Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2583
Two themes predominate in all of N. Scott Momaday’s work, both poetry and prose. First, he celebrates material, sensory existence. The writer lovingly examines nature and the artifacts of human life, from the smallest creature to the most vast panorama. Whether describing a ghost town in Colorado or the coming of rain to a southwestern desert, he is concerned to express the perceptual and emotional experience of physical life with eloquence and precision. The prose is often lush; the poetry can be spare, but exceedingly resonant.
A second preoccupation is with imagination, that power of mind that transforms and illumines the perceptible world and endows it with meaning. Momaday sees language as the primary vehicle for this transformation and affirms again and again the elemental importance of words. Collective imagination working on natural existence creates culture, and in his examination of the contrasts and interweavings of the cultures of his experience, Momaday explores them as products of the human imagination. In an early essay, he speaks of two Kiowa legends, which he then shows to be emblematic of Kiowa thought and history and of the Kiowas’ response to their history. In the same essay, he points to the metaphorical language of a non-Indian historian whose imagery betrays his fundamental bias and underlies a whole theory of civilization versus savagery.
Momaday’s prose works—his essays, autobiographies, and fiction—treat the dynamic of the two elements—sensory life and the power of imagination—discursively and sometimes analytically. His poetry, on the other hand, focuses most often on the fundamental meeting of nature and imagination in the act of perception itself. This is a consummately introspective procedure, and the poetry collected in The Gourd Dancer demonstrates a loving attentiveness to the natural world as it impinges on the mind.
The number of Momaday’s published poems is small—The Gourd Dancer contains fewer than fifty—and he has spoken of the slowness of writing. Nevertheless, the poems derive from a wide variety of traditions, from the eighteenth century epigram to Whitmanian self-celebration to Native American ceremonial lyrics. They consist of free verse, metrical verse, prose poems, and syllabic verse. Throughout Momaday’s poems, in those reflecting his time in the Soviet Union, astronauts’ lunar explorations, a vision of planetary holocaust, reflections on landscape—and in his prose works as well—there is woven this theme of the relationship between material reality and the signifying imagination.
“Before an Old Painting of the Crucifixion”
The subtlest and most complex of Momaday’s poems is probably that titled “Before an Old Painting of the Crucifixion.” The poem is a meditation on being and nothingness. The painted scene evokes in the speaker an imaginative reconstruction of the death of Jesus as a historical event, and he muses on the despair that comes with his recognition of nonbeing. The painting also calls to mind the sea, and memory evokes a recent vision of nature. Nature, however, holds ultimate emptiness for the speaker, whose consciousness of death permits him to see the void beyond death and alienates him from the merely natural process of dying. No inherent significance resides in natural life, and mere imagination remains the only (largely unavailing) defense against the inconsequent passage of time.
It is a profoundly pessimistic poem, and one with a specifically European, post-Cartesian formulation. Momaday has a great admiration for Emily Dickinson, and he has quoted her poem beginning “Farther in summer than the birds” as a realization of this alienation from nature, along with the anguish that such knowledge brings. This perception of humans and nature, he believes, is also contrary to the vision of nature in Native American thought. Traditional Indian philosophy regards humans as part of nature, indivisible from its processes and kin to all its creatures.
The poem titled “Angle of Geese” draws implicitly on this cultural tradition. This poem had its genesis in a particular event, the death of a friend’s child, and it also alludes to a geese-hunting trip Momaday went on as a young adolescent. The goose in the poem is not mere meaningless nature, however, but ancestral, and the poem implies a usable wisdom in nature and affirms human continuity with all forms of life.
The development of Momaday’s use of traditional materials can be traced through the poems that appear in his novel, House Made of Dawn, and in the two autobiographical works, The Way to Rainy Mountain and The Names. In general, he moves from using traditional texts to inclusion of material learned at firsthand to personal and family traditions and incorporation of general elements of form and content.
Momaday’s Kiowa name Tsoai-talee (Rock-Tree Boy) incorporated the Kiowas’ sacred mountain Tsoai (Devil’s Tower in South Dakota) and the Kiowa word for boy, talee. In The Names, Momaday extends the process of personal mythologizing begun in The Way to Rainy Mountain by inventing an episode in which his great-grandmother’s husband, Pohd-lohk, presents him to the family, relates to him the history of the people, and finally gives him the name Tsoai-talee.
