The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 1075 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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.


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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