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Gary Snyder and the Curve of Return

ISSUE:  Autumn 1986

Gary Snyder was born in San Francisco in 1930. He grew up in Washington state and in Portland, hiking the woods and sometimes logging in them. After a brief early marriage, the Reed graduate interspersed work on a trail crew in Yosemite with study of Oriental languages at Berkeley. He was on hand the night in 1955 when Ginsberg first read “Howl” and later shared a cabin with Kerouac in Mill Valley. At 26 he left America for Japan, married again, and spent much of the next 13 years there, traveling and studying at its Zen monasteries. In 1967 he married his third wife—Masa Uehara—on the lip of an active volcano. They returned to California in 1968 and moved to San Juan Ridge in the hot, pine-studded foothills of the Sierra Nevada. There they continue to build their home, Kitkitdizze, and to raise two sons, Kai and Gen.

Snyder’s career has been expressed through two motions at once unique and complementary: turning and returning. Turning emphasizes all that is unique, passing, lost; returning, all that is collective, located, able to be held. The choice is as simple as one between the road and home, though at its most exalted it becomes one between transcendence and a life lived in time. The strongest poem in Snyder’s latest book, Axe Handles (1983), beautifully captures the tension between the urge out and away and the need to settle and stay. It is called “True Night.”

As the poem begins, the sleeping poet is suddenly awakened by the clatter of racoons in the kitchen. He chases them outdoors only to find himself caught by the temptation of permanent escape:

As I stay there then silent
The chill of the air on my nakedness
Starts off the skin
I am all alive to the night.
Bare foot shaping on gravel
Stick in the hand forever

Stripping away history like clothes, the early Snyder had often sought for a moment such as this in which the self, lost to all others, commits to a moment of pure vision or sensation. The poet stands a long moment, listening to crickets “Faint in cold coves in the dark.” But he has long since accepted the pull of a contrary motion:

I turn and walk slow
Back the path to the beds
With goosebumps and loose waving hair
In the night of milk-moonlit thin cloud glow
And black rustling pines
I feel like a dandelion head
Gone to seed
About to be blown all away
Or a sea anemone open and waving in
Cool pearly water.

Dispersal into space and of self: these remain the attractively threatening possibilities that haunt even this conservative turning back. Time has conspired, however, to transform the poet’s life into a series of repetitions he ruefully and quietly accepts:

Fifty years old.
I still spend my time
Screwing nuts down on bolts.

It is the choices made in time that now continually pull him back. When he mentions what lies within the shadowed house, it is as if poet and reader agree to remember what they have temporarily agreed to forget:

At the shadow pool,
Children are sleeping,
And a lover I’ve lived with for years,
True night.
One cannot stay too long awake
In this dark

Dusty feet, hair tangling,
I stoop and slip back to the
Sheath, for the sleep I still need,
For the waking that comes
Every day
With the dawn.

Snyder’s Axe Handles returns to love and work, How he achieves this utter and yet gently reluctant resolve is the story of his career.

Published when he was 29, Snyder’s first book empties the mind of the “damned memories” that clog it in an ascesis that marks the beginning of his quest. In Riprap (1959) he turns from America toward the East and begins the motion out and away that will preoccupy him for 15 years. Myths & Texts (1960) promotes Snyder’s emerging vision of process in a dialectical structure which resolves that all form is a momentary stay, “stresses that come into being each instant.” In a world where “It’s all falling or burning” the experience of place is only a fiction, and there can be therefore nothing to return to. Mountains and Rivers Without End (1965— ) will contain 25 sections and is as yet unfinished. This may prove the major work of Snyder’s career, though, as in Pound’s Cantos, the poet can seem more committed to the theory than the poetry of this poem. The theory holds, in Snyder’s words, that “every poem in Mountains and Rivers takes a different form and has a different strategy.” A poem built upon the impulse of turning away from its own realized structures, Mountains and Rivers would seem a work about journeys, about “Passing / through.” Its fascination however with what Snyder has called the “focal image” and with a realm above the Blue Sky also reaches toward permanence. These growing tensions as well as the poem’s quality as a running rumination on all that Snyder holds dear place it at this point beyond any developmental model of Snyder’s career.

The Back Country (1968) is in this argument the pivotal book, the one most openly engaged with Snyder’s own history of turning. What begins as a reprise of Riprap—in “Far West” Snyder amasses his reasons for moving and forgetting—proceeds by discovering an opposing impulse to return and remember. A poem like “Dodger Point Lookout” bears comparison to “Tintern Abbey” in its acceptance of meaning as a function of elapsed time. The return of the poet to a beloved spot five years later “brings it all back,” and he admits that the conserving power of memory is what keeps him “sane.”