“The Delight Song of Tsoai-talee”
In “The Delight Song of Tsoai-talee,” appearing in his first collection, Angle of Geese, and Other Poems, Momaday draws on Indian traditions and on the nineteenth century American Romanticism that he has admired particularly in Frederick Goddard Tuckerman and Emily Dickinson. The first-person emphasis, as well as the catalog of items in the natural world, call to mind the second song that Benally sings in House Made of Dawn. Unlike the Navajo song, however, in which each item has a specific meaning in a highly complex religious symbology, Momaday’s poem reflects more than anything else Walt Whitman’s expansive identification of his own persona with emotionally felt nature. The Names carries other echoes of this Whitmanian exuberance, notably in the epilogue with its imaginary journey across the land.
The one poem that does appear in The Names, however, is written in pentameter couplets and echoes Wallace Stevens in its image and themes. This poem is printed in The Gourd Dancer as the first in a set of four poems on the imaginary “Plainview.” Taken together, the four Plainview poems reflect the scope of Momaday’s fascination with differing cultural perspectives and traditions. The punning title introduces the multiple themes of place and perception. Plainview is a location on the midwestern landscape of which Momaday has written frequently with both familiarity and reverence. The vastness of space implies infinity at the same time that it emphasizes the particularity of objects perceived. Plainview also refers to sight, for whatever is in “plain view” should be visible, whole and unambiguous. In this sense the title is ironic, since in fact four Plainviews are given, each from a different perspective.
“Plainview: 1” is an explicit study in the act of perception. The speaker places himself in relation to the object of vision—the eleven magpies—and records the metamorphoses of shape and light he observes as wind and clouds pass over the grass. The same sense of underlying emptiness prevails here as in the earlier poem, “Before an Old Painting of the Crucifixion,” and finally the speaker decides that the birds themselves are an illusion. The poem suggests a theme elaborated in the other three: that landscape itself is the product of imagination.
“Plainview: 2” makes use of specifically Native American themes and forms. The speaker’s vision of the old Indian, drunk and pathetic, stands in contrast to the old man’s nostalgic vision of his horse. The incantatory repetition and the celebration of the horse reflect native tradition. This version of what is in “plain view” stresses the irony of that title in the disparity between the visibly vulgar and the invisible beauty that lives in imagination and recollection.
“Plainview: 3” is simply a triple set of metaphors comparing the rising sun with a string of glass beads, a drift of pollen, and a prairie fire. Once again the reader is asked to examine the process of perception, this time in the comparison of visual images. The brief poem recalls Imagist works.
Finally, “Plainview: 4” mixes modes, oral and written, prose and poetry. History comes to life in the landscape as the speaker muses on the woman he often dreamed of, a white woman who had been a Kiowa captive. The haunting excerpts from traditional frontier ballads, heard only in the mind’s ear as the speaker contemplates the abandoned house, bear out Momaday’s comments on the importance of oral tradition to cultural continuity. The poem invokes history and tragedy, but finally both are as evanescent as the magpies in the first poem of the set. Only the wind whistles through the empty house.
The Way to Rainy Mountain
The Way to Rainy Mountain is more complex than The Names, more highly wrought, less conventionally autobiographical. In structure and theme, it fuses most successfully the introspective European viewpoint and the communal vision of the oral tradition. Momaday’s recollections and anecdotes begin to take their place in legend and lore, and history metamorphoses into myth. He frames his prose narratives with two poems, “Headwaters” and “Rainy Mountain Cemetery,” which begin and end the book.
The two poems use conventional meter and rhyme yet echo the traditional Kiowa materials as Momaday interprets them in the text. In “Headwaters,” the speaker stands at noon on the plains, meditating on the hidden vitality and even violence immanent in the silent landscape. Only the moss on the hollow log suggests the marshland that is there and the waters swelling out of the land. The waters themselves point to a deeper, archaic source of primitive life forces, as the author’s exploration in the chapters that follow takes him to the sources of his family, his people, and his definition of human life. The poem’s title refers to one of the geographical objects of Momaday’s journey—the ancestral home of the Kiowas at the headwaters of the Yellowstone River. The image of the insect at the mouth of the log recalls the Kiowa creation myth of the people’s emergence through a hollow log; this image of a figure within a circle reappears at the end of the introduction in Momaday’s recollection of the sight of a cricket outlined against the moon “like a fossil” and immediately following the drawing by Momaday’s father, Al Momaday. The image is a talisman for the centripetal nature of the journey as one that reaches within for self-knowledge.
