Exquisite Environments

Gyorgi Voros

Vol. 21, No. 1, 1996

 

Mary Oliver. New and Selected Poems. Beacon Press 1992. 255 pp. $20.00

Mary Oliver. White Pine: Poems and Prose Poems. Harcourt Brace & Company 1994. 55 pp. $ 11.95 (paper)

Mary Oliver. Blue Pastures. Harcourt Brace & Company 1995. 1 pp. $22.00 $13.00 (paper)

Gary Snyder. No Nature: New and Selected Poems. Pantheon Books 1992. 390 pp. $25.00

Gary Snyder. A Place in Space: Ethics, Aesthetics and Watersheds. Counterpoint 1995.263 pp. $25.00

 

The exquisite environment of fact. The final poem will be the poem of fact in the language of fact. But it will be the poem of fact not realized before.

—Wallace Stevens, Adagia

Considering that she is one of the foremost laureates of American Nature poetry of the last decade, Mary Oliver exhibits a peculiar lack of genuine engagement with the natural world. Outwardly, her credentials are sterling. The thirty-odd years’ worth of poems collected in New and Selected Poems and the volume that follows, White Pine, as well as the prose pieces in Blue Pastures, certainly reveal a profound admiration for the phenomenal world—for surface and scintilla, animal and plant. Oliver follows in the footsteps of other famous walkers in and musers upon Nature. Basho journeyed on foot throughout Northern Japan, the Romantics wandered England’s Lake District, even the urbane Wallace Stevens ambled through Hartford’s Elizabeth Park, notebook and pen in hand. So Oliver tramps the shores, marshes, and woodlands of Cape Cod or Virginia, keeping her eyes peeled for the miraculous.

Like that of Blake and Whitman, both of whom this poet claims as influences, Oliver’s art is driven by urgency and conviction. Yet the passion to sound an alarm, to rip veils from the eyes of the less perceptive is, if anything, among her less endearing qualities: The persona of the poems is always leveling a reproachful gaze and firing bumptious questions at the reader, such as “have you too / gone crazy / for power, / for things?”; or—more Thoreau-like—“Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?”

Of course, curmudgeonliness is a time-honored trait of the nature writer. It’s tolerable when, in other respects, Oliver’s work seeks to record and respond to the minutiae of the immediate, and largely neglected, universe, and when she adheres to her own dictum that “our duty . . . as writers begins not with our own feelings but with the powers of observing.” Among her plentiful gifts to the reader are an apostrophe to an owl that goes, “Dear, dark dapple of plush!”; the characterization of a black snake that “jellies forward”; the whimsy of “snails on the pink sleds of their bodies.”

Nevertheless, these poems are not, to use Wallace Stevens’ phrase, “poem[s] of fact in the language of fact,” which that earlier nature poet had the prescience to identify as our century’s compelling need in its dealings with Nature. “[T]he path to heaven,” writes Oliver in “The Swan,” is

. . . in the imagination
with which you perceive
this world,

and the gestures
with which you honor it.

Despite the nod toward Romantic doctrine in paying homage to the imagination (“Wherever man is not, Nature is barren,” wrote Blake), Oliver herself often depicts human experience as hopelessly paltry compared to that of almost any other creature and human presence as an unforgivable trespass.

Yet neither is she content to perceive and honor this world in all its ordinariness. No Aeolian harp quivering to every passing sensory breeze, she strains to maintain—and when necessary manufacture—an unwavering pitch of intensity, awe, and visionary ecstasy. The moments of revelation that crack the world open in, say, Wordsworth or Emily Dickinson, seem the windfalls of experience. Their poems rely on a firm foundation of the daily against which the visionary rises in shining relief. The unvarying tenor of Oliver’s poems, by contrast, brings to mind Joyce Carol Oates’s snide (but accurate) observation that Nature “inspires a painfully limited set of personal responses in ‘nature writers’— reverence, awe, piety, mystical oneness.”

Revelation in Oliver’s poems breaks forth from a pattern of mannerisms: the tic of disbelief, the empty intensifier, the beatific generalization. Take, for example, “The Ponds,” a poem that begins with characteristic incredulity:

Every year
the lilies are so perfect
I can hardly believe

their lapped light crowding
the black,
mid-summer ponds.

