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N. Scott Momaday

1934–

Navarro Scott Mammedaty, a Kiowa Indian, was born in Lawton, Oklahoma on February 27, 1934, and grew up in close contact with the Navajo and San Carlos Apache communities. He received his BA in political science in 1958 from the University of New Mexico. At Stanford University he received his MA and PhD in English, in 1960 and 1963, respectively. His books of poetry include In the Bear's House (St. Martin's Press, 1999), In the Presence of the Sun: Stories and Poems, 1961-1991 (1992), and The Gourd Dancer (1976). His first novel, House Made of Dawn (1969) won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. He is author of several other novels, prose collections, the children's book Circle of Wonder (1994), and the play The Indolent Boys. He is also the editor of various anthologies and collections.

Momaday's honors include the 2019 Ambassador Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award, awarded by the Dayton Literary Peace Prize Foundation to celebrate lifetime achievement in literature and to remind the world "that peace can be forged with words." He has also received the 2019 Ken Burns American Heritage Prize, the Golden Plate Award from the American Academy of Achievement, an Academy of American Poets Prize, an award from the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and the Premio Letterario Internationale "Mondello," Italy's highest literary award. He is recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, and is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He holds twenty one honorary degrees from American colleges and universities, including Yale University, the University of Massachusetts, and the University of Wisconsin.

Momaday was a founding Trustee of the National Museum of the American Indian, and sits on the Boards of First Nations Development Institute and the School of American Research. He has taught as a tenured professor at the Universities of Stanford, Arizona, and California, Berkley, and has been a visiting professor at Columbia, Princeton, and in Moscow. He is currently the Regents Professor of the Humanities at the University of Arizona and a member of the Kiowa Gourd Clan, a dance society.


Selected Bibliography

Poetry
Again the Far Morning: New and Selected Poems (University of New Mexico Press, 2011)
In the Presence of the Sun: Stories and Poems, 1961–1991 (St. Martin’s Press, 1992)
The Gourd Dancer (Harper & Row, 1976)
Angel of Geese and Other Poems (D. R. Godine, 1974)

Prose
In the Bear’s House (St. Martin’s Press, 1999)
The Man Made of Words: Essays, Stories, Passages (St. Martin’s Press, 1997)
The Ancient Child (Doubleday, 1989)
The Names: A Memoir (Harper & Row, 1976)
The Way to Rainy Mountain (University of New Mexico Press, 1969)
House Made of Dawn (Harper & Row, 1968)

N. Scott Momaday

By This Poet

4

A Benign Self-Portrait

A mirror will suffice, no doubt.
The high furrowed forehead,
The heavy-lidded Asian eyes,
The long-lobed Indian ears.
Brown skin beginning to spot,
Of an age to bore and be bored.
I turn away, knowing too well
My face, my expression
For all seasons, my half-smile.

Birds flit about the feeder,
The dog days wane, and I
Observe the jitters of leaves
And the pallor of the ice-blue beyond.
I read to find inspiration. I write
To restore candor to the mind.
There are raindrops on the window,
And a peregrine wind gusts on the grass.
I think of my old red flannel shirt,
The one I threw away in July.
I would like to pat the warm belly of a
Beagle or the hand of a handsome woman.
I look ahead to cheese and wine,
And a bit of Bach, perhaps,
Or Schumann on the bow of Yo-Yo Ma.

I see the mountains as I saw them
When my heart was young.
But were they not a deeper blue,
shimmering under the fluency of skies
Radiant with crystal light? Across the way
The yellow land lies out, and standing stones
Form distant islands in the field of time.
here is a stillness on this perfect world,
And I am content to settle in its hold.
I turn inward on a wall of books.
They are old friends, even those that
Have dislodged my dreams. One by one
They have shaped the thing I am.

These are the days that swarm
Into the shadows of legend. I ponder.
And when the image on the glass
Is refracted into the prisms of the past
I shall remember: my parents speaking
Quietly in a warm familiar room, and
I bend to redeem an errant, broken doll.
My little daughter, her eyes brimming
With love, beholds the ember of my soul.
There is the rattle of a teacup, and
At the window and among the vines,
The whir of a hummingbird’s wings.
In the blue evening, in another room,
There is the faint laughter of ghosts,
And in a tarnished silver frame, the
likeness of a boy who bears my name.

Prayer for Words

         My voice restore for me.
                           Navajo
 

Here is the wind bending the reeds westward,
The patchwork of morning on gray moraine:

 

Had I words I could tell of origin,
Of God’s hands bloody with birth at first light,
Of my thin squeals in the heat of his breath,
Of the taste of being, the bitterness,
And scents of camas root and chokecherries.

And, God, if my mute heart expresses me,
I am the rolling thunder and the bursts
Of torrents upon rock, the whispering
Of old leaves, the silence of deep canyons.
I am the rattle of mortality.

I could tell of the splintered sun. I could
Articulate the night sky, had I words.

Remembering Milosz and Esse

                She got out at Raspail. I was left behind with
                the immensity of existing things. A sponge,
                suffering because it cannot saturate itself, a river
                suffering because reflections of clouds and trees
                are not clouds and trees.

                                        Czeslaw Milosz, “Esse” 

 

A season of breeze-borne light,

And, in your phrase, “the immensity of existing things,”

                        Enclosed us there.

Among listeners you read almost in confidence,

Almost in the apology of creation,

                        And the chord of conscience.

What was it that “Esse” meant to you?

Your voice was grave, in the timbre of loss.

You recited in the measure of the heart’s broken pulse.

I wanted to know you, to have known you

For many years

                                In the immensity of existing things.

Afterwards you returned to yourself ;

You were definitively Milosz, gracious and at ease,

An old man of an old Europe, a gentleman

Of languages.  You attempted to name the world,

And in precise syllables you succeeded.

                        Outside, among the elder trees

And beside the grassy banks of a slow, transparent stream,

You seemed to contemplate an unforgiving history,

and the difference between clouds and their reflection.

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