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On "The Burning"

Kenneth C. Mason

"The Burning". . . is an elegy for the heroic age of the Indian cultures. The poem is a conceit: the apocalyptic destructiveness of the fire is a very apt metaphor for the ravaging advent of the white man ("always alien and alike"). The poem catches with great success the tragic innocence of the Indians as they learn of the approaching disaster, watch for its arrival, and finally succumb to the inexorable will of its drive. What is most striking about the poem is the ease and naturalness with which Momaday sustains the conceit. The imagery is stark and suggestive, and the detail precise and telling. The final lines are extremely moving in their desperate inevitability: "And in the foreground the fields were fixed in fire / And the flames flowered in our flesh." "The Burning" is a new and significant direction for Momaday in his treatment of native materials. It is also a fine attempt at a mature summation of the themes he has treated before.

From "Beautyway: The Poetry of N. Scott Momaday. The South Dakota Review 18:2 (Summer, 1980).

Transforming Visions: Momaday’s "The Burning" and Ambiguity
by DeeAnn Duke Ward

N. Scott Momaday’s poem "The Burning," from the third section of The Gourd Dancer (1976), reveals his skill at blending visual artistic perception with poetic language to create a powerful historical and political allegory in sixteen lines. By combining the abstract and the concrete, a variety of binaries arise: the distant and the near, the historical and the current, a creativeness and a destructiveness. Further, as the title suggests, fire functions as the extended metaphor, the conceit, to represent transformations of form and knowledge about life, yet an ambiguity about meaning persists throughout the poem. Like many Native American poets, Momaday uses the landscape as a canvas to paint his view of history, which accords with so many Native American tribes who view themselves as the original and continual stewards of the land. This essay focuses on several possible readings of the poem, encompassing such themes as the creation or destruction, and on how Momaday "puts together" traditional poetic devices impacting form and function.

The poem breaks neatly into two parts of eight lines each. In stark minimalist detail, the first eight lines describe a violence of cosmic proportions observed from a distance. We may interpret these images to be the distant past, a distant landscape, or both. Then the second eight lines describe a more recent time and place, one of more subtle potential energy, but still with a violent undercurrent carried along from the earlier lines. This impending doom does seem to finally culminate in the last line of heightened emotion, but, because the poem ends with "the flames flowered in our flesh" (and in "his people"), the tension is not released, but remains with the poem’s persona. This backgrounding and foregrounding technique is typical of Momaday’s poetry as he employs his visual artistry in the form of a "word painting" (Woodard 156).

Along with this structural strategy of first placing the subject at a distance and then locating it closer to the reader, there is a cyclical nature to the poem as well. The poem begins with an incalculable time of the past in the "numb, numberless days." Line 6 describes a particular part of the day, the "dawns"; then line 9 advances the time "Nearer in the noons"; but, line 11 suggests an indecisive time of "evening, or morning, or midday." Two other lines involving a passage of time, "shadows approaching" (13) and the word "always" used twice in line 14, suggest an on-going process, a perpetual duration. This time motif is part of Momaday’s intentional ambiguity, on one level, that signifies a cyclical cosmic scope of a creation or an emergence reading. By comparison, looking at the poem in a linear sense moves the reader from the past into the present with forebodings for the future and thus would be in concert with a destructionist reading of the poem.

Because Momaday chooses to withhold certain information, one can argue that the theme of this poem could be creation or destruction. As a creation or an emergence poem, one sees the beginning of the universe in the "numb, numberless days." One might interpret his images of "disasters," "upheavals," and "cinders descending" as images of the earth forming after the Big Bang; further images emphasize atmospheric changes, as in the "sky was scored with light," "intervals of darkness," and "clusters of clouds and eclipse." The poem also has the tenor of primordial, geological events, as in "the planet buckled and burned" (5) which suggests the Plate Tectonics theory of continent formation.

