The Poem

“Angle of Geese” is an elegy in six four-line stanzas. The poem presents an initial obscurity to the reader, for the subject and occasion are not immediately clear. The author evidently recognized the reader’s potential difficulty; according to Matthias Schubnell, N. Scott Momaday wrote to his friend and mentor, Yvor Winters, that he proposed adding an epigraph to the poem: “For a friend on the death of his child.”

In fact, the poem alludes to two separate incidents in the author’s life. The first three stanzas express a plural “we”: The occasion is the death of a child, and the speaker defines an intimate sympathy with the grieving parents in voicing the impossibility of finding words that “we” may find adequate to this moment. Words are not adequate; they are only superficial decoration for such a profound and inexplicable event as the death of a firstborn child. Custom and manners provide both a means and a barrier to the expression of feelings. The speaker feels almost able to comprehend the parents’ grief; he attempts to sound the depth of their loss but is hard put to achieve any reconciliation to it.

The last three stanzas move to an earlier event in Momaday’s life, the recollection of a hunt for wild geese. On that occasion, as the poet wrote about it elsewhere, he witnessed the calm but alert wariness of geese resting on water, then the rushing chaos as, at the first gunshot, they ascended from the water, and...

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Forms and Devices

“Angle of Geese” is written in syllabic meter: The first and third lines of each stanza are each of five syllables, the second and fourth of seven syllables; there is no fixed pattern of accent (in contrast to metrical verse, in which a pattern of feet composed of stressed and unstressed syllables prevails). Syllabic verse is a favorite form of the author, and it is one that subdues the verse of a poem to a more proselike uncertainty of rhythm.

Further deemphasizing the verse form is the subtlety of the rhyme. The first and third lines of each stanza rhyme, but the second and fourth do not, reversing the more common pattern of the four-line stanza in English verse. The third stanza does suggest an off-rhyme in the second and fourth lines ending with “loss” and “repose,” respectively, which is echoed in turn by the ending of the fourth line of the next stanza with “goose.” The use of such near rhyme is characteristic of the poetry of Emily Dickinson, whom Momaday greatly admires, and who also wrote very movingly on the subject of the fundamental enigma of death. These suggestions of closing rhyme, however, remain tenuous and extremely subtle. The lack of rhyme to end each stanza correlates with the acknowledged inability of the speaker to come to any definitive statement of the meaning of so profound an event as death. The rhyme scheme supports the lack of closure, the ambiguity, that the speaker feels.

Other sound qualities in the poem...

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Barry, Nora. Review of Ancestral Voice: Conversations with N. Scott Momaday. MELUS 16 (December 22, 1989): 115-117.

Douglas, Christopher. “The Flawed Design: American Imperialism in N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn and Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 45 (Fall, 2003): 3-24.

Isernhagen, Hartwig. Momaday, Vizenor, Armstrong: Conversations on American Indian Writing. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999.

Owen, Louis. Other Destinies: Reading the American Indian Novel. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992.

Roemer, Kenneth, ed. Approaches to Teaching Momaday’s “The Way to Rainy Mountain.” New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1988.

Scarberry-Garcia, Susan. Landmarks of Healing: A Study of “House Made of Dawn.” Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1990.

Scenters-Zapico, John. “Cross-Cultural Mediations: Language, Storytelling, History, and Self as Enthymematic Premises in the Novels of N. Scott Momaday.” The American Indian Quarterly 21 (June 22, 1997): 499.

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Stevens, Jason W. “Bear, Outlaw, and Storyteller: American Frontier Mythology and Ethnic Subjectivity of N. Scott Momaday.” American Literature 73 (September, 2001): 599-631.