It could be argued that the vernacular “so perfect” is necessary to move the poem forward to the poem’s central question that comes a few stanzas later—”But what in this world / is perfect?”—were it not for the regularity with which both the specious adverb “so” and the adjective “perfect” turn up in her poems. Elsewhere, a speaker is “so full of energy”; moths burn “so brightly”; scallops are “perfect fans”; a bear possesses “perfect love,” and an owl is a “perfect, billowing instrument.”

The answer to the posed question, which comes a few stanzas later, is first a catalogue of the blooms’ flaws—

I bend closer and see
how this one is clearly lopsided—
and that one wears an orange blight—
and this one is a glossy cheek

half nibbled away—
and that one is a slumped purse
full of its own
unstoppable decay.

—and next the poet’s wistful bid (how else to understand this?) for more and better fireworks:

Still, what I want in my life
is to be willing
to be dazzled—
to cast aside the weight of facts

and maybe even
to float a little above this difficult world.
I want to believe I am looking

into the white fire of a great mystery.
I want to believe that the imperfections are nothing—
that the light is everything—that it is more than the sum
of each flawed blossom rising and fading. And I do.

While it is marvelous to see eternity in a grain of sand and heaven in a wildflower when fate and the weather conspire to afford glimpses of them, to clamor and tug at Lady Nature’s skirts for extra favors is unseemly. Humans do not live by epiphany alone. “The Ponds” begins in callowness but ends in complaint. The childlike bemusement that marks the telling of the flowers (“and this one. . . and that one”) underlines the simple charm of the images: “a glossy cheek,” “a slumped purse.” But the watery syntax and artless vocabulary of the following stanzas smack of an odd stridency in the willful intrusions of ego (“I want . . .”) and the piled-on infinitives. Longer and longer sentences suggest a badgering aggravated by the repetition of “I want to believe.” That culminating “And I do” seems self-congratulatory. (Is this a sham faith? The lady protests too much!). Mounting emotion might register as passion were it not diluted with a cliche (“the white fire of a great mystery”) and a sweeping platitude (“the light is everything”).

Many Oliver poems, clearly the products of a sensibility devoted as well as devout, exude a near-religious fervor couched in the language of light and conflagration. Natural elements shimmer and glimmer and blaze and shine: “the flowers burn”; a speaker in a poem longs to “become again a flaming body / of blind feeling”; the sea is a “roaring flamboyance”; first snow falls with “such / an oracular fever!” In an undoubtedly lovely vision, “the trees / are turning / their own bodies / into pillars / / of light….”

The paradoxical effects of this approach—in our century’s climate of general recklessness toward Nature and in a poet who is usually regarded as an exponent of the new nature poetry striving to respect Nature’s integrity as “Other”—are difficult to untangle. On the simplest level, the passion for transcendence impairs the poet’s powers of observation. Maybe it’s true that Oliver’s hummingbird “whenever there is a fuss / just rises and floats away.” But the hummingbirds I’ve witnessed in my backyard are murderous little hellions who, for all their jewel-like demeanor, are rapacious for territory and become miniature MIGs when raiding each other’s feeders.

Oliver’s posture of awe, admiration, and envy distances her from the rest of Nature. A poem called “October,” for example (one of the new in New and Selected), describes another woodland walk, this one resulting in the sighting of a black bear. The meditation ends this way:

Sometimes in late summer I won’t touch anything, not
the flowers, not the blackberries
brimming in the thickets; I won’t drink
from the pond; I won’t name the birds or the trees;
I won’t whisper my own name.

One morning
the fox came down the hill, glittering and confident,
and didn’t see me—and I thought:

so this is the world.
I’m not in it.
It is beautiful.

The impulse to somehow undo the profound damage humans, in their cruel swarm, have inflicted on this planet (“I won’t touch . . . I won’t . . . name”) is understandable, worthy, and above all poignant. But extracting and isolating the human from Nature is just the other side of the same anthropocentric coin that values people as the crown of creation to the detriment of the rest of Nature; they are both grandiose, narcissistic delusions. Doesn’t ecological wholeness depend on interaction and interdependence? Even if one has no argument with the literal sense of the passage, the poem’s own gestures undermine its intentions. In her fervor to obliterate self, the speaker stumbles over the pronoun “I” no less than six times!

