On "Buteo Regalis"
Kenneth C. Mason
"Buteo Regalis" is a brief but startlingly vivid insight. . . an epiphanic moment. . . . [I]ts object is to give a potent sense of the raw wild strength in nature.
It is just its accuracy in description which is so impressive in this poem. Lines two and three - "What sense first warns? / The winging is unheard, / Unseen but as distant motion made whole. . ." - are remarkable for their realism and their apparent ease in handling a very difficult perception. Lines five through eight recall Hopkins' "The Windhover" in their sound effects and imagery, and not altogether to their disadvantage. Indeed, when we remember that Hopkins' poem is also wholly descriptive, we can see a similarity, in the intentions of the two poems. Hopkins makes his falcon a symbol of the glory of Christ, while Momaday makes his hawk an emblem of the physical glory of nature.
From "Beautyway: The Poetry of N. Scott Momaday. The South Dakota Review 18:2 (Summer, 1980).
Among the earliest examples of Momaday's postsymbolist, syllabic poems are "The Bear" and "Buteo Regalis," which were written during his first year at Stanford and are the first two in a sequence of animal poems. Both deal with the mystery of nature. Despite the precise rendition of the bear, the animal appears more as the ghost of a disappearing wilderness than a living creature. It displays an intended kinship with Faulkner's Old Ben. "Buteo Regalis," like "The Bear" descriptive in character, captures the flight of a hawk ready for the kill. The elegance of its descent and the prey's instinctive knowledge of danger are combined in a sharp portrayal of natures splendor and asperity.
from N. Scott Momaday: The Cultural and Literary Background. Copyright © 1985 by the University of Oklahoma Press.
N. Scott Momaday's "Buteo Regalis": Nature's Cycle
Captured in Seconds
by Kristin Rozzell
N. Scott Momaday's "Buteo Regalis" relates the beauty and mystery of nature, moving from a frail rodent's instinct of danger to a robust, sharp-eyed hawk's instinct to feed. This timeless cycle of life and death is related in a sequence of events that take place within a matter of seconds. Joining the cycle in medias res, however, readers are only privileged to the seconds just after the hawk appears and just before it kills. This heightens the intensity of the poem because readers have no time to prepare for the immediate danger facing the rodent and no way to release the intensity this danger creates, never actually witnessing the kill. Hence, readers are hopelessly, yet exhilaratingly, trapped in the downward dive of the hawk as it gathers momentum. In his poignantly familiar "Buteo Regalis," Momaday has captured the essence of the life and death cycle in the form of hunter and hunted.
Readers' first experience with the instinct of nature is through a male rodent's awareness of his own "frailty," a frailty which is "discrete" to the rodent's senses (1). Grounded on this Earth, readers turn with the rodent as he senses danger. To the bewilderment of the persona, the hawk's "winging is unheard" and "unseen," yet the rodent somehow knows danger lurks (2, 3). Some built-in, instinctual "sense" not only makes the rodent aware of his own fragility, but warns him to turn before looking for the "unheard, / unseen" (2, 3). Then, suddenly airborne, readers are effortlessly flying with the hawk as it instinctually spies the rodent. The rodent's frailty is not "discreet;" it is "discrete," unmistakably standing out from the rest in the wilds (1). This overt vulnerability allows the hawk to sense and spy the rodent easily. As expected, the hawk slowly and methodically prepares to dive; then, with lightning speed, it dives toward the earth, fixed on its kill. The rodent's death is imminent, and we would expect cruel, yet the poem is not morose, but beautiful.
The persona never names the hawk; instead, he or she uses metonymy. The effect is powerful because readers are only permitted the motions, colors, and shapes of the hawk with which to understand and imagine it. The rodent's fear is obvious, but the emotions of the hawk are left unstated, heightening its mystery and power and making it almost machine-like. The rodent, on the other hand, becomes increasingly more frail as it is out-matched by the hawk's every movement. Everything about the hawk seems designed for feeding, for killing. Both rodents and hawks must feed, but only hawks are carnivores, hunters of live food. Thus, by using metonymy, the persona has perfectly captured the hawk's hunting skills. At first the hawk is only its "winging" (2). This is appropriate as its wings are what allows it flight, speed, and varied movements, all which contribute to its skill as a hunter. Then, the hawk's majestic movements are a "distant motion made whole" (3). Its flapping is so rhythmic that each movement appears not separately but as a single, "unbroken" motion (4). At this precise moment, the motion of the hawk becomes the hawk. It is this motion which will lead it toward its goal. When "it . . . tilts broad-surfaced wings," it is only motion that is tilting (5). At the same time, the focus shifts to the width of its broad wings, wings that give it the power to outmaneuver its prey. The hawk has become the space it takes up in the sky. Thus, not the hawk, but "the span bends to begin the dive" (6). Then, as the hawk nears its prey, it becomes flashing colors: "alternately white and russet" (7). White is the dominant color of its underside, and russet is the dominant color of its back. Both colors are seen alternately while the hawk is flapping its wings in its dive. White is seen when the hawk's wings flap upward; then, russet dominates as its wings flap downward. These colors become increasingly sharp as the hawk approaches the earth. Finally, the hawk is shape: "angle and curve, gathering momentum" (8). As it dives, its specific features are blurred; only angle and curve approach earth. This progression from motion to shape is how an onlooker might view a diving hawk. First, only a slight movement is seen; then as the hawk closes, it gets bigger and becomes an expanse. Finally, only flashes of color and shape are seen as the hawk swoops toward Earth. An onlooker's view of the hawk changes as it dives, but as a hawk's eyesight is eight times as sharp as humans', its directed view is fixed on its kill and never wavers.