In the second half of the poem, the evolution of flora and fauna becomes evident from the references to the "sheer wall of the wood" and "shadows approaching / Always, and always alien and alike." The type of wood is not named, nor are shadows distinct, accurate representations of people; however, these lines imply the coming of new life forms indistinct from our vantage point, yet discernable through history and myth. Then, again, the last line, "the flames flowered in our flesh," is crucial as it suggests an intelligence and passion growing in an immediate sense. So the metaphor of fire in the poem may be viewed as a way to explain evolution or, in a Native sense, a way to explain the emergence of humans and other life on the earth.

If we consider "The Burning" a poem of destruction, we might look at this poem as a repudiation of the development of the atom bomb and its use in World War II, especially in light of one of Momaday’s first published poems, "Los Alamos" (1959), in which he associates "the destructive potential of technology" with the atomic laboratories located in the town named in the title (Schubnell 192-93). The first half of "The Burning" suggests emotions about and suspicions of early atomic tests: the "disasters in the distance," "strange upheavals" that "no one understood," "the sky scored with light"—all marking the earth and air with destruction. Then the second half suggests physical events of destruction that could actually be felt or seen—"The [still or dead] air," "the sheer wall of the wood," "shapes" and "shadows" (secret goings-on and hidden people). In this reading, the last two lines foretell of a future certain with conflict because of these assaults upon the landscape by interlopers—a view held by many Native Americans today who maintain a reverence for the land that many non-Indians do not.

A third reading of this poem embraces the theme of destruction, as well. Both Kenneth Mason and Charles Woodard refer to the poem as an "apocalyptic" vision of destructiveness visited upon the Native American people by the European invasions. From line to line, one can see Momaday describe in powerful starkness the Native peoples’ gradual recognition that devastation of their land and life style is moving toward them; and through his technique of "foreground-and-distance" (Woodard 156), Momaday encapsulates the history of the white decimation of the Native races on the North American continent in a conceit that becomes "pictorial prose" (Woodard 155). Finally, the last two lines of the poem suggest the "history of violence" reflected on a landscape and "buried in the national consciousness" (Maddox 743).

The connection between painting and poetry imbues "The Burning," on the whole, in Momaday’s concept of the landscape as a canvas and in his background and foreground technique already mentioned; but, the connection is more specific through his use of visual forms in such words as "planes," "shapes," "shadows," and "wall." It is fitting that he should use four concepts since "four" is a sacred number in many Native American cultures, and, in fact, the use of visual shapes can be found in much of Momaday’s work. In his most recent novel, The Ancient Child (1989), the four parts of the book are titled "Planes," "Lines," "Shapes," and "Shadows"—almost the exact contours found in "The Burning." This use of forms helps Momaday frame his ideas in concrete language while expressing emotional responses, a technique developed under the tutelage of Yvor Winters at Stanford (Schubnell 198-202).

Even though Momaday may be making a political statement in this poem and calling upon tribal philosophies in content, a close reading reveals his use of several traditional European rhythmic devices. First, this poem comprises only complete sentences—no fragments—and, further, within these sentences are well-crafted compound and complex structures worthy of scrutiny for style. But, more importantly, the reader hears irregular rhythms as a result of variant caesurae. Lines 1 and 2 and lines 9 and 10 are examples of enjambement as each set of lines initiates a particular portion of the poem from which meaning and temporal setting in both halves proceed. The only information given in line 1 suggests a sense of long ago before physical activity or emotional sensation began (which, of course, contrasts directly with the last line). Yet, line 1 runs into line 2 that describes "disasters in the distance." So, Momaday sets in motion the progressive cycle of creation or destruction from the very beginning. Line 9 establishes a new location and time for the second half of the poem, but it, too, runs into the next line that portends potential havoc. The only other enjambed lines are 6 and 7 which create more ambiguity. For instance, the syntax and rhythm can cause one to stop at the end of line 6: "In the dawns were intervals of darkness"; this in itself is a complete sentence. On the other hand, if one follows the punctuation and continues reading to line 7, "On the scorched sky, clusters of clouds and eclipse," a microcosm of Momaday’s binaries emerges. These two lines toggle between light and dark. Thus, the pauses in the first eight lines appropriately reflect a suspicion and a background of approaching conflagration.

