume is a long sequence of poems titled "The Strange and True Story of My Life with Billy the Kid." The mythic figure of Billy the Kid represents a significant influence on the imagination of Scott Momaday. While Momaday's choice of the legendary outlaw as a subject for a sustained sequence might at first seem odd, it illustrates the unique bicultural nature of both his outlook and his work. "The Kid" died in Momaday's home territory of New Mexico; we can imagine the young poet heard of his legend alongside the stories of his native culture, and the sequence has all the earmarks of the oral tradition in its form and function. Composed of songs, epigraphs, and prose poems as well as narrative poems, this sustained imaginative meditation captures the essence of the myth and its effect on the psyche of the author. For Momaday, Billy is not only an outlaw hero (and hence, like the poet's own people, both outcast and venerated presence), he is also a sensitive individual, a youth with a sense of valor if not a conscience:
Billy fetched a plug of tobacco from his coat pocket, cut it in two with a jackknife, and gave the old man half. We said goodbye … Later, on the way to Santa Fe, I said to Billy: "Say, amigo, I have never seen you chew tobacco." "No, and it isn't likely that you ever will," he said. "I have no use for the weed…. I bought the tobacco at La Junta because I knew that we were coming this way … to see the old man … He has a taste for it. And I offered him half instead of the whole because he should prefer that I did not give him something outright; it pleased him that I should share something of my own with him…. I have thrown away my share … But that is an unimportant matter … this the old man understands and appreciates more even than the tobacco itself."
When Billy (né Henry McCarty) witnesses the marriage of his mother, we see another side of the outlaw, one the tall tales never revealed:
She is pale, lovely, and lithe.
Her sons are stiff and homely,
And they make hard witnesses.
Joe is careless, distant, dumb;
Henry imagines marriage,
The remorse and agonies
Of age. He looks upon her,
His mother, and his mind turns
Upon him; the beautiful
His example of despair.
Yet Billy can also instill terror in an individual: He is "the only man I have ever known in whose eyes there was no expression whatsoever."
In the "Gathering of Shields," which gives In the Presence of the Sun its title, Momaday turns to a further exploration of myth and legend. Each shield, carefully executed in ink, is rendered on the facing page in a brief prose translation. "The Sun Dance Shield," "The Shield That Died," "The Floating Feathers Shield," and "The Shield That Was Touched by Pretty Mouth" are all brought to life by the poetry. Take, for example, the tragic story of "The Shield of Which the Less Said the Better":
A man—his name is of no importance—owned a shield. The shield came down in the man's family. The man's grandson carried the shield into a fight at Stinking Creek, and he was killed. Soldiers took away the shield. Some years ago old man Red Horn bought the shield in a white man's store at Clinton, Oklahoma, for seventeen dollars. The shield was worth seventeen dollars, more or less.
The shield drawings are powerful, in part because the form is such an intriguing one: circles, objects of protection, ornament, and deep spiritual value. Each shield tells a story, but its decoration only provides the skeleton of a narrative—the trick, Momaday implies, is to listen to the shield.
In "The Shield of Two Dreams," a woman named Dark Water inherits her father's shield through the simple act of dreaming. This, we imagine, is a fairly radical event, for nothing else like it appears in this gathering of shields; no other woman receives this power. Momaday has, rather appropriately, placed this shield at the end of the section, as if to underscore its adaptation of the old ways to new times.
Of the "New Poems" in this collection, only a few seem to live up to the promise of Momaday's earlier work: "The Great Fillmore Street Buffalo Drive," "Carnegie, Oklahoma, 1919," "Mogollon Morning," and "Wreckage":
Had my bones, like the sun,
been splintered on this canyon wall
and burned among these buckled plates,
this bright debris; had it been so,
I should not have lingered so long
among my losses. I should have come
loudly, like a warrior, to my time.
The other poems in this section seem vague and affected, and their weakness stands out in the face of the strong earlier work of the collection.
The drawings throughout the volume are evocative, especially the various bears, which in many ways resemble the author. (Momaday's biography proclaims: "He is a bear.") They are robust creatures, well rounded yet full of energy. It is a contradiction that serves well this bear of an artist—poet, painter, and storyteller, and in all these things a "man made of words." In the Presence of the Sun gives us the unique opportunity to witness this bear as he articulates "the appropriate expression of his spirit."
This section contains 1,456 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)