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In the Presence of the Sun

In the Presence of the Sun brings N. Scott Momaday’s work to a new generation of readers. Momaday, a novelist and poet from the Kiowa tribe, combines the mainstream modernism of American poetry with an oral-language inspired reference to Kiowa and other Southwest Native American traditions, particularly the Navaho.

In the Presence of the Sun brings N. Scott Momaday’s work to a new generation of readers. Momaday, a novelist and poet from the Kiowa tribe, combines the mainstream modernism of American poetry with an oral-language inspired reference to Kiowa and other Southwest Native American traditions, particularly the Navaho.

In this book, we shift between layers of reality. The poems in the sequence “The Colors of Night,” are about what appears and disappears: a son who has been killed, a tree, the appearance and disappearance of a child. In the fourth poem, “Red,” a man creates a partner and then loses her because of his own violence:

by means of this medicine he made a
woman out of sumac leaves and lived with her for
a time. … 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 in the plain.

This book consists of a selected poems section, a new poems section (as of 1991), and two chapbook length poem sequences, the title poem and “The Strange and True Story of My Life with Billy the Kid.”

“In the Presence of the Sun: A Gathering of Shields” tells 16 parables of Native American culture and history in the framework of the Shields of the Plains Indians. The prose poems involve a world of characters, including a courageous man, a cowardly man, a hermit, and someone who buys a shield from a store.

“The Strange and True Story of My Life with Billy the Kid” mixes forms and times. There are sections in prose, in lines, and in verse. It begins with what seem to be biographical poems about Billy the Kid:

3.
Billy the Boy at Silver City

Already, in the sultry streets,
the mean quotient of suspicion
settles at his crooked mouth

already, in the sultry streets,
he resembles himself in death.

Time shifts, and the narrator who has already identified the year as 1946 and himself as a young adolescent rides into a time where he begins “my life with Billy the Kid.” In spite of Billy’s killer nature, he has several varying relations with women and some lyric moments:

16.
Trees and Evening Sky

He saw the black trees leaning
In different ways, their limbs
The clouds rolling on themselves;
A wide belt of four colors,

And stars in the tangled limbs.

This lyric occurs all in one long sentence. Like the poem “The Colors of Night,” color and the motion of the winds create their own narrative, bringing the reader into the moment of the poem.

The inevitable occurs, and the Killer is executed. The series ends with a coda, contextualizing the attraction of Billy the Kid to the narrator as a boy, and now as a poet telling the story:

21.
Two figures

These figures moving in my rhyme,
Who are they? Death and Death’s dog, Time.

Momaday also incorporates myth from the European tradition. In “A Fire at Thule,” he illuminates the way ordinary life, or “ordinary commerce,” can be transformed into the landscape of loss:

For weeks now the sun has risen and set;
There has been an ordinary commerce.

The city sounds. . . .
The streets are colored with cartons and cans.
My little daughter speaks of you. She says
You are sad. You have done with make-believe.
The having done is hard to my ear, my
Having done with the urgency to lie.
Make believe. Imagine the sky becomes
The sea, a fire at Thule, your having been.

The power in this book rests in the stories that are told. They were essential stories in 1969 when Momaday’s first novel won the Pulitzer Prize, and they continue to be essential stories in our literature. In the Presence of the Sun is an essential book for both readers and teachers.

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