Regarding Wave (1970) shores up the position gained in The Back Country by valorizing a new and conserving pattern—the wave—capable of storing and releasing the energy which Snyder had earlier discovered in the stream. A book about “What’s Meant by Here,” Turtle Island (1974) registers Snyder’s emerging commitment to a structure that stays in place. Homesteading replaces hitchhiking as the privileged human activity as Snyder’s act of settlement in California expands into a sense of stewardship over the entire planet.

This rapid summary brings us back to Axe Handles, Snyder’s first book of poems in nearly a decade and one in which he celebrates the whim and wisdom of middle age. In Axe Handles Snyder begins with work around the house and ends with journeys. Travel is now seen as the venturing out from a hearth, and thus the controlling metaphors (“Loops” and “Nets”) are of structures that return or contain.


Axe Handles is divided into three parts, “Loops,” “Little Songs for Gaia,” and finally “Nets,” which itself contains four sections. At first glance, the book may seem too intricate or arbitrary in its structure, but with further reading sections and subsections reveal important groupings of Snyder’s current concerns. The book follows the poet’s movement of mind as he attempts to discover a coherence among commitments that are personal, familial, and cultural in scope.

“True Night,” the book’s central poem and the concluding poem of the first section, most succinctly dramatizes the choice Snyder has made in favor of returning and settling. But the poems which surround it show the full content of the poet’s choice. Axe Handles is a declaration of affiliations to an ideal of “home,” an ideal that has grown in Snyder’s imagination to include the full range of a life’s attachments, from the most personal and local to the most public and distant. At the personal level, Snyder takes firm possession of his own biography, noting memories which reveal patterns of self-definition (“Look Back,” “Soy Sauce,” “Delicate Crisscrossing Beetle Trails Left in the Sand”). He writes of family and community with ideals of mutual support and teaching (“Changing Diapers,” “Painting the North San Juan School”). He writes about the possibilities and limitations of government (“Talking Late with the Governor about the Budget”). He returns again and again to the mooring certainties of hard physical labor (“Working on the ‘58 Willys Pickup,” “Getting in the Wood”). And, as ever, he writes with great attention to a natural order seen through the particularities of his home region (the book is dedicated “To San Juan Ridge”).

Memory, family, community, teaching, government, and natural process: the subjects of Axe Handles necessarily involve Snyder in time and recurrence. The poet who began by relishing the obliterating sense of timelessness as he peered down alone through miles of air from Sourdough Lookout now gives special emphasis to the loops of cultural transmission, and Axe Handles begins with a coincidence which dramatizes for Snyder the “craft of culture.” His son has asked for a hatchet handle, and while carving it with an axe Snyder remembers with a shock of recognition the Chinese phrase, “When making an axe handle the pattern is not far off.” The lesson, first read in Ezra Pound and then studied again under Snyder’s Japanese teacher, Chen, is now lived by the poet, and he writes:

. . . I see: Pound was an axe,
Chen was an axe, I am an axe
And my son a handle, soon
To be shaping again, model
And tool, craft of culture,
How we go on.

The book’s second poem reinforces the theme, as the spirit of Lew Welch returns from the dead to tell Snyder: “. . .teach the children about the cycles./ The life cycles. All the other cycles./ That’s what it’s all about, and it’s all forgot.” And indeed, subsequent poems deal with integrities created by recurrence: the water cycle; the life cycle of a Douglas fir; loops of personal memory that illuminate present moments; and a pilgrimage of return to Japan to renew ties with Masa’s family and, incidentally, to crisscross the path of Snyder’s own earlier travels.

In “River in the Valley”—a poem about cycles—one of Snyder’s boys asks, “”where do rivers start?”” and the poem answers:

in threads in hills, and gather down to here—
but the river
is all of it everywhere,
all flowing at once,
all one place.

Instruction is at the heart of this book, emphasized in its beginning and returned to frequently. “What Have I Learned,” a poem near the end of the book, concludes: “Seeing in silence: / never the same twice, / but when you get it right, / you pass it on.”

And what, at age 53, is the knowledge the poet would pass on? In “What Have I Learned,” Snyder modestly claims to know only “the proper use for several tools,” how to recognize the “yellow petals, the golden hairs” of the Colachortus flower, and to enjoy contemplation while sipping wine “between hard pleasant tasks.” But in Axe Handles as a whole Snyder communicates admiration for the economy of nature’s transactions, respect for the wisdom of primitive cultures, disdain for an economy doomed by its dependence on oil, and disgust for the “poisons” of ownership, greed, and waste. He also explains his belief in the work done by arts councils and expresses a bond of sympathy with those who live by physical labor. Most of all, however, Snyder seeks to pass on glimpses of the severe and beautiful economies he sees in nature and which provide him with patterns he applies in his own way of life.

