Friday, 25 May 2007

Simon Turner - The Turtle-Islander, Re-emerged

Gary Snyder, Danger on Peaks (Shoemaker Hoard, 2004 [pbk 2005]), pp 113, ISBN (10) 1-59376-080-9 / (13) 978-1-59376-080-9

Danger on Peaks has been a long time in the making. Snyder's last collection of entirely new material was Axe Handles in 1983, since which time we've had an uncollected (Left Out in the Rain), a new and selected (No Nature), and (finally!) a full publication in 1996 of his magnum opus Mountains and Rivers Without End, which had, up until that point, been threatening to live up to its title more literally than its author could have planned.

Of course, that 20 year gap implies a massive gap between collections in terms of content as well as time, but what's remarkable in Danger on Peaks is the sense of continuity with Snyder's previous work. However, this is not to imply that Snyder is simply going over old ground (literally: landscape (ground), and its relationship, often fraught, with human habitation, is a central concern in Snyder's work): in actual fact, Danger on Peaks shows a poet as formally restless as he has ever been. The haibun (a Japanese form mingling prose and poetry), in particular, is a new and repeated formal adoption throughout this collection.

As ever, Snyder is at his best when sticking to the facts, and his poetry truly comes alive when attending to minute solid detail. The sequence of not-quite haiku, "Brief Years", is a particular delight (and reminded me of an earlier sequence from The Back Country, way back in 1968, entitled "Hitch Haiku"), and proffers up such joys as the following lines:

Out of cracks in the roadcut rockwalls,
clumps of peach-colored mimulus
spread and bloom

The rhythmic surety of the first line is highly musical, and reveals the genuine rooting in technique which the seemingly casual style of his verse tends to (deliberately) conceal. Just listen to the syllables knocking against each other; terribly Olsonian of me, I know, but it's in those little details of construction that the power of Snyder's poetry resides.

Close attention to detail also characterises my favourite section of the book, "Daily Life", which does pretty much what it says on the tin. The best of these 'diary' poems - "What to Tell, Still", "Winter Almond", "Really the Real" - reveal the mixture of the casual and the intensely worked which has been the calling card of Snyder's verse from the get go. "Really the Real", in particular, is intensely rewarding. The poem describes a drive - "Heading south down the freeway making the switch / from Business 80 east to the I-5 south" - and in the process also enacts a journey through the poem's details, culminating in the payoff line, where Snyder and his travelling companion end up in "what you might call, / really the real, world" - the 'real' here either denoting a world beyond the illusion of man made landmarks like the interstate and the cities it connects; or the world beyond the poem. What is seemingly casual and improvised as a poetic structure is in fact extraordinarily complex, the use of the present tense - ings resound throughout Snyder's poetry like a kind of chorus of the present moment - creating a sense of motion, of process, even at the same time as Snyder acknowledges that such a process is just a trick of syntax. Not bad going for such a seemingly colloquial poet.

If Snyder is a poet of the present moment, then he is at the same time intensely aware of 'deep time', a geological conception of history that stretches back long before humankind appeared on the scene (one poem, "Loose on Earth", portrays humankind as "a quick / / explosion on the planet", here for the barest fraction of time in comparison to the planet itself). Many of the poems in Danger on Peaks return to the big issue that has run throughout Snyder's poetry: that of humankind's relationship with nature, our capacity to damage and exploit it, and ways towards an alteration in consciousness that would halt such exploitation in the future. Negative human attitudes to nature, according to Snyder, are essentially the product of a Western mindset, which persists through science, religion, even language itself. These "woman-and-nature-denying authoritarian worldviews" are picked apart in a number of poems, and the best of these - "Sharing an Oyster with the Captain" - takes Francis Drake to task for failing to 'see' the natural landscape of California, imposing instead an idea of what the land should mean, what it could yield materially (the ideological gap between human (mis)use of land, and the land's own natural state was a recurring motif in Mountains and Rivers Without End).

The best of Snyder's 'political' statements generally build from small accumulated details: the broader strokes in his work are products of the perfectly crafted lines and images. Where Snyder's work is less successful is in the slightly hectoring, coercive rhetoric which has crept into his writing from, say, The Back Country onwards ("Mother-Earth: Her Whales", from Turtle Island, is a particularly graphic example of what happens when Snyder abandons - albeit temporarily - his strengths as a poet). Thankfully, there is less evidence of such a rhetorical style here - with the exception of "After Bamiyan", the weakest poem in the collection - and, considered in totality, Danger on Peaks is arguably Snyder's strongest body of work since Myths and Texts. I particularly liked the prose sequence on Mt St Helen's that opens the collection, as well as his experiments in the haibun form. All told, well worth the wait. Watch this space in 20 years time for a review of the follow-up.

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