Along the same lines, an encounter with a deer which “in some kind of rapturous mistake, / . . . did not run away I I but walked toward me” further demonstrates Oliver’s addiction to spiritual thrill-seeking. No animal would barter its own life and body within a world of change, as Oliver readily would, in exchange for a stasis in which ripe fruit never falls:

I have been, ever since,
separated from my old, comfortable life

of experience and deduction—
I have been, ever since,
exalted—
and even now,

though I am estranged from the world,
I would not go back—
I would not be anywhere else
but stalled in the happiness

of the miracle—

The hushed reverence is “authentic” (to use the term most frequently applied to Oliver’s work), but the focus on being “stalled in happiness” is troubling, as though we moderns were in the uniquely awkward position of simply having nothing to do with ourselves when out in Nature except walk around, gawk, and exult (that is, when we’re not tearing it up with machinery).

In “1945-1985: Poem for the Anniversary,” Oliver betrays a similar laxity of purpose, all the more disturbing since this poem, in a rare instance of historical specificity, commemorates the Holocaust:

The way I’d like to go on living in this world wouldn’t hurt anything, I’d just go on walking uphill and downhill, looking around . . .

The weak repetition of “I’d go on . . . “and the insouciance of the third line suggest a naivete that, given the subject, seems inappropriate. It’s difficult not to take complacency of rhythm and syntax, in this case, for complacency of thought.

One wonders what version of fellow-feeling for other creatures induces a poet to proclaim

If I had another life I would want to spend it all on some unstinting happiness.

I would be a fox, or a tree full of waving branches.

This imputation of”happiness” to foxes and trees recurs throughout Oliver’s poems. A deer is “busy with her own happiness”; that spaced-out hummingbird we met above “comes / like a small green angel, to soak / his dark tongue / in happiness—”; wrens are “happy they are to be / diligent at last.” What this “happiness” appears to celebrate is the creatures’ ability to be wholly present to the fullness of their earthly (and only) existence. If this interpretation is on the mark, it doesn’t make up for limp language that fails to embody complexity of thought.

In the end, the work represented by the New and Selected Poems and White Pine is, to resort to a valuation not usually within the purview of literary criticism, ecologically unsound. The last thing we need to do in the current urgency of reconsidering our relationship to the natural world is to “cast aside the weight of facts” and “float . . . / above this difficult world.” This, finally, is what Oliver urges: not to see the world itself for what it is, but to see through it. Though her antennae are acutely attuned to the physical world, it is not so much the signal received that the poems transcribe as the rather manic motion of the antennae themselves.

Curiously, judging from her prose writings, Oliver knows better than to let her own reactions to Nature mesmerize her. Blue Pastures, a haphazard collection of essays, occasional pieces, aphorisms, and jottings from notebooks, gives fresh insight into Oliver’s poetics, her philosophy of Nature, and the contradictions therein. The essay entitled “A Few Words” discourses wisely on the dangers of prettifying Nature:

Nothing in the forest is charming…. And nothing in the forest is cute . . . Such words—’cute,’ ‘charming,’ ‘adorable’—miss the mark, for what is perceived of in this way is stripped of dignity, and authority.

One wonders, though, if the rhapsodic is not as lethal as the sentimental. This essay, like so many of Oliver’s poems, ends in a transcendent vision of wholeness:

Life is Niagara, or nothing. I would not be the overlord of a single blade of grass, that I might be its sister. I put my face close to the lily, where it stands just above the grass, and give it a good greeting from the stem of my heart. We live, I am sure of this, in the same country, in the same household, and our burning comes from the same lamp.

This passage is lovely, but it is not of our time. We recognize Thoreau in its exhortations and analogies, in its assertions and metaphors, in its vocabulary (especially the word “overlord”), and, above all, in its cadence. But it does not answer to the needs of our own historical moment, or to the particulars of the late twentieth century’s conflicts with Nature.

