Pacific Rim Review of Books

[ Back to Issue Features ]

Snyder's Poetry from the Higher Heights

review by Trevor Carolan

Danger On Peaks, Gary Snyder. Shoemaker & Hoard, 2004. 112 p. $30.95 cloth.

If George Harrison taught a lot of us to open our mind to Mother India during the Sixties, for almost 50 years now Gary Snyder has been teaching us how to incorporate the perennial wisdom of Mother Asia in our own heart. At 74, and accorded an international role as lay spiritual teacher, this venerable old master's contributions as poet, essayist and "mahayana anthropologist" have come to rest at the emotional, philosophical and activist bedrock of our deepest cultural conversations. Yet, if most of us recognize that we should know his name, we haven't always actually read his books. You'll be glad to learn that his new work, Danger On Peaks, offers some of his warmest, most accessible writing to date.

His first collection of new poems since 1983, Snyder admixes the work with haibun, or Japanese-style traveler's journal of prose and poems that devotees of Basho will know well. Danger On Peaks reads like a set of conversational letters from a precious friend. Faithful readers know Snyder's voice instantly-there's no one else like it-and this is what has always made him special. Many of us first heard this voice in the character of Japhy Ryder whom Jack Kerouac immortalized in The Dharma Bums. Snyder declined pop celebrity though, and left to study Buddhist culture in Japan where for 10 years he cultivated an intensive Zen Buddhist practice. Returning to North America, he infused his writing with knowledge from this experience. In Earth House Hold, a rare classic of Sixties' culture, he declares presciently that, "The mercy of the West has been social revolution; the mercy of the East has been individual insight into the basic self/void. We need both."

Snyder grew up in the Pacific Northwest and his work has long been informed by the region's aboriginal traditions and mythologies. Offering non-Natives an introduction to the continent's widespread Bear and "Doctor Coyote" myths, it was Snyder who gave widespread coinage with his Pulitzer-Prize winning collection Turtle Island, to the ancient Native name for North America. Cross-pollinated with both Asian and aboriginal ideas, Snyder's own literary lineage derives from Thoreau, Whitman, Pound, W.C. Williams, Rexroth, and the mainline of European literature. The result is an East/West-flavored style packed with ecological imagery, and loaded with tight, homespun dialogue. Danger On Peaks carries on just this way. Beginning with a section recalling boyhood mountaineering adventures around Mount St. Helens, the site of one of the 20th century's great explosions, Snyder combines natural images of the outdoors familiar to anyone raised on family camping journeys. There's a catch, of course. In "Atomic Dawn" he recollects how on descending from his first major climb up the peak, he learned at age 15 of the first atomic bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Horrified by news photos of the destruction, the youthful Snyder appealed to the mountain's huge spirit for help, and he recalls vowing something like, "By the purity and beauty and permanence of Mount St. Helens, I will fight against this cruel destructive power and those who would seek to use it, for all my life."

That's pretty much what Snyder has done. In "Pearly Everlasting" he recounts, "If you ask for help it comes/But not in any way you'd ever know." Combining his long years of familiarity with high mountain places, wilderness sustainability issues, Zen, and a lifetime of scholarship that has earned him membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Snyder worked at cultivating the principles of what he terms a "Turtle Island view." Nowadays we call this "bioregionalism", and in books including Axe Handles, his translations of Han Shan's Cold Mountain Poems, A Place In Space, and The Practice of the Wild, Snyder articulates how any truly healthy culture begins with individuals overcoming narrow personal appetites to find deeper identity through commitment to their own territory, be it Painted Desert, B.C. rainforest, or urban neighborhood.

Danger On Peaks reprises these things: from observing bear scratch-marks on trees to the habits of night herons, from memories of visits to Greece and Ireland, to the names of plants and starry constellations, as well as reflections on Sir Francis Drake's 1579 west coast expedition, and lines in homage to longtime Snyder associates like Nanao Sakaki, Allen Ginsberg, James Laughlin, and Phillip Zenshin Whalen. There are intimate, but discreet glimpses of his relationship with wife Carole Koda-the book's title piece recalls a first glimpse of her in the meditation hall; and a folksy account of his aged, feisty mother; and a blues upon the death of his sister.

Mount St. Helens' eruption in 1980 preceded other dreadful explosions in Afghanistan and New York in 2001. Honoring the victims, Snyder writes compassionately: "The men and women who/died at the World Trade Center/together with the/Buddhas of Bamiyan/ Take Refuge in the dust." And it's here that we remember Snyder's work has always been a kind of sutra, or prayer. The Beat movement that brought Snyder and his colleagues to attention was imbued with Buddhist sympathies and gave us a new, hybridized way of honoring the sacredness of ordinary existence. In Danger On Peaks, this is still what it's all about for Snyder-waking up to the big moment around us, remembering and doing what needs to be done.

Unsurprisingly for a poet-essayist, the practices of waking up and living mindfully still find a nexus in language. Yet in a late piece, "Waiting for a Ride", he notes movingly, "Most of my work/ such as it is/ is done." Let's hope it's not all done. Amid the samsara of these confused, amoral times nobody details our true responsibilities as planetary citizens in straighter talk, or with more heart than Gary Snyder. This is his medicine.

Trevor Carolan writes from Deep Cove, B.C. His recent publications include Down In The Valley (Ekstasis) and Return To Stillness: Twenty Years with a Tai Chi Master (Marlowe).