In “Among,” Snyder notes the presence of one Douglas fir among Ponderosa Pines at 3,000 feet near the Yuba River in California, and he is fascinated by the combination of events that has allowed it to thrive there. Conditions are unfavorable, but the fir has propagated by discovering the minutest niche of opportunity in the local ecology:

Every fall a lot of little seedlings sprout around it—

Every summer during long dry drouth they die.
Once every forty years or so
A rain comes in July.

Two summers back it did that,
The Doug fir seedlings lived that year

The next year it was dry,
A few fir made it through.
This year, with roots down deep, two live.
A Douglas fir will be among these pines.

This is the harsh, yet precise and finally beautiful natural order which informs Gary Snyder’s moral sense. Within such an order, the law of the land is ground to a fine, sharp edge.

Imbued with a sense of nature’s rigor, Snyder has chosen to live apart from what he takes to be the extravagance of his contemporaries. He frets comically about the $3.50 worth of kerosene required to soak his fence posts and wonders at the amount of fuel burned in displays of power by air defense jets. His alarm at our civilization’s utter dependence upon a diminishing oil supply, in fact, arises in no fewer than five poems, making it one of the book’s most insistent concerns. In “Alaska” he describes a trip to the oil pipeline, where he read the question, “Where will it all end?” spray-painted on the elevated tube. Later, dozing with his colleagues in a small plane, he suddenly noticed out the window “the mountains / Soaring higher yet, and quite awake.”

The eerie presence of those mountains, immense and watchful, looms for Snyder as a premonition of inevitable retribution. According to the poet’s sense of natural law, unnatural acts call forward inevitable consequences, and in several poems Snyder sounds a note of judgment. In “Money Goes Upstream,” he is in a lecture hall, daydreaming about greed and corruption. Money, he thinks, is “an odd force . . . in the world / Not a power / That seeks to own the source.” It behaves unnaturally—”It dazzles and it slips us by, / It swims upstream.” Therefore, those who place it too near the center of their lives become unmoored, possessed. Against this insidious influence Snyder poses his own ability to summon the corrective presence of nature:

I can smell the grass, feel the stones with bare feet
though I sit here shod and clothed
with all the people. That’s my power.

This power is two-fold: Snyder’s firsthand knowledge of nature and its sufficiencies innoculates him from avarice, and his ability to summon what is not present keeps him ever close to the natural law from which he borrows his authority.

Snyder could hardly have traveled farther from his early absorption with moments of pure vision or sensation to the instinct for teaching—and judgment—so apparent in Axe Handles. The former experience is solitary and held out of time by its novelty and intensity, while “passing on” is communal and temporal. Yet the poet still holds that our most fundamental knowledge is discovered in moments of experience which stand out of time. And, as if to reaffirm this fact, Snyder includes at the center of Axe Handles a sequence of lyrics which presents a gallery of such moments.


“Little Songs for Gaia,” issued in an earlier version as a Copper Canyon Press chapbook (1979), is addressed to the earth goddess of Greek mythology. In it Snyder descends from the more general point of view which allows him to be discursive elsewhere in the book to write here with an unmixed particularity. The ecological point of view expressed in Axe Handles has grown out of a thousand individual experiences, and here Snyder reestablishes contact, zooming down to the thing, itself:

Red soil—blue sky—white cloud—grainy granite,
Twenty thousand mountain miles of manzanita.
    Some beautiful tiny manzanita
    I saw a single, perfect, lovely,


Snyder, like Antaeus, renews his strength by touching ground, and that is what he does in this middle section, absorbed in description of his home region and his daily domestic life.

Elsewhere in the book readers may sometimes balk at Snyder’s prose-like rhythms, which often conform only to the poet’s clipped, trochaic manner of speech. But “Little Songs for Gaia” features some of the most accomplished lyric writing of Snyder’s career, whether he is presenting a dream of corn goddesses or a deer hit by a car:

Dead doe lying in the rain

    on the shoulder
    in the gravel

I see your stiff leg

    in the headlights
    by the roadside

Dead doe lying in the rain

The circularity of this brief lyric fixes our attention, beginning and end, on the unfortunate deer, with the assonance of the spondee, “Dead doe,” hammering home the image. In between, the four prepositional phrases are exactly parallel in rhythm, relentlessly locating the dead animal. And in between them, the kernel sentence, “I see your stiff leg,” particularizes the doe efficiently and with poignance.