Momaday chose his title with purpose. "Buteo Regalis" is Latin and the scientific classification of genus and species, for the Ferruginous, the largest hawk of the North American plains, growing as much as 63 centimeters in length. Buteo is the genus name for hawks; Regalis literally means regal. Momaday doesn't title the poem for the rodent, for instance the genus and species name for a red squirrel, "Tamiasciurus Hudsonicus." Thus, his choice of title must have a broader meaning than just to make his subject matter clear, as the hawk is never named within the poem. Because Regalis in Latin is so like the English word regal, it immediately connotes the persona's reverent opinion of the hawk. In line four, the persona characterizes the hawk as "singular." Of course the hawk is alone in the sky not being a pack bird, but in this case singular also implies the abilities of this hawk and all hawks, superior and exceptional, male or female. In addition, Momaday believes that the "act of naming is equivalent to the act of creation" (Schubnell 182, "N. Scott Momaday"). The hawk was given the species name Regalis because it is regal, and it is regal because it was given this name. Furthermore, using the hawk's genus name, Buteo, highlights its connection to all living creatures. Taxonomy, in the form of the title, is the first thing readers encounter. In taxonomy, every name is part of a larger group. Not just the hawk, but every creature belongs to a larger group, which belongs to an even larger one, until everything in the world is classified. Everything is eventually part of everything else. The rodent must die, so the hawk may live, which relates to readers that the life and death cycle is part of all families, and thus in all living creatures.
When reading this poem, which uses primarily the present and progressive tenses, readers are, in a sense, interrupting nature. The hawk has already spied the rodent when the poem begins. The rodent immediately "turns, [and] looks" suspecting danger. The use of present tense in this line grounds readers in the moment. The persona does not need to tell readers the rodent has been spied by a predator; it is clear to them at the same time it is clear to the rodent, when "sense first warns" (2). In line two, the "winging" implies that the hawk is in motion, a motion that will lead it to the rodent. Although "winging" in this case is a gerund, it has the same effect as a progressive verb, reminding readers of the past and leading them to the future. In line five, the hawk "veers, and [is] veering." "Veers" being the present tense, intimates to readers that the hawk, at this exact moment, is preparing to dive (5). Then, veering, the progressive tense, reminds readers of the habitual motion of a hawk, past, present, and future, while clearly relating that the hawk's preparations will continue (5). The hawk "bends.../And falls" (6, 7). These present tense verbs capture readers, willing or unwilling, as immediate witnesses to the hawk's dive. Then, "Gathering momentum," the last phrase of the poem in the progressive tense, immediately leads one to the future, the death of the rodent (8). It is a death which need not be related in the poem because the progressive tense leads naturally to the future. It is clear that in a matter of seconds, one life will end, sustaining another.
Momaday wrote "Buteo Regalis" during his first year at Stanford. It was a time in which he was greatly influenced by his mentor, Yvor Winters, who "urged his students to organize poetic lines by the number of syllables" (Schubnell, "N. Scott Momaday" 181). Momaday appears to have taken this advice because each line in "Buteo Regalis" contains ten syllables, giving this emotionally intense poem a quality of balance and control. This balance and control, as well as the taxonomical title, express the orderliness of nature and of the hawk. The hawk's wings must be "aligned" before it can begin to dive (6). There is ordered design to the bird's every symmetrical movement; nature has left nothing to chance. Moreover, the syllabic quality of "Buteo Regalis" allows the lines to flow as smoothly as the hawk flies. According to Yvor Winters, this is especially true in lines two, four, five and six because of Momaday's use of iambic pentameter (290). Winters believes that these lines contrast with the rest of the lines which are syllabic; lines one and three suggest the rodent's hesitation, and lines seven and eight suggest the hawk's rapid descent (290-291). In addition, Momaday's use of alliteration makes the poem rhythmic, like the flapping of the hawk's wings. "Motion made/Singular, slow.../veers, veering..." create a sense of flapping, wings going up and then down. According to Yvor Winters, it is only this rhythmic quality that keeps this poem from being prose (290). In addition to encouraging him to organize his poetic lines according to the number of syllables, Winters also urged Momaday "to avoid the obscurity of symbolist poetry" in two ways: first by "conceptualizing an abstract idea within a rational framework," and second by "conveying the idea through a cluster of sharp sensory details" (Schubnell, "N. Scott Momaday" 181). According to Matthias Schubnell, "Buteo Regalis" is "typical of this method" ("N. Scott Momaday" 181). Schubnell asserts that "the elegance of [the hawk's] descent and the prey's instinctive knowledge of danger are combined in a sharp portrayal of nature's splendor and asperity" ("Momaday's Poetry" 216). Kenneth Lincoln agrees, characterizing this poem as a "sharply detailed hawk's vision" (246).
The mystery of instincts, the beauty of a flying hawk, and the eternal cycle of life and death are all related as clearly as the knowledge that other rodents will turn, and other hawks will kill. Through this natural cycle of events, Momaday's highly disciplined poem "Buteo Regalis" has captured the essence of nature, harsh yet beautiful.
Momaday, N. Scott. "Buteo Regalis." The Gourd Dancer. New York: Harper, 1976.
Schubnell, Matthias. "N. Scott Momaday." Native American Writers of the United States. Ed. Kenneth Roemer. Detroit: Gale Research, 1977. 174-186.
---. "Momaday's Poetry." N. Scott Momaday: The Cultural and Literary Background. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1986.
Lincoln, Kenneth. "Old Songs Made New: Momaday." Sing with the Heart of a Bear. Ed. Kenneth Lincoln. Berkeley: U of California P, 2000. 241-255.
Winters, Yvor. Forms of Discovery. Chicago: Alan Swallow, 1967.
Prepared for Kenneth Roemer's English 5324, University of Texas at Arlington (Spring 2000)
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