In The Presence of the Sun: Stories and Poems 1961-1991

by N. Scott Momaday

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This collection contains four main sections, the first twenty-nine previously published works (including the poems “The Bear,” “The Angle of Geese,” and “The Gourd Dancer”) and the last twenty-seven new poems. The middle sections are “The Strange and True Story of My Life with Billy the Kid” (a set of verses written by the nineteen-year-old Navajo-Kiowa shaman named Grey in The Ancient Child) and the shield poems.

Momaday contrasts death in nature with mainstream ideas of death in “Angle of Geese,” pays homage to his grandfather and the traditions by which he lived in “The Gourd Dancer,” and explores the nature of myth in the Billy the Kid poems. A New Mexico legend, Billy the Kid embodies the violence of the Old West (his eyes are without expression) and the seductiveness of the outlaw hero, but he offers no future despite his occasional sensitivities (such as coming prepared with a plug of tobacco to share with an elderly friend when he himself does not chew tobacco). The poems trace Henry McCarty/Billy the Kid’s progress toward his destiny, the final meeting with Pat Garrett.

The imagistic prose collection entitled “A Gathering of Shields” begins with a tribute to the spiritual, cultural, and artistic value of the Plains Indian shield and includes ink drawings of the shields gathered for a ritual ceremony. The stories number sixteen, an intentional heightening of the power of the sacred number four. The shields are more than the tools of warriors: They embody the best and worst of those who created and carried them. Some, such as “The Shield That Was Touched by Pretty Mouth,” “The Shield That Was Looked After by Dogs,” and “The Shield That Was Brought Down from Tsoai,” carry great power because of the history of their bearers. Others, such as “The Shield of Which the Less Said the Better,” are of no value: This shield, taken by soldiers and sold in Clinton, Oklahoma, for seventeen dollars, lost its value despite its antiquity. That the final shield, “The Shield of Two Dreams,” reflects the dream of the father passed on to the daughter fits with Momaday’s idea of tradition passed on but modified to fit new contexts and new social values. These shields embody their individual creator, his contribution to the survival of the group, and the spirit that he leaves behind.

Of the newer poems, “The Great Fillmore Street Buffalo Drive” captures a historical moment of final slaughter as a buffalo herd is driven to a senseless death on Pacific Coast boulders, but one buffalo “dreams” back to a canyon wall and disappears into shadow, at one with nature. Poems such as “Wreckage” and “Mogollon Morning” that place the poet amid canyon walls and rock, learning from the light and shadows, are Momaday at his best. In “At Risk,” the poet discovers his connections with ancient cave painters and finds his own face mirrored in the masks of ancient animals dancing on cave walls. This poem is an apt close to a collection that, as a unit, suggests the author’s struggle to find a poetic voice, an identity that reflects his multicultural essence.

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