Who Shall Be the Sun?

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

In his latest collection of poems, David Wagoner refines and limits the talents which were obvious in his Collected Poems 1956-1976. There he impressed the reader with his diversity as he gamboled among topics ranging from becoming a door to door salesman to the return of Icarus. The simplicity of his wording, the clarity and depth of his meaning, the intensity of his descriptions, and the playfulness of his humor all made that an outstanding collection. At first glance, the reader of Who Shall Be the Sun? must feel a sense of disappointment at the ostensible narrowness of the subject matter. Even though twenty-seven of its poems are reprinted from the Collected Poems, this book is limited to poems based on the lore, legends, and myths of the Plateau and Northwest Coast Indians. However, in spite of, or perhaps because of, their limitation of topic, these poems achieve the broad impact and timelessness which is appropriate to the mythological.

Wagoner begins this achievement by basing many of the plots of the poems on Indian stories. The poems in the two sections of the book entitled “Myths and Legends” simply retell and combine in the author’s own words the many versions of the stories of the Kutenai, Nez Perce, Coeur d’Alene, Lillooet, Cathlamet, Coos, Chinook, Nootka, Kwakiutl, Haida, Tsimshian, and Tlingit tribes. The “Songs” in the other sections of the book are less directly influenced by the myths of the tribes, but, of course, they also reflect Wagoner’s interest in and awareness of Indian lore.

Wagoner then adds descriptions and imagery about nature to the stories; he also includes some details about the outdoor activities of the Indians. He combines all this with simple yet powerful wording and carefully constructs the whole poem so that it will demonstrate the Indians’ closeness to nature. The Indians’ trait of sharing their world as equals with plants, animals, and natural phenomena is their characteristic which Wagoner most admires (see his “Author’s Note”), and so in these poems he emphasizes the Indians’ animism and seeks to re-create for his reader the feeling of unity with the natural world.

The Indians believe that natural phenomena and all things, whether animate or inanimate, possess an innate soul. These poems reflect that belief and entice the reader into a world of determined owls and foolish coyotes, a world in which the equality of men and animals is dubious only because the animals often are smarter than their human companions. In “How Raven Came to the Feast,” a hungry bird who is denied food by villagers hollows out logs to resemble war canoes. When the villagers see the apparent canoes paddling towards them, they flee from what they believe to be a war party. Raven then eats their food. In other poems men become animals or take on animal traits. A hungry boy who eats fish tails, pieces of coral, and sea fog becomes Seagull; a hunter wears the robe and claws of Black Bear in order to be like the bear. Thus the plots and characters of many of these poems emphasize the interchanging of animal and human characteristics, and the reader finds that he can no longer feel superior to the animal characters of the poems just because he is human.

The Indians’ consciousness of the world around them inspired them to make up colorful and often ironic myths to explain events. Inanimate objects such as Rock, Sky, and Water react with human emotions and cunning in the stories which explore the origins of natural phenomena. In “How Moss Grew Strong” the ubiquitousness of moss and its presence at the base of trees is explained. Ice tries to help his sons become strong so that they can knock down the trees which are able to withstand him. Only Moss will not exercise with his brothers. In anger Ice scatters Moss throughout the woods, and from then on Moss lies at the feet of the great trees and strongly wrestles with them. The origin of falling stars is described in “Star-Woman Falling” when a woman who is unhappy in her marriage to a star seeks to escape from the sky. She climbs down the root of a spruce tree and falls.

Wagoner uses the Indians’ spiritual beliefs as more than just the basis for the plots and characters of his poems. He attempts to reproduce the feelings of man in the midst of a forest peopled with living presences—not only animals and objects with human characteristics, but also the spirits of the dead. “Song for the First People” beautifully expresses this awareness of others in the following lines:

The tree under which I bend may be you,That stone by the fire, Nighthawk swoopingAnd crying out over the swamp reeds, the reeds themselves.Have I held you too lightly all my mornings?I have broken your silence, dipped you upCarelessly in my hands and drunk you, burnt you,. . . You have enduredAll of it, suffering my foolishnessAs the old wait quietly among clumsy children.

Sometimes the soul of the observer of nature is stolen by the many spirits of this world. In “Women-Asleep” Rattle steals the soul of an Indian’s wife when the Northwind blows. In “Wild Man” a man...

(The entire section is 2227 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Christian Science Monitor. LXX, November 13, 1978, p. B13.

Library Journal. CIII, November 15, 1978, p. 2338.

Publisher’s Weekly. CCXIV, August 14, 1978, p. 56.