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

by N. Scott Momaday

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Momaday's sympathies for the environment are not political; rather, he asserts that the human relationship with nature is a spiritual and aesthetic one. Nature itself is indifferent to us; rather, we are enriched by our response to nature — its beauty and mystery — particularly as it enhances our imagination and our art.

Unlike many writers of the American West, Momaday does not romanticize Nature's response to humans: Nature is indifferent, impassive; death and life are both natural. One of Momaday's illustrations of this is in "Comparatives." The first stanza is a fish gasping on the sunlit deck of a ship, the second stanza is that of a desert fossil of another fish trapped in the throes of the same silent agony. The final stanza compares both fish to the wind on waves: "mere commotion / mute and mean." Similarly, "Angle of Geese" discusses the disconnection between Nature and human emotion, and our forgotten connection with death, another aspect of Nature. Momaday once prefaced this poem with the phrase "For a friend on the death of his child." The poem questions our conversations surrounding such loss. He notes that the words we say come from custom and courtesy; they cannot offer real understanding. In the second half of the poem, the narrator sees an angle of geese winging away. Its marvelous symmetry of this seemingly-significant formation, its shape high above the concerns of time and pain is a dramatic example of a spiritual revelation that comes through Nature: an example of transcendence as well as indifference.

Nature not only teaches us to transcend the mysteries of death and loss, but it is mysterious in itself. In Angle of Geese and Other Poems (1974), Momaday published a series of animal poems, the best of which are reprinted in this book. Both "The Bear" and "Buteo Regalis" focus entirely on the "inner self" of the animal, what it is like to be in their skins and feathers. On the surface, "The Bear" is about one's sudden meeting of a bear in the wild and its sudden disappearance. But the poem is more empathetic than this. The bear is old, scarred, in pain, limping, but moves silently, carefully and with courage. While the history and description of the bear is fairly detailed — and the poem is accompanied by one of Momaday's paintings — the solid, mortal bear is also ephemeral, ghostlike. In a similar detailed description, Momaday catches the moment of a hawk swooping upon a rodent. Or, more specifically, he captures the instinctive moment when the prey realizes its danger, and the elegance and imminent danger inherent in the hawk.

Nature is not only a means of spiritual mysteries and epiphanies, it is also source for imagination and art. Merely looking out the window into darkness can stir creative longing and can awaken the infinite possibilities of the imagination, as "Anywhere is a Street into the Night" implies. And the tension between art and nature, between the ideal and the real can also be aroused in the observer's imagination, as seen in "Crows in a Winter Composition." The first stanza shows an imaginary ideal: a clear, soft morning on a white field, a snowy blankness for the mind's play. The interposition of a "mindless" flock of crows interrupts this reverie, making the observer ill at ease, even angry. The landscape has traditionally been the domain of the artist's eye, but these disruptive crows — the raucous real — are also at home in the landscape.

While Momaday is clearly a master of contemporary forms of art and theory, he is not limited to European forms. He is also a master in interpreting and adapting oral forms of language and Native American symbol systems. He most clearly calls upon the Navajo patterns of poetry: parallel structure, repetition, accretion, and the evocation of the six sacred art and directions (the four cardinal points plus the sky and earth). His early "aboriginal" poems such as "Plainview 2" and "The Delight Song of Tsoai-Talee," and later poems such as "Prayer" and "Four Charms" demonstrate these qualities.

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