Finally, what is vexing about Mary Oliver’s poetry is precisely that it does not suffice as poetry. A generic quality pervades language and landscape. Robert Frost’s mended wall makes better neighbors in New Hampshire or Vermont; Robinson Jeffers delivers his rumbling pronouncements from the bluffs of Big Sur; James Wright (one of Oliver’s mentors) breaks into blossom in a Minnesota twilight; but Oliver’s hummingbirds and marshes and woodlands and deer and bear could be anywhere east of the Mississippi. Nor does her language hold up under the contradictions of her need for transcendence and her need to speak plainly. What is one to make of the banality of this assessment of human and individual aspiration:

. . . a few people just trying one way or another to survive.

Mostly I wanted to be kind.

If flatness of expression is meant to render some shy, “unmediated” experience of the natural world, if short lines and jarring line breaks reflect a wish to perceive every mote in sunlight and to speak of the details slowly, then how explain the particular form of “Mockingbirds”[*] in the newest collection, White Pine?

This morning two mockingbirds in the green field were spinning and tossing

the white ribbons of their songs into the air. I had nothing

better to do than listen. I mean this seriously.

Because each line comprises a prepositional phrase or some other coherent syntactical unit, reading the poem is like scanning a series of freeze frames; this is to say that the form could yield a specific meaning. But the washboard syntax defies the fluidity of birdsong, as do the schoolmarmish last lines above: Should we mistake the occasion for a lighthearted moment, they reprimand us.

The opening stanzas of “Porcupine,” in their line breaks, however, defy explanation:

Where the porcupine is I don’t know but I hope

it’s high up on some pine bough . . .

What this hiccuping aesthetic teaches is that if you put a lot of stark white space around a few very small words, those words had better be worth the dazzle.

White Pine includes what for Oliver is a new genre, prose poetry (the volume is subtitled “Poems and Prose Poems”). In feeling, sensibility, and diction these poems continue in the vein of Oliver’s non-prose poems, some of them successfully enough, but they also point up the arbitrary form displayed by the earlier non-prose poems. “Fletcher Oak” begins

There is a tree here so beautiful it even has a name. Every morning, when it is still dark, I stand under its branches. They flow from the thick and silent trunk. One can’t begin to imagine their weight….

In their monotonous syntax and uniformity, these lines replicate the tactics of an Oliver poem. The weak passages of her prose-poems encourage the droning intonation and pseudo-profundity of many 1960s adolescents’ favorite poet, Kahlil Gibran:

A dog comes to you and lives with you in your own house, but you do not therefore own her, as you do not own the rain, or the trees, or the laws which pertain to them.

With their self-doubt, backtracking, and endless qualifiers, Oliver’s poems betray an overall sloppiness. When John Ashhery interjects the phrases “I don’t know” or “and anyway,” he is mapping the circuitous progress of thought processes or deliberately mimicking fragments of conversation. But Oliver’s poems do neither of these. Regularly interrupted by expressions such as “I guess,” “and anyway” and “so what,” their stilted formality feels awkward. And when the poems pose chummy, conspiratorial questions to the reader—

Also I wanted to be able to love. And we all know how that one goes, don’t we?—

we want to answer, “No, as a matter of fact, we don’t know. Tell us, in a language that suffices.”

2.

language as wild system, mind as wild habitat, world as a “making” (poem), poem as a creature of the wild mind.

—GARY SNYDER, “Unnatural Writing”

Gary Snyder’s No Nature: New and Selected Poems and A Place in Space: Ethics, Aesthetics and Watersheds, a collection of essays, talks, reviews, and occasional pieces, offer quirky, incisive critiques of mainstream American culture—and an alternative vision notable for its good-natured humor and off-beat erudition. They yield a fascinating contrast to Mary Oliver’s poetry. Where Oliver yearns to merge with the natural world, Snyder, it appears, has never not been merged; he takes as a given our full citizenship in Nature’s nations. His poetry embraces language and consciousness as adaptive, biological traits of our species and of our bodies as well as minds—not, as Oliver and the Western Romantic tradition behind her would have it, obstacles to some idealized, unmediated connection.

In Snyder’s view, Nature shields no one from the corruptions of civilization, since by definition it includes them. “Nature also means,” he writes in this volume’s preface, “the physical universe, including the urban, industrial and toxic.” The construct “Nature” as opposed to “Culture”—or mind as opposed to body, or any of the long metronomic list of Cartesian dichtomies—collapses in the big picture. The title, No Nature, gives the lie to artificial separations: No Nature because no not Nature.

