A Navajo Blanket

by May Swenson
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The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 608

“A Navajo Blanket” is a fourteen-line poem in two stanzas of equal length. In the poem, May Swenson is describing the dazzling colors and distinctive designs of a traditional blanket made by the Navajos of the American Southwest. The colors and shapes of the blanket make her think of what the blanket represents—the Navajo people, their culture, landscape, and ceremonies. In this meditation on the blanket, however, she is also writing about an experience in which the individual undergoes a transformation of consciousness through the experience of a work of art.

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The appearance of the two stanzas of the poem on the page suggests the shape and design of the blanket. The lines of words across the page are like the rows of thread in a weaving, and the shape of the whole poem is generally rectangular with a zone of space like a band of white across the center. The words “paths” and “maze” describe what the blanket’s design looks like and announce that the poet is going to draw the reader into a complex experience, simply as the pattern and color of the blanket draw the eye into its complex design. The first stanza leads the reader into the maze pattern of the blanket, and the second stanza leads the reader out, a movement that seems to imitate the balanced pattern of the blanket itself. She moves through the various associations and states of mind evoked by the blanket, from being dazzled and disturbed by its brightness, to being calmed at its center, and finally, leaving the blanket and its design with a refreshed mind, described in a striking simile as being like “a white cup.” The poem is written in the second person (“you”), which draws the reader into the experience and vision. The poet wants the poem to be more than her own personal response to experience.

When Swenson describes the Blue, Red, and Black lines as paths that pull the reader into the “maze,” she seems to be saying that there are different ways by which one can enter into the design, simply as there are different ways to approach a work of art or an experience. She uses the word “field” to describe a flat plane, such as the surface of the geometrically patterned blanket, but she also uses the word to suggest an actual field or open space in a landscape. When she says “Alight,” there is a change in what is going on in the poem. No longer is this simply a blanket; it is also a place with “gates” and “a hawk” sitting on “the forearm of a Chief.” She asks “you” to undergo a transformation, to become something like a hunting hawk in repose. That the hawk is hooded means that one surrenders to the experience blindly as if going into a trance.

At this point, the poem pauses. Consciousness is suspended between day and night, Sun and Moon; there is no sense of time passing. Then the direction of the poem shifts, and the dreamer in the poem follows “the spirit trail, a faint Green thread,” an exit that is part of the traditional design of the weaving, and finds a way out of the maze.

At the end of the poem, the mind is described as a white cup that has been washed like a dish. The white cup makes one think of the skull itself, which is now clean and ready to reuse, as the person in the poem returns refreshed to the everyday world. Thus, looking at the blanket has become a spiritual exercise that restores a sense of balance and calm.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 492

May Swenson is well known for her ingenious use of language, giving her the ability to re-create a subject visually and aurally. Here the lines of words, the two blocks of words that make up the two stanzas, and the space between the stanzas imitate the appearance of the blanket. Her use of strong colors re-creates the dazzling effect of the blanket. The colors also may be symbolic, although there is no specific explanation of that symbolism in the poem. Perhaps blue and red suggest the sky and red earth of the Southwest. Black may be death, trance, night, or dry vegetation in summer, among other possibilities. Green leads back to life, like something growing or a life-giving river, and white seems to represent enlightenment, calmness, or emptiness. She capitalizes the colors found in the blanket, as she capitalizes Sun and Moon, which gives these words particular importance, whereas “white” is not capitalized and thus seems to be simply a description of something, not a powerful object in itself.

Besides using the visual effect of the poem on the page and visual images in the language, Swenson makes sound an important part of the poem. Although “A Navajo Blanket” does not have a conventional rhyme scheme, she uses the repetition of various sounds to create mood and meaning throughout. In the second line, she uses the alliterative “paths,” “pull,” and “pin” to emphasize the connection between these words, and the i sound in “Brightness” and “eyes” in the third line similarly helps the reader hear the connection in sense between these two words, both of which have to do with seeing. “Hooded” and “hawk,” “fasten” and “forearm,” and “sleep” and “center” are other alliterative word pairs that give the poem a musical quality and emphasize important words.

The idea of entering into the design of the blanket and then leaving it is also reinforced by some mirroring in the two stanzas, so that, for example, the first and last lines of the poem both involve color, the second lines from top and bottom have to do with movement from one stage to another, the fourth lines from top and bottom have to do with entering and leaving, and so on.

Metaphor is important in Swenson’s poetry, and she often develops a comparison that surprises and delights readers once they recognize it, like a riddle that seems obvious after one knows the answer but that is mysterious until one does. At first, the blanket in the poem is simply an object with a bright, hypnotic design, but words such as “paths” and “field” make the reader begin to see the blanket as a landscape. Looking at the blanket becomes a journey into that landscape.

The poetic devices in the poem are never simply decorations of an idea but are an integral part of the poem itself, creating a concrete experience on the page, in the ear, and in the mind’s eye.

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