In The Presence of the Sun: Stories and Poems 1961-1991 Themes

N. Scott Momaday


Momaday's sympathies for the environment are not political; rather, he asserts that the human relationship with nature is a spiritual and aesthetic one. Nature itself is indifferent to us; rather, we are enriched by our response to nature — its beauty and mystery — particularly as it enhances our imagination and our art.

Unlike many writers of the American West, Momaday does not romanticize Nature's response to humans: Nature is indifferent, impassive; death and life are both natural. One of Momaday's illustrations of this is in "Comparatives." The first stanza is a fish gasping on the sunlit deck of a ship, the second stanza is that of a desert fossil of another fish trapped in the throes of the same silent agony. The final stanza compares both fish to the wind on waves: "mere commotion / mute and mean." Similarly, "Angle of Geese" discusses the disconnection between Nature and human emotion, and our forgotten connection with death, another aspect of Nature. Momaday once prefaced this poem with the phrase "For a friend on the death of his child." The poem questions our conversations surrounding such loss. He notes that the words we say come from custom and courtesy; they cannot offer real understanding. In the second half of the poem, the narrator sees an angle of geese winging away. Its marvelous symmetry of this seemingly-significant formation, its shape high above the concerns of time and pain is a dramatic example of a spiritual revelation that comes through Nature: an example of transcendence as well as indifference.

Nature not only teaches us to transcend the mysteries of death and loss, but it is mysterious in itself. In Angle of Geese and Other Poems (1974), Momaday published a series of animal poems, the best of which are reprinted in this book. Both "The Bear" and "Buteo Regalis" focus entirely on the "inner self" of the animal, what it is like to be in their skins and feathers. On the surface, "The Bear" is...

(The entire section is 672 words.)