Because the sense of disaster is far away in the first half of the poem, his specific use of punctuation implies that there is time to pause at certain intervals—to observe and wonder about the "strange upheavals." Line 3 contains two periods which cause the reader to stop abruptly after each; "Strange upheavals." (3) functions as an appositive for the "disasters in the distance," from line 2. Lines 4 and 5 make up another compound sentence connected with the conjunction "For" (5) providing the reason for the "sky [to be] scored with light." But in the second half of the poem, Momaday does not use periods in the middle of lines; in fact, there is a rapidly building urgency reflected in his use of commas and conjunctions. From line 11 to line 16, every line is end-stopped, but these caesurae coincide with natural speech rhythms and urge the reader onward to the culmination of emotion:

And eventually at evening, or morning, or midday,
At the sheer wall of the wood,
Were shapes in the shadows approaching,
Always, and always alien and alike. (11-14)

This union of information through prepositional phrases, the conjunctions "and" and "or," and the adverb "always" with the adjectives "alien and alike" form euphonic words flowing easily and growing like the passion he is building in the final two lines:

And in the foreground the fields were fixed in fire,
And the flames flowered in our flesh. (15-16)

Again, the conjunctions unite the syntactical constructions completing his fiery revelation.

Probably the most notable example of word craftsmanship is Momaday’s juxtaposition of the imprecise cosmic scope of the nouns coupled with the more concrete harshness of the verbs creating a tension that builds from the beginning of the poem to the end, and leaves the reader with a sense of foreshadowing. Nouns such as "sky," "light," "planet," "clouds," "air," "wood," "shapes," "shadows," and "fields," all have broad connotations and are not modified with adjectives for specificity; however, the verbs found in the poem are, by contrast, often precise: "scored," "buckled," "burned," "descending," "lay," "approaching," "fixed," and "flowered." Yet, even within these verbs, there is some ambiguity in meaning. For example, when Momaday uses the word "fixed" to refer to the fields on fire, "fixed" can mean that this fire or passion is firmly in place and stable or constant to the situation. It could also mean "to define" or "to establish a context" for a situation. The obvious meaning of "to fix" is "to repair or rearrange" something—this, too, could bear meaning upon this line, in the sense that change or evolution is upon the landscape.

The other verb of ambiguous usage is "flowered." In a creation reading of the poem, the literal definition of a plant’s blossom fits with the metaphorical interpretation of humans growing in knowledge and skills. But, in a destructionist reading of the poem the flowering emotions suggested are of conflict and hate, so a paradox of images arises in this one word embodying the contradictions of the poem. As Momaday uses it, the word "flowered" is also an instance of synesthesia because it is used with "flames" and "our flesh." Flames usually burn flowers and flesh (tactile and olfactory sensations) while flowers smell sweet (olfactory imagery), but juxtaposing these three contradictory images enhances Momaday’s allegorical representation.

True to his training with Winters at Stanford, Momaday presents a moral judgment on an abstract theme in an associative structure. He has crafted this poem from a mental concept, but created one that is also strong in image. Nevertheless, whether one interprets "The Burning" as a tribute to the evolution of life on this planet or as a political, moral stance against the violence inflicted upon the North American landscape and its original inhabitants, Momaday’s poem exemplifies his artistry of poetic vision. Using the powerful metaphor of fire, Momaday associates oppositions of time, distance, and transformation for the reader using forms and rhythms that ring timeless, and through these connections, he forces us to re-examine our histories in light of his multiple angles of vision.

Works Cited

Maddox, Lucy. "Native American Poetry." The Columbia History of American Poetry. Eds. Jay Parini and Brett C. Miller. New York: Columbia UP, 1993. 728-49.

Mason, Kenneth C. "Beautyway: The Poetry of N. Scott Momaday." South Dakota Review 18 (Summ. 1980): 61-83.

Schubnell, Matthias. N. Scott Momaday: The Cultural and Literary Background. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1985.

Woodard, Charles L. Ancestral Voice: Conversations with N. Scott Momaday. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1989.

Prepared for Kenneth Roemer's English 5324, University of Texas at Arlington (Spring 2000)

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