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Snyder's Poetry from the Higher Heights
review by Trevor Carolan
Danger On Peaks, Gary Snyder. Shoemaker & Hoard, 2004. 112 p.
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
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).