First published in the 1976 collection The Gourd Dancer, the brief poem “To a Child Running with Outstretched Arms in Canyon de Chelly” contains many of the thematic and stylistic qualities of Momaday’s poetry. The poem is set in New Mexico’s Canyon De Chelly, where the poet lived briefly as a child. As his childhood home, as well as the site of ancient Anazasi cliff dwellings, and of the Navajo tribe’s 1864 defeat and forced removal at the hands of the American military, the setting allows Momaday to explore his own Indian heritage. In addition, the poem serves as a joyous reminder of the intense and intimate feelings of belonging—a sense of place—which humans can experience in the natural world. Focusing on images of the canyon’s tremendous natural beauty, coupled with the beauty and innocence of a small child, the poem blends two worlds—the human and the non-human—and brings a human presence back into the canyon to “embrace / The spirit of this place.”
Lines 1–3 Summary
In the poem’s opening lines as well as in its title (an important piece of information, especially in a poem as short as this), Momaday both addresses and describes a child at play in the canyon. Perhaps the “small and intense” child may be the poet recalling himself as a young boy as he ran in Canyon De Chelly, or perhaps the poem is addressed to one of Momaday’s four daughters. The language of these initial lines conjures up a sense of child-like joy: words such as “intense,” and “excitement,” and phrases such as “embodied in delight” capture both the sense of wonder and the limitless possibilities of childhood.
Here, the “backdrop” to which Momaday refers is both physical and historical. On a physical level, the canyon walls and other natural scenery form a natural backdrop which seems to dwarf the figure of the small child at play among them. But the Canyon de Chelly also provides a backdrop of history. The canyon was the home of the ancient Anazasi culture, whose cliff dwellings and rock paintings still grace the canyon walls. Centuries later, in 1864, the canyon was the site of the final battle between Navajo Indians and a military force lead by Kit Carson—a confrontation which resulted in the Navajos’ forced removal from their home region. The rhyme scheme of the first and fourth lines of the opening stanza...
(The entire section is 603 words.)