Four Mountain Wolves Summary
by Leslie Marmon Silko

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Introduction

(Poetry for Students)

"Four Mountain Wolves" is an excellent example of the work that has emerged from the recent "Native American Literary Renaissance." Silko, along with Louise Erdrich, N. Scott Momaday, Gerald Vizenor, and others, is a representative figure of this renaissance, in which the writers meld Western and Native American literary techniques, themes, and subject matter. Silko's poem, which originally appeared in the anthology Voices of the Rainbow: Contemporary Native American Poetry (1975), immerses the reader into nature. In the wintry mountains of New Mexico, the narrator of the poem watches four different wolves, each representing different aspects of the natural and spiritual world, travel from the northeast. The poem combines a modernist-influenced free verse structure with a quiet, almost chant-like feel. Silko's Laguna Pueblo heritage comes out both in the form and the content of the poem, but the poem is not only interesting for its "Native Americanness": it is a poem that beautifully evokes a natural setting and gives us a close, almost frightening, but still respectful perspective on an animal that has always represented fear and threat to humans.

Summary

(Poetry for Students)

Section 1
In the first section of the poem the narrator is observing a "gray mist wolf who is travelling to the southwest "over deep snow crust." We hear a howl, "Ah ouoo," but are not sure whether it is the howl of the wolf or of the narrator. The wolf treks through the fog and the cold. "All the deer have gone," the narrator tells us, and the "wild turkey" are "all flown away." This wolf is looking for food.

Section 2
The second section of the poem shows us a "swirling snow wolf." This wolf is not hungry like its predecessor; rather, he is an image of cosmic violence, "spill [ing] the yellow-eyed wind / on blue lake stars / Orion / Saturn." The narrator characterizes this wolf with very violent imagery, commanding it to "tear the heart from the silence / rip the tongue from the darkness." This wolf seems to represent the violence and power of nature and the ways that nature has to remind us of the real, physical world when we are contemplating the infinite.

Section 3
The third section presents us with two wolves: one, "mountain white mist wolf," is described only in terms of his snowy, frozen fur and the steam rising from his panting mouth, while the second, a "gray fog wolf," is simply "silent / swift and wet." This wolf has come a long way, and has travelled for years on its way to Black Mountain. The gray fog wolf becomes a symbol of the passing of time when the narrator tells it to "call to the centuries." This wolf is similar to the wolf in the second stanza in that both are described in abstract, spatial, and temporal terms, while the first wolf and the mountain white wolf are both purely physical, realistic beings.

Final Stanza
The final stanza of the third section brings these two different embodiments of the wolf—the physical and realistic, and the cosmic or temporal—together. In this last stanza, the "lean wolf running" combines the physical—"green eyes," "lean"—with the abstract—"miles become faded in time." This last wolf, the one that brings together all of the aspects of the wolf of the poem, becomes a representation of the eternal physicality of nature as it kills a "swollen belly elk" and startles that animal "into eternity."