If the title issues disclaimer and caveat, it puns on a command, as well: “Know Nature!” This collection charts one way to come by this knowledge, though Snyder warns at the outset that “we do not easily know nature, or even know ourselves.” The caution implies a core belief: Knowing nature and knowing the self are closely aligned activities, so long as the latter is understood not in a narrow psychological sense, but as skeins in a web of relationships—to place, people, animals and plants, history and idea.

The barest facts of Snyder’s life and influences explain his wild eclecticism. A lifelong environmentalist, he worked in his youth both on trail crews in Yosemite and as a shipmate on oil tankers. In his career as poet, Snyder has been buddy to bikers, rednecks, cowboys, and “whoring sailors,” all of whom appear in the poems. He spent ten years in Japan pursuing Zen practice, studying in monasteries and translating Buddhist texts. A New World/Zen poet who figured large in the West Coast Beat scene in the fifties, and who in one recent poem muses on “Europe forgotten now, almost a dream—,” he nevertheless once lamented the frustrations of teaching poetry to students who have never read Spenser or Shakespeare.

The poems in No Nature comprise an autobiographical record, but always with an overlay of commentary and a nimbus of context. Their “I-do-this-I-do-that” narrative recalls Frank O’Hara; their learned, often obscure, fragmentary allusiveness recalls Pound. Amplitude of experience in the life is matched, in the poems, by a variegated, not to say motley, aesthetic. As in any well-functioning ecosystem, everything gets used; nothing is wasted; nothing is left Out.

Of course, as anybody with a compost pile knows, the process of recycling can be messy. Materials break down at different rates en route to their new life as rich loam. Some things, like orange peel, just won’t decompose, so they poke out of the soil. In its generosity and inclusiveness, in its tolerance for the undigested bits, in its attention to the whole rather than to parts, Snyder’s work undergoes a similar process.

His constant is dedication to language. Nature, writes Snyder, is “An open space to move in, with the whole body, the whole mind. My gesture has been with language.” For Snyder, no fan of current fashionable theories of language, words link us to what’s usually thought to be “outside” the mind, including natural forces (which are, however, themselves often analogous to mental processes). Language is both natural and functional—”a wild system born with us,” he says in an essay called “A Single Breath.” Snyder vouchsafes no gap between the world of human imagination and the world of solid, physical fact: “Whatever made people think Mind isn’t rocks, fences, clouds or houses? Dogen’s[*] ingenuous question.”

“Riprap,” the title poem of Snyder’s first published collection, remains an apt emblem for his poetics. Loose stones used to stabilize, say, a logging road, stand in for words laid down as a makeshift highway for the mind, as well as for the assemblage of the things of this world which, like Whitman, Snyder’s poems affectionately inventory:

In the thin loam, each rock a word a creek-washed stone Granite: ingrained with torment of fire and weight Crystal and sediment linked hot all change, in thoughts, As well as things.

While these lines admit no rift between “thought” and “things,” in no way do they suggest thee “things” are less real than “thought.” “Our poems are full of real presences,” Snyder asserts—doctrine anathema to any self-respecting deconstructionist. Language is a kind of granite foundation for human experience in the physical world; its molten explosive origins seethed within the Big Bang as much as those of any crystal or sediment. Elsewhere Snyder calls language “riprap on the slickrock of metaphysics.” So it’s a foothold and a pathway through; it doesn’t crease Nature.

“Riprap,” a relatively arcane term to all but forest service employees, echoes the word “riffraff” as well, implying that in these poems there’s plenty of room for what might be thought, in a more purist aesthetic, worthless, trashy, or ephemeral. One of Snyder’s guidelines for what he calls a “New Nature Poetics” is that “it study. . . language as wild system, mind as wild habitat…. poem as a creature of the wild mind.” “Wild,” in this context, means self-regulating, not, as is commonly thought, dissolute or chaotic. Language, like wild ecosystems, is “richly interconnected, interdependent, and incredibly complex. Diverse, ancient, and full of information.” This view of language as wild system leads to Snyder’s hands-off poetic that casts its lot with verbal momentum rather than with integrity of line, stylistic adroitness, or deft turn of phrase. “Good writing is ‘wild’ language,” writes Snyder; in other words, it takes care of itself.

