Source of book: I own this.
I haven’t entirely made a habit of reading for Native American Heritage Month until last year, but I have read a variety of books by Native American authors over the years, including with my kids.
I picked this book up used, after reading Momaday’s gorgeous poem, “Prayer for Words,” in my anthology of native nations poetry. In the Presence of the Sun is a hybrid book, containing poetry and prose, and a real mix of topics and styles, as well as illustrations by the author. This book was published in 1991, but Momaday has been writing for a long time. His book House Made of Dawn won the Pulitzer back in 1969.
The book is divided into four parts. The first is entitled “Selected Poems,” and I assume it consists of poems that were previously published, although it is not clear when or in what collections. The second is a section all about Billy the Kid, kind of a free-wheeling account of Momaday as a child having imaginary adventures with the legendary outlaw, both in prose and poetry. The third is “A Gathering of Shields,” short vignettes about the ceremonial shields of the author’s people. The final section is “New Poems.”
A number of poems particularly stood out. Here are my favorites.
His frailty discrete, the rodent turns, looks.
What sense first warns? The winging is unheard,
Unseen but as distant motion made whole,
Singular, slow, unbroken in its glide.
It veers, and veering, tilts broad-surfaced wings.
Aligned, the span bends to begin the dive
And falls, alternately white and russet,
Angle and curve, gathering momentum.
A beautiful poem about a beautiful bird. The shift in perspective from the ground to the air is wonderful.
The sun appearing: a pendant
of clear cutbeads, flashing;
a drift of pollen and glitter
lapping and overlapping night;
a prairie fire.
Probably the poems I loved best in this collection were ones like these, which capture a moment in time, and paint a striking picture.
This next one has one of Momaday’s most striking illustrations, which works with the poem to make a multidimensional image in the brain.
The Fear of Bo-talee
Bo-talee rode easily among his enemies, once, twice,
three - and four times. And all who saw him were
amazed, for he was utterly without fear; so it seemed.
But afterwards he said: Certainly I was afraid. I was
afraid of the fear in the eyes of my enemies.
That insight is outstanding. Most of us are the most dangerous to others when we are scared. Which is why demagogues stir up fear as a way to accrue their own power.
The next one is part of a larger poem entitled “The Colors of Night.” There are eight total colors: white, yellow, brown, red, green, blue, purple, and black. Each has a poem that corresponds to the colors, but in unexpected ways. While all are good, I thought “Red” was particularly intriguing.
There was a man who had got possession of a powerful
medicine. And by means of this medicine he made a
woman out of sumac leaves and lived with her for
a time. Her eyes flashed, and her skin shone like
pipestone. But the man abused her, and so his medicine
failed. The woman was caught up in a whirlwind and
blown apart. Then nothing was left of her but a
thousand withered leaves scattered on the plain.
The only part of the “Billy the Kid” sequence I will feature in this post is a short poem that I really love. It doesn’t have that much to do with Billy the Kid, however. The poems and stories that do feature him are so intertwined that quoting a portion would fail to make sense. So just enjoy this poem.
Trees and Evening Sky
He saw the black trees leaning
In different ways, their limbs
Tangled on the mottled clouds,
The clouds rolling on themselves;
A wide belt of four colors,
Yellow, orange, red, and black;
And stars in the tangled limbs.
The section on shields starts with an introduction to how shields function in the Plains culture - it is both a tool and an expression of who its owner is. The paragraph-long descriptions of different shields are accompanied by drawings of each shield as well. I’ll quote one of the stories.
The Floating Feathers Shield
When Gai-talee was still a boy, learning how to hunt, he had a wonderful dream. In it he saw a great bear on the side of a mountain. The bear stood still for a long time, waiting in the shadow of a high stone ridge near timberline. Then a shape hurtled on the ridge, and the bear reared suddenly and took in his claws an eagle from the air. For a moment there was an awful frenzy; then again the stillness, and dark feathers floating and fluttering down on a little wind.
Gai-talee told Many Magpies of the shield he wanted, and it was made according to his dream. Gai-talee raided many times in Mexico, and he carried his shield with hm. They say that Gai-talee’s shield is well known below the Llano Estacado.
A couple of poems from the final section are worth quoting.
Had my bones, like the sun,
been splintered on this canyon wall
and burned among these buckled plates,
this bright debris; had it been so,
I should not have lingered so long
among my losses. I should have come
loudly, like a warrior, to my time.
And this one:
Rings of Bone
There were rings of bone
on the bandoliers of old men dancing.
Then, in the afternoon stippled with leaves
and the shadows of leaves,
the leaves glistened
and their shine shaped the air.
Now the leaves are dead.
Cold comes upon the leaves
and they are crisped upon the stony ground.
Webs of rime, like leaves, fasten on the mould,
and the wind divides and devours the leaves.
Again the leaves have more or less to do
with time. Music pervades the death of leaves.
The leaves clatter like rings of bone
on the bandoliers of old men dancing.
Momaday’s strength as a poet is in his striking and original word pictures, and I very much enjoyed this collection.