“Rainy Mountain Cemetery,” the poem that closes the book, refers to both the starting point and the goal of Momaday’s journey. The pilgrimage began with Momaday’s visit to his grandmother’s grave, where he was inspired to visit the places that she had seen more perfectly in the mind’s eye, as she recollected the historical migration of the Kiowa people. The poem is the speaker’s graveside meditation on her, although, in keeping with Kiowa tradition, her name remains unspoken. The speaker reflects on the silence and, implicitly, on the nothingness that is all that remains after death. The name on the stone, he says, is no more than the stone’s name, and the word “stone” ends both the first and last lines of the poem, setting an off-rhyme against the first and third lines of the second stanza. The only unrhymed line ends in the word “name.” The poem reiterates Momaday’s preoccupation with the power of language, stated most explicitly in the often-quoted passage from section 8 in which he asserts the creative power of language and links it to Kiowa traditions of naming. In “Rainy Mountain Cemetery,” then, silence is nonexistence, and the name on the tombstone nothing but a shadow—the absence of light. The poem concludes the metamorphosis that the book has both documented and achieved: The physical has been transformed into myth. The physical world, vibrant on every page, is transformed to words and lives beyond itself in the imagination. The same is true for the life of the people and that of the individual. This, Momaday says, is the human miracle: the creation of self through imagination by means of words.
The visual arts
Between the publication of The Names in 1976 and the appearance of his second novel, The Ancient Child, in 1989, Momaday was in much demand as a lecturer and interview subject. During the period, he published several important essays, including an introduction to Native American literature for a new literary history of the United States. Although he continued to write poetry, no new collections were published.
At this time, Momaday worked more intensively on another interest, graphic arts, exhibiting prints, drawings, and paintings in several shows. Momaday’s work in visual arts intersects with his sense of language and poetry, as the title of one essay, “Landscape with Words in the Foreground,” suggests. A series of drawings of shields embodies the connection. The shield motif recalls the cover design that Al Momaday, the poet’s father, made for The Way to Rainy Mountain. Momaday’s drawings include words, usually texts from his prose poems or retellings of traditional stories, as elements in the graphic presentation. Two of these shield pictures are reproduced in Charles Woodard’s Ancestral Voice: Conversations with N. Scott Momaday (1989). The move toward mixing and integrating visual and verbal modes began in Momaday’s publications with his drawings for The Gourd Dancer; the shield series emphasizes the modernist tendency in Momaday’s work that was implicit earlier in the collage structure and mixed media of The Way to Rainy Mountain. The shield drawings combining picture and text as a graphic element suggest the work of modernists such as Pablo Picasso and the Italian Futurists, whose work, like Momaday’s, also grew out of the Symbolist and post-Symbolist tradition of nineteenth century Romanticism.
Fourteen years in the making, Momaday’s second novel, The Ancient Child, reflects his preoccupation with his dual creative identity as poet and painter. The novel’s protagonist, Locke Setman, is an accomplished, successful painter, a cosmopolitan man of the world at home in the great cities of Europe and America. Setman, however, is dissatisfied, suffering from a malaise of the spirit. His spiritual guide and mentor is Grey, a young Navajo woman who resembles Emily Dickinson (she wears white in her dreams and spends much time putting together books of her poems). Both Grey and Setman are alter egos for Momaday, with clear parallels in his own life and intellectual development: The poems Grey writes are Momaday’s poems from The Gourd Dancer. The ending of this uneven novel is extremely ambiguous: The protagonist, like his counterpart, the bear-boy of the ancient legend, leaves the articulate, language-centered life of human beings. His eventual return is uncertain.
In the Bear’s House
Momaday’s 1999 mixed-media book, In the Bear’s House, weds all his artistic interests, combining painting, poetry, prose, and an extended dramatic dialogue between Yahweh (or “Big Mystery”) and Urset, the Native American ur-bear. All explore aspects of Kiowa bear mythology, a theme long dear to Momaday’s heart. Momaday uses the figure of the bear as a vehicle to investigate the interrelationship of wildness and humanity, the tensions of hunter and hunted, the seamlessness of dreaming and storytelling. The strength of this work may lie in Momaday’s organization around one powerful theme approached through a variety of artistic genres rather than limiting himself to a single medium—prose, poetry, or paint.