“Bubbs Creek Haircut,” a long (five page) poem from the early Mountains and Rivers Without End, points up Snyder’s inclusive methods. It recounts the poet’s preparations for trekking into the Sierra backcountry. The opening account of barbershop and barber—”High ceilingd and the double mirrors, the / calendar a splendid alpine scenescab barber—in staind white barber gown”—gives way to a meditation on shopping for clothes at Goodwill, reminisces of other haircuts and shopping trips, detours into a description of hiking Bubbs Creek with a rowdy trail crew up to the glacial Forester Pass, breaks briefly into a song to Hindu deities, segues to a hitchhiking jaunt with Allen Ginsberg, switchbacks to the Bubbs Creek trek, and comes to rest finally back in the barbershop.

Embedded in the poem’s jittery mobility is a sober consideration of what Snyder, in “Piute Creek,” calls “All the junk that goes with being human,” which he juxtaposes against the stark, inhuman beauty of the actual mountain looming over the whole poem. The detritus of civilization makes for both a reassuring continuity and a lot of rubbish as well. Thus, the barber, we find out, is familiar with Snyder’s destination up Bubbs Creek: “Well I been up there. I built a cabin / up at Cedar Grove. In nineteen five.” The Goodwill, though, boasts a roomful of “unfixes jink”:

All emblems of the past—to close—heaped up in chilly dust and bare bulb glare Of tables, wheelchairs, battered trunks & lamps & pots that boiled up coffee nineteen ten, things Swimming on their own & finally freed from human need. Or? waiting a final flicker of desire To tote them once more. Some freakish use. The Master of the limbo drag-legged watches making prices to the people seldom buy. The sag-ass” rocker has to make it now. Alone.

The haphazard omission of articles (“heaped up in chilly dust and bare bulb glare”), abbreviated spellings (“High ceilingd,” “staind”), jaunty vocabulary, and casual use of the ampersand all heighten, verbally and graphically, the poem’s agitated, talky energy. But Snyder choreographs momentum with syntactical savvy. The long sentence tallying the room’s contents glissades to pause at that anticipatory “Or?,” accelerates with a series of shorter phrases, picks up speed with two full sentences, and pulls up short again on the single word “Alone.”

In contrast to the Goodwill’s human clutter, presided over by the gimpy “Master,” stands the remote austerity of Forester Pass. At twelve thousand feet, the seemingly sterile “half iced-over lake” is “filled with leaping trout”:

the crazy web of waveless makes sense seen from high above. a deva world of sorts—it’s high it is a view that few men see, a point bare sunlight on the spaces empty sky moulding to fit the shape of what ice left of fire thrust, or of tilted, twisted, faulted cast-out from this lava belly globe. The boulder in my mind’s eye is a chair. . . . why was the man drag legg’d?

Forged in the fires of geology, bare, empty, forbidding, and inhuman, the landscape briefly evokes the human in resembling a chair, maybe for a god. Sinuous, impromptu as dribbles in action painting, the schema of perception jags across the page in bursts of long and short lines. Unlike Mary Oliver’s line breaks, which flatten affect and serve up thought in prissy tidbits, Snyder’s lines cascade along in rushes of free association, the view forking between Hinduism (“deva world”) and earth science. Hovering briefly over a contemplation of vastness and bareness, the passage’s short lines hang appropriately suspended in empty white space—but not for long. Rather than remain “stalled in the happiness” of the panorama, Snyder moves the poem forward (and back to its beginnings) with the non-sequitur about the man in the Goodwill. The lines that follow could apply to the glacier and its master as well:

King of Hell or is it a paradise of sorts, thus freed From acting out the function some creator/carpenter Thrust on a thing to think he made, himself, an object always “chair”?

Sinister ritual histories. is the Mountain God a “imp? The halting metrics and the ritual limp. Good Will?

Besides saluting the primal “otherness” of objects unfettered by human need or desire, “Bubbs Creek Haircut” tracks the byways and back-country of creativity itself. The poem proves how human creations (chairs, poems) assume a life of their own beyond the “creator / carpenter[‘s]” plans for them. The “halting metrics” and the “ritual limp” describe, and therefore unite, the gimpy Goodwill proprietor, the Mountain God, and the poet. Words, being wild, command multiple personae: So the Goodwill store invoked throughout the poem in a kind of ritual refrain mutates to a question: “Good Will?” Is the Mountain God benign? Is any creator? And what about created things?