Elsewhere, Snyder even uses end rhyme to good effect:

Log trucks go by at four in the morning
  as we roll in our sleeping bags
     dreaming of health.
The log trucks remind us,
  as we think, dream and play

Of the world that is carried away.

The surprise of the closural rhyme, which suddenly links the family’s dreams and play with eventual loss, is largely responsible for the power of this brief lyric. Contributing to the effect, three consecutive anapests speed the final line, creating a sense of the poet’s world quickly slipping away.

“Little Songs for Gaia” is made of glimpses—heightened moments of perception or feeling communicating an intimacy of contact with things which spices and sustains the life of the poet. Everywhere in this section Snyder is intent upon the particular and absorbed in the moment, attending to everything as to the flickers’ call: “THIS! / THIS! / THIS! / in the cool pine breeze.”

Snyder moves back from knowing to doing in the book’s final section, “Nets,” in which each of the four clusters of poems forms a rather loosely organized Poundian “ideogram.” Taken together, these four clusters portray the “nets” of contemplation and activity in which Snyder is currently enmeshed.

The first, a bridge from the Gaia sequence, presents Snyder active and reverent in a natural world that flashes glimpses of deity. Walking a Yellowstone meadow, for instance, he observes its graceful creatures and ambiguously records the perception of a goddess-like presence:

And I saw: the turn of the head, the glance of the eye,
 each gesture, each lift and stamp

Of your high-arched feet.

Part II of “Nets” probes the possibilities and shortcomings of government. Snyder is skeptical (he seems to long for a more expansive governmental perspective when he notes that “The great pines on the Capitol grounds [in Sacramento] / Are less than a century old”), but he is willing to participate, and former California governor Jerry Brown, who appointed Snyder to the state Arts Council, is a sympathetic character in the book. Adding another piece of the cultural puzzle, part III juxtaposes “civilization” with more primitive ways of life, marking chiefly their differing relationships to the ecosystems which support them. In “Dillingham, Alaska, the Willow Tree Bar,” pipeline workers are “Drinking it down, / the pain / of the work / of wrecking the world.” By contrast, in Australia Snyder feels cleansed by a ritual which carries him to an aboriginal oneness with an arid landscape (“Uluru Wild Fig Song”). Closing the book, part IV once again celebrates nature’s health and ends with Snyder’s wry pledge of allegiance:

I pledge allegiance to the soil
         of Turtle Island,
         one ecosystem
         in diversity
         under the sun
With joyful interpenetration for all.

The allegiances pledged in Axe Handles are many—to family, community, culture, and planet. And to make such pledges Snyder has turned considerably from his earlier conception of the world as “all change, in thoughts, / As well as things” (“Riprap”). Within this earlier view, the poet’s only recourse was to attempt to fix in words moments plucked out of the careering flux.

In Axe Handles there are many heightened moments seized out of time by language, but these are now seen to take their place within a broader continuity. Snyder still prizes moments when the self loses itself entirely in sensation, and a poem like “Getting in the Wood” shows how that early experience of transcendence survives into its new context. This passage in mid-poem contains no subject because the self is utterly absorbed in its work:

The lean and heave on the peavey
that breaks free the last of a bucked
    three-foot round,
       it lies flat on smashed oaklings—

Departing from the usual subject-predicate structure, Snyder’s noun phrase presents only the effort itself and the object worked upon, with internal rhyme and skillfully managed rhythms communicating the strain of the job. The poet is happily lost in what he elsewhere calls the “relentless clarity at the heart of work,” an experience which is for Snyder virtually a kind of meditation. At peace in his work, his attention is enthralled by “Wedge and sledge, peavey and maul, / little axe, canteen, piggyback can / of saw-mix gas and oil for the chain, / knapsack of files and goggles and rags.”

Snyder could be writing about his early logging days in a poem like this, which captures in words the grit and strain of sensation. But the distance he has traveled since those early days is revealed in the final stanza, in which the task at hand is shown to be a collective one, and in which Snyder emphasizes the continuities of family and community which the work helps to develop:

the young men throw splits on the piles
bodies hardening, learning the pace
and the smell of tools from this delve
in the winter
death-topple of elderly oak.

This is a community task, with the young men learning and hardening to the jobs they will inherit when their elders pass, like the toppled oak. Here is the sense of continuity and cultural transmission which Snyder has acquired as a husband, father, and homesteader, a sense which has changed him over the course of his career from dharma hitchhiker to domestic visionary.


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