Gary Snyder: Danger on Peaks
This 2004 book of thematically connected poems recently came into my possession, as a hardcover first edition, along with the author's No Nature: New and Selected Poems 1992. Gary Snyder is a poet who I feel strongly connected to, both in terms of shared subject matters, but also in shared worldview, interests, and maybe even approach to writing. I cannot but admit to an influence on my own writing from his.
Speaking as a writer interested in both "nature poetry" and what has come in recent years to be called "creative non-fiction," I set Snyder on a shelf in my library next to Barry Lopez, John McPhee, Annie Dillard, and some few others.
I'm also very interested in the genre of writing lately called the poetic journal, which has strong roots in both Thoreau and in Chinese and japanese precursors. There is a connection to zuihitsu, which is a characteristic Japanese literary form of "random composition," literally, "following the brush." This is an open form of free writing, in which the author makes no intentional order, and topics and styles can leap widely from section to section. What creates continuity is proximity rather than outline. (Famous literary examples of zuihitsu include Sei Shonagon's Pillow Book and Kenko's Essays in Idleness.)
Snyder's book Danger on Peaks carries elements of both poetic journal and zuihitsu. It is not the first example of this work he has given us; it is a common mode for his poetry, and also appears in his essay collections Earth House Hold and The Practice of the Wild. I think the origin of Snyder's style lies in both the influence of American nature writers such as Thoreau, and his well-known Asian studies background. That he practices it so well is a tribute to his own skills as poet and prose-poet, and the balance he has found that allows him to stand on the shoulders of his precursors on multiple continents. I have said, previously, that of all the poets associated with the Beats, Snyder is I think perhaps the most enduring, and for me at least the richest and deepest. His work is a deep well that puts out streams in several directions. Snyder has said, in different ways at different times, that his values and practice are nature-based, as old as the human species; this full book of poems reinforces both values and practice, moving them forward into the new century, at the same time reaffirming their archaic, even Paleolithic origins.
Danger on Peaks does what the best poetic journal writing does: it moves easily between prose section and enjambed verse. The tone of voice is consistent, regardless of whether the style seems more prose-like or poetry-like, and it's a tribute to both style and execution that the moves between more prose-like objects and more poetry-like objects on the page are seamless.
The poems take place in the mountains, or in the frame of mind of, having returned to the lowlands, one's heart and mind being still in the mountains. Sometimes this is explicit; other times, merely the context of the poem's actions. The title of the book echoes throughout, as each poem in each section gradually accumulates to fill alll the spaces in the book. This is genuinely a book-length poem made up of additive elements that create a synergistic whole.
The book's seven sections being with "Mount St. Helens," an autobiographical poetic journal beginning withe first time Snyder climbed the snowpeaks of the Cascades, at age 13, and continuing through other memories to when the mountain blew in 1980, and the aftermath. The fourth poem in "Mount St. Helens" is Atomic Dawn:
The day I first climbed Mt. St. Helens was August 13, 1945.
Soirit Lake was far from the cities of the valley and news came slow. Though the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima August 6 and the second dropped on Nagasaki August 9, photographs didn't appear in the Portland Oregonian until August 12. Those papers must have been driven in to Spirit Lake on the 13th. Early in the morning of the 14th I walked over to the lodge to check the bulletin board. There were whole pages of the paper pinned up: photos of a blasted city from the air, the estimate of 150,000 dead in Hiroshima alone, the American scientist quoted saying "nothing will grow there again for seventy years." The morning sun on my shoulders, the fir forest smell and the big tree shadows; feet in thin mocassins feeling the ground, and my heart still one with the snowpeak mountain at my back. Horrified, blaming scientists and politicians and the governments of the world, I swore a vow to myself, something like, "By the purity and the beauty and permanence of Mt. St. Helens, I will fight against this cruel destructive power and those who would seek to use it, for all my life."
If consistency is a measure of inner grace, and commitment a measure of inner power, then Snyder's grace and power have never diminished.
The fifth section of the book, "Dust in the Wind," is a sequence of expanded haibun; not formally precise, but exploded, the intent and cohesion of the form still there. Haibun, my own favorite poetic form to write in, can be defined as densely poetic prose with interspersed haiku. Here, Snyder doesn't stick to strict haiku in form; still, each poem begins with a prose paragraph followed by a short poem. Snyder follows the aesthetic of the haibun form, in that each short poem following a prose paragraph looks at the same moment from a different angle: a new take on the topic, unified in essence but never merely repeating the prose. It's always an oblique viewpoint, but the haiku also completes the haibun. This is the classic way the haibun has been practiced by the haiku masters, most famously by Basho himself, in his masterpiece Oku no hosomichi, or "Narrow Road to the Interior."
Spilling the Wind
The faraway line of the freeway faint murmur of motors, the slow steady semis and darting little cars; two thin steel towers with faint lights high up blinking; and we turn on a raised dirt road between two flooded fallow ricefields—wind brings more roar of cars
hundreds of white-fronted geese
spull the wind from their wings
wobbling and sideslipping down
The seventh section of the book, "After Bamiyan," is full of lament and anger. It is political poetry, but not protest poetry: it is engaged with the world, and events, but the poet responds as a human, not as a political flack. The section begins with the destruction by the Taliban in early 2001 of the ancient, gigantic Buddhas sculpted into the rocks of the high cliffs at Bamiyan. I remember studying these Buddhas, in college art history classes, as a culmination of historical Buddhist art and architecture along the Silk Road; I had always wanted to see them in person, which is now and forever impossible.
My favorite poem in this final, lamenting section is one of the poems Snyder wrote after the destruction of the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001. The most indelible images in my mind, from that day I sat watching the events as they happened, live on television, were the dots of people fallign from the sky: those who had chosen to leap to their deaths rather than be burned alive, or crushed in the fall of the twin towers. I knew, as soon as the planes hit the buildings, that the buildings were coming down: jet fuel is an arsonist's dream accelerant, burning hot enough to soften concrete and steel. The images of the people who chose their own deaths, by leaping free of the towers, is still what I remember most viscerally. Snyder wrote about it as follows, and in this his writing says all that I have never been able to:
Falling from a Height, Holding Hands
What was that?
storms of flying glass
& billowing flames
a clear day to the far sky—
better than bruning,
We will be
two peregrines diving
all the way down
The book ends with a final poem-blessing: We have spoken again the unknown words of the spell / that purifies the world.... Then one turns the page, and just before the brief Notes, there is a beautiful photo of Mt. St. Helens that Snyder took in August 1945, returning us back to the first poems in this collection, about his first climbs of the snowpeaks.
As poetic journal, as haibun or zuihitsu, as a continuation of a genuinely American poet's work—a Pacific Rim American poet's work, one who looks both West and East—this is a compelling book. It both summarizes, memorializes, reminisces, and moves us forward into the future. Snyder's poetic prose and more formal poetry alike weave together into a unified whole, parts capable of standing alone, but the whole greater than the sum of the parts, as well.
Any poets who are interested in what can be done with these journal forms and prose/poem styles need to read and re-read this book; for inspiration, for solace, for possibility. For me, this is one of hte most inspiring books of poetry, and poetic prose, that I have read in years. I expect to return to it numerous times, and to carry it with me, next time I venture into the Cascades.