Snyder’s allegiances to an ecological worldview run deep: The language of natural systems saturates his thinking about social relationships, history, the environmental crisis, and literature. But an equally useful framework for appreciating Snyder’s poetry is to recognize that it takes its cues from oral and narrative forms and traditions: from folklore, myth, performance, conversation, anthropology. While his poems sometimes look like lyrics, they shun the lyric’s conventions: the self-contained moment, often ending in epiphany, linguistically and semantically rounded off in closure. Snyder makes no attempt to dress up prosaic images, his Whitmanian catalogues brook no hierarchy. He aspires to what he terms “an elegant plainness, which we name the Zen aesthetic…. The idea of a poetry with minimal surface texture, with the complexities hidden at the bottom of the pool under the bank, a dark old lurking, no fancy flavor . . . “

A late poem entitled “Right in the Trail” shows how Snyder’s talent for storytelling, despite “minimal surface texture,” imbues a stroll in the yard with pleasure and significance:

Here it is, near the house, A big pile, fat scats,

Studded with those deep red Smooth-skinned manzanita berries, Such a pile! Such droppings, Awesome.

The exclamation and the adjective “awesome” (this last Snyder probably picked up from his sons) do not sound as contrived here as slangy constructions in Oliver do, because they occur in a context already chatty. But after this informal beginning, Snyder ups the ante by switching into the Haida bear myth of a young girl’s kidnapping when she messes with bear scat:

And I saw how The young girl in the story, Had good cause to comment On the bearscats she found while Picking blueberries with her friends. She laughed at them Or maybe with them, jumped over them (Bad luck!), and is reported To have said “wide anus!” To amuse or annoy the Big Brown Ones Who are listening, of course.

This tale of the girl who eventually “had some pretty children by a / Young and handsome Bear” is significant not only in Pacific Northwest ethnography, but in Snyder’s personal history. As a young graduate student, he wrote a thesis on this myth that came to be a respected piece of scholarship in the field. The personal note chimes again in Snyder’s emotional effusiveness, but rather than remain mired in it, he moves on to “read” the “text” the animal has left:

Now I’m on the dirt Looking at these scats And I want to cry not knowing why At the honor and the humor

Of coming on this sign That is not found in books Or transmitted in letter, And is for women just as much as men, A shining message for all species, A glimpse at the Trace Of the Great One’s passing, with a peek into her whole wild system— And what was going on last week, (Mostly still manzanita)—

A clue in a detective story, the scat reveals a chapter of the bear’s life story—her movements, her habits, her diet, her “whole wild system”— as well as a bit of natural history (she’s eaten what was ripe and available that week, the manzanita berries). The “Great One’s passing” alludes not only to the bear’s sojourn in Snyder’s woods, but also to her kind passing from our consciousness, and to the possibility of her species passing into extinction. The animal traces remind Snyder of the bear legends of the Northwest, a mythology whose origins arose from real people’s encounters with real bears. In the spirit of those meetings, Snyder turns the occasion of the poem itself into a tryst with a bear by apostrophizing the creature in an irreverent praise poem, both teasing and entreating the Great Ones to stick around (we need them):

Dear Bear: do stay around. Be good. And though I know It won’t help to say this,

Chew your food.

Affection leavens awe. Like a parent counseling an unruly yet cherished child, Snyder humorously speaks for the bonds that link Nature’s extended family.

Bear “sign” (another word for scat) is itself a kind of scatological semiotics, a sign not transcendent but embedded in the very ordure of animal experience. Like the scat, Snyder’s poems are studded with bright berries of evidence of all he has consumed and digested and recycled in his poetry of Indian folklore, natural history, personal experience, and e records of human-animal relations.

[*] Substitute a nightingale or a lark for the mockingbirds and we have the Romantic commonplace of the poet listening for revelations.

[*] Doyen is the priest who introduced Soto Buddhism to Japan in 1227.

 

 

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Max RITVO,
Claire SIBLEY
Design and Art Direction: Alyssa VARNER
Printer: Cadmus Press

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