I need to admit something: I've not been the hugest N. Scott Momaday fan over the years. His poems—the sound, look and experience of them—too often bring to mind the stuffy, uptight, onion-skinned paper of overpriced, massive college textbooks designed to provide students with the broadest overviews of, say, 20th-century American poetry.
This is ironic, since Momaday's novel House Made of Dawn won the Pulitzer Prize in 1969, becoming the first real Native American-penned work to reach mainstream literary acceptance. I guess, like many great writers, Momaday has come to represent a culture he tried to shake up.
In any case, this re-release of a collection of selected works, In the Presence of the Sun: Stories and Poems, 1961-1991, does much to cure me of any negative ideas I harbored about Momaday's writings. (He projects a mildly pompous aura during his readings, too, that can be hard to forgive.) Born to a Kiowa father and a Cherokee mixed-blood mother, Momaday has spent more than a half-century preserving and disseminating Kiowa nation stories, history and rituals, and deconstructing the privileged white myths of Manifest Destiny.
Sun concentrates on a specific 30-year period of work, 1961-1991, and there were many moments when I had to stop reading to savor a truly fantastic poem, in the same way a gourmand pauses to analyze her palate.
From the very beginning, I was struck by the beauty of his language. The opening poem, "The Bear," stimulated my imagination with the image of an aging, battle-tested animal wandering a harsh, carrion-hunting landscape.
More scarred than others
these years since the trap maimed him,
pain slants his withers,
drawing up the crooked limb.
Then he is gone, whole,
without urgency, from sight,
as buzzards control,
imperceptibly, their flight.
I always find it remarkable when a poet manages to inject so much superhumanly creative energy into formal verse. Indeed, one of the inherent and intentional ironies in this poem is the control Momaday exerts over his subject, and how he draws an analogy between the formal poet (controlled verse) and the sky-plaguing raptors (controlling flight). Touches like this run throughout Sun, making for thoughtful, compelling reading.
Moving deeper into the book, I eventually reached my favorite poetic, postmodern tribute to pulp Western dime novels, a series of dark poems titled "The Strange and True Story of my Life with Billy the Kid." To my taste, this is peak Momaday, at once willing to play up the Kid's mythological presence and yet eager to dismantle any notion that he represented anything more or less than the dreadful, despairing, pathological mindset that made something like Western expansion possible. One of many heart-stopping moments for me is in the prose poem "Billy Fixes a Bully in His Gaze," when the unnamed speaker, a traveling companion of the Kid's, sees the young man wither a potential adversary with his stare alone.
For years now I have tried to understand what it was I saw in his eyes at that moment. There are times when it seems surely to have been something like sorrow, a faintest sadness. But at other times I realize that there was nothing, nothing at all, that Billy was the only man I have ever known in whose eyes there was no expression whatsoever.
The idea of a psychopathic Kid is and was nothing new, but the way in which Momaday presents characters struggling to empathize with, and projecting human feelings upon, the famous gun-slinger is powerful.
The University of New Mexico Press has done a gorgeous job of presenting this book, and reprinting other works by Momaday. Sun also includes illustrations by the author, which confirm his talent across multiple disciplines. If you wish to explore the work of a leading poet of the Southwest, pick this one up, along with the recently released The Journey of Tai-me, originally published as a handmade limited edition of 100 copies in 1967 and also resurrected by University of New Mexico Press.