Deer Dance/For Your Return

by Leslie Marmon Silko

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The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1075

Written in free verse in seventy-two lines with an additional short paragraph of explanation following, Leslie Marmon Silko’s poem “Deer Dance/For Your Return” is a lyrical appeal for a return. It is a plea that re-creates and gives life to the very thing whose loss is dreaded. Subtitled “for Denny,” Silko’s poem invites the reader to link the absence of “Denny” (the man for whom the poem is written) to the ceremonial deer dance of the Laguna people to whom the poet belongs.

The reader is advised to go directly to the final paragraph of prose, which explains the function and meaning of the deer dance from which the significance of the poem is derived. The dance is performed “to honor and pay thanks to the deer spirits,” and the poem is a performance that embodies the values and culture of the pueblo (or people) from which it comes.

The Laguna are thankful to the deer spirits, since the deer each year have allowed themselves to be killed by hunters in the fall. Their flesh sustains the Laguna Pueblo throughout the winter. The Laguna understand that such a gift requires an appropriate reciprocal expression. The proper performance of this ceremony is important, since it invites and enables the deer spirits to return to the mountains to be “reborn into more deer.” As Silko explains, the deer “will, remembering the reverence and appreciation of the people, once more come home with the hunters.”

Returning from the explanatory final paragraph to the lyrical part of the poem, one sees that Silko is performing a lyrical ceremony in words that is intended to be a verbal evocation of the dance ceremony of her Pueblo. Hers are words of honoring and thanksgiving. The deer are addressed as tenderly as a beloved friend, and the deer themselves are a part of the culture that their lives sustain.

From the point of view of the speaker, the poet promises in the opening stanza that if “this/ will hasten your return,” she will blow “down-feathered” clouds that gather above the pine forest and darken the vision as the deer is “born back/ to the mountain.”

In the second stanza, Silko moves back to a time years ago when she saw “through the yellow oak leaves/ antlers polished like stones.” She sees a deer in the canyon stream. Seeing the animal is a moment of vision and desire: There is a palpable shift in the experience of time, and the poet is filled with longing. “Morning,” Silko writes, “turned in the sky/ I wanted the gift/ You carry on moon-color shoulders.” On the one hand, she desires the wonderful head and antlers and body of the deer living and free, but on the other hand, she recognizes that the entire body “holds the long winter” in the sense that without the sacrifice of that body, the Pueblo would not be able to survive the winter.

In the next section of the poem, Silko emphasizes the cyclical pattern of the deer’s presence in the life of the Laguna people. “You have,” she writes, “come home with me before.” Here, speaking for her community, she reminds the deer that “The people welcome you.” In remembering the past gifts she has offered the deer—a red blanket, turquoise, silver rings—the poet renews her gratitude and reverence for the animal. The offering of ancient and unique treasures suggests the strange and exotic nature of the deer, but he is also intimately familiar and is given “blue corn meal saved special.”

The poet practices her ceremonial ritual of gift giving and gratitude “while others are sleeping,” and ties feathers onto the deer’s antlers. She whispers close to the animal, “we have missed you/ I have longed for you.” In these two lines, the communal “we” is linked to the subjective “I,” and the poet suggests the intermediary between the private and the public that is the traditional one for the lyrical priest-poet.

In asking for the deer’s return, the poet is also accepting that the deer will depart: “Losses are certain/ in the pattern of this dance.” If losses are certain, however, so is the pattern of the dance or of the hunt, and the dance and the hunt mirror each other. Without the hunt there could be no dance; without the dance there could be no hunt. The poem puts the reader in the place of a hunter in the process of desiring and seeking, and in the place of the dancer in the process of recovering from loss. The hunter approaches “blind curves in the trail,” places where the turns in the road obscure the near distance. The deer might be there, but even its image “leaps away/ loose again to run the hills.” The final two words of the stanza, “Go quickly,” suggest that the poet both desires the deer (and so wishes it to go quickly back to the mountains where it will be reborn) and wishes it to escape entirely (so that it will never die).

In the seventh stanza, Silko moves even more deeply into the language of ceremony. The ceremonial language she adopts actualizes the poetic world toward which ordinary language merely points. “How beautiful,” she writes, “this last time/ I touch you/ to believe/ and hasten the return/ of lava-slope hills and your next-year heart.” The hills on which the deer runs, the land on which the Laguna live, and the living spirit of the deer are connected and interdependent.

The heart of the deer, imaginatively poised in life between death and rebirth, is echoed in the beating of the heart of the poet, whose “heart still beats/ in the tall grass/ where you stopped.” Again Silko must implore, “Go quickly.” The deer must go so that it can return.

In the next two stanzas, the poet makes possible a future by imagining it: “I will walk these hills and/ pray you will come again.” The heart that had beat in an echo of the deer is now “full for you/ to wait your return.” As the sun sets, as the heat of the rocks dissipates, as the shapes of things change and grow unfamiliar, the poet hears the hooves of the deer “scatter rocks/ down the hillside.” The longed-for return has occurred; the poet turns to the animal and recognizes that “The run/ for the length of the mountain/ is only beginning.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 135

“Deer Dance/For Your Return” fulfills virtually all the classical requirements for the lyric form. It displays qualities of metrical coherence, it is securely subjective, expressing passion and sensuality, and it is constructed out of a keen appreciation for the particularity of image. More striking than any of these specific lyrical elements, however, is that Silko’s poem arises out of and powerfully evokes its musical and choreic roots in the dances, chants, narratives, and songs of the Laguna peoples of the American Southwest.

One of the ideals of lyric poetry is to achieve a virtual transparency of language. The lyric poet wants to seem to be spontaneously expressing and evoking a spiritual dimension that is available to anyone. Silko links the goal of naturalness and spontaneity to the poetic dance performance of her people.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 210

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Sax, Richard. “One World, Many Tribes: Crosscultural Influences in Silko’s Almanac of the Dead.” In Celebration of Indigenous Thought and Expression. Sault Ste. Marie, Mich.: Lake Superior State University Press, 1996.

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