N. Scott Momaday | Critical Review by John Finlay

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of N. Scott Momaday.
This section contains 943 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by John Finlay

SOURCE: "N. Scott Momaday's Angle of Geese," in The Southern Review, Louisiana State University, Vol. XI, No. 3, Summer, 1975, pp. 658-61.

In the following review, Finlay offers a stylistic and thematic description of Angle of Geese, praising the volume as Momaday's best work.

N. Scott Momaday's reputation, before Angle of Geese, rested upon two works of prose, House Made of Dawn, a novel concerned with the dislocation and eventual disintegration of an Indian youth in urban America (parts of which were first published in The Southern Review), and The Way to Rainy Mountain, a half-mythical, half-historical account of Momaday's Kiowa ancestors, beautifully illustrated by the poet's father. These two books are considerable achievements, especially The Way to Rainy Mountain, which contains some of the most powerful prose written in recent years, or any year, for that matter. Yet Angle of Geese, made up of eighteen poems, three of which are in prose, is by far the greatest thing Momaday has done and should, by itself, earn for him a permanent place in our literature. Considering, though, the general insistence upon the loose and the anecdotal in contemporary poetry, I should realistically add that Momaday's poetic reputation will probably be quiet and underground.

Nearly all of his poems are concerned with what Yvor Winters, in his discussion of Momaday in Forms of Discovery, calls "the essential wilderness," the post-Romantic landscape of modern, secular thought, inscrutable and divested of ethical values, against which the human act takes place. More often than not, this act is personified by an animal, but one that has become, in the poem, emblematic and applicable to human terms. Because Momaday realizes the ultimately philosophical implications of this wilderness, his poems end up as serious meditations on the absolute distinction between what he calls in the title poem "the pale angle of time," the informed world of identity and purpose, and the state of death and non-being, "the essential wilderness" that finally destroys that world. Like Bowers and the other post-Symbolist poets, his approach is through description permeated with philosophic awareness:

                … this
      cold, bright body
      of the fish
      upon the planks,
      the coil and
      crescent of flesh
      extending
      just into death.

This theme is most perfectly realized in his greatest poem, "Before an Old Painting of the Crucifixion." On the one hand, there is the "critical expanse," operating in time and motivated by the human desire for "utterance" in art and religious thought; on the other, the nonhuman vacancy of a universe that completely frustrates that desire:

      These centuries removed from either fact
      Have lain upon the critical expanse
      And been of little consequence. The void
      Is calendared in stone; the human act,
      Outrageous, is in vain. The hours advance
      Like flecks of foam borne landward and destroyed.

The emotional control he is able to maintain in the face of this tragic perception, and with no religious belief to support him, is a measure of his greatness. The quietness and the concentration of the style reveal a mind that is as humanly fortified as it can be against the despair necessarily inherent in the subject.

In other poems this perception is less extreme. They are more concerned with the conditions of survival than with the inevitability of extinction. "The Bear," along with "Pit Viper," is an excellent example. The identity of the creature, worn down to the mere "fact of courage," holds itself together in the wilderness through an attitude of self-sufficient stoicism, a sort of expert indifference to the dangers always lurking behind the "countless surfaces" of the leaves. And in "Walk on the Moon," an epigram inspired by the Apollo mission, the emphasis is on the tentative human extension into and appropriation of the essentially nonhuman:

      Extend, there where you venture and come back,
      The edge of time. Be it your furthest track.
      Time in that distance wanes. What is to be,
      That present verb, there in Tranquility?

And other times he is capable, after the fact of annihilation, of a beautiful evocation of what he most loved in the past, the laughter and the old stories of his race, which is the subject of "Earth and I Gave You Turquoise," one of the most moving elegies in modern poetry:

      Tonight they dance near Chinle
            by the seven elms
      There your loom whispered beauty
            They will eat mutton
      and drink coffee till morning
      You and I will not be there

Finally, to give one an idea of the stylistic achievement evident throughout all of Angle of Geese, I should like to quote entire a poem entitled "Buteo Regalis":

      His frailty discrete, the rodent turns, looks.
      What sense first warns? The winging is unheard,
      Unseen but as distant motion made whole,
      Singular, slow, unbroken in its glide.
      It veers, and veering, tilts board-surfaced wings.
      Aligned, the span bends to begin the dive
      And falls, alternately white and russet,
      Angle and curve, gathering momentum.

What we have in this brief poem is a concise descriptive statement of a creature that knows its aim and lets nothing interfere with itself as it goes straight to the object. The intense concentration and power of the bird as it swoops down, "gathering momentum," upon the unprotected rodent, is unforgettable. The style also has the same concentration and singleness of purpose. The meter is syllabic, with no rhyme or rhetorical embellishments to enliven its "dryness," as J. V. Cunningham characterizes syllabic verse; the diction and word order as close to prose as is possible; and the tone of the poem is objective and matter-of-fact, each word quietly insistent upon its denotative value. Nothing stands out of the evenly controlled context. And the movement of the poem is lean and muscular. If for no other reason than for its style, Angle of Geese would be an important book for anyone seriously interested in what modern American poetry is still capable of.

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This section contains 943 words
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Buy the Critical Review by John Finlay
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