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Volume 36.2
Summer 2005

book review:

Danger on Peaks, Poems
by Gary Snyder

 

Reviewed by Jerry Kilbride

Danger on Peaks, Poems by Gary Snyder. Washington, D.C.: Shoemaker & Hoard, Publishers, 2004. ISBN 1-59376-041-8. 128 pages, cloth. 5 3/ x 81/, hardbound. US$22.00 in the U.S., Can$30.95 in Canada, from booksellers.

It has been almost 50 years since the publication of Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums, a book in which Japhy Ryder (Gary Snyder) strode across a meadow on the eastern slope of the Sierras and added a new word to most of our vocabularies: haiku. First time that anyone in my milieu back at the Art Institute of Chicago had heard of it. In those days of our resistance to the Eisenhower Administration’s messages of complacency and conformity, my friends and I were more than willing to let the new Japanese word roll around on our tongues as we simultaneously struggled to remove the braces from our brains. In addition to the Beats, we were profoundly influenced by writers such as Camus, Hesse, and Mishima and avant-garde painters then working in Chicago and on both coasts. There was an excitement of new possibilities in the air as we listened to the Weavers’ songs of labor and protest and to the buzz-saw voice of Malvina Reynolds warn us about the dangers of living in little houses made of ticky-tacky.

So, you are about to ask, what’s all this got to do with a review of Gary Snyder’s new book, Danger on Peaks ? Hasn’t that kid who clued us in about haiku come a long way since the 1950s: books of poetry, honors, prizes?

Exactly, and yet he seems to be a writer, at age 75, still anchored in youthful enthusiasms, and whose work has remained fresh and welcoming. Age may now becoming a factor, but, what the heck, that’s not going to slow Snyder down, so let’s open the book and join him in the section titled Glacier Ghosts—tanka and what might be called haiku:

                      Clumsy at first
my legs, feet, and eye       learn again to leap
        skip through the jumbled rocks

and (here he may be thinking of his own mortality)

ice-scrape-ponds, scraggly pines
long views, flower mud marches
so many places
for a wandering boulder to settle
forever

The poem “Really the Real” takes us on a further journey of discovery in the company of Snyder and Ko Un, a visiting poet from Korea. We are driven past the flooded fields of California’s Central Valley searching out sand hill cranes. A stop is made for a meal in the old and historic Chinese town of Locke before pressing on. “Out and down to Walnut Grove til we find road
J-11 going east”—Snyder gives accurate directions as if hoping we will follow and fully share in a new experience. Then, suddenly, a Jackson Pollock-like explosion of birds crosses the sky, which Snyder instantly and fiercely grasps and puts into words (Ko Un must have really been impressed):

in threes, twos, fives from all directions,
circling, counter-spinning, higher and lower,
big silver bodies, long necks, dab of red on the head,
chaotic, leaderless, harmonic, playful—what are they doing?
Splendidly nowhere thousands

And back to Davis, forty miles, forty minutes
shivering to remember        what’s going on
just a few miles west of the 5
in the wetlands, in the ongoing elder      what you might call.
really the real,      world.

In “Summer of ’97,” after asking the earth spirit for permission, he and his friends revel in the accomplishment of building an addition to his house, which was done for the love of his wife, Carole Koda. He recognizes—in this nice little slice of life!—the contributions of each individual and is thoughtful enough to name everyone involved in the project:

Chuck for plumbering
David drywalling,
          staining, crawling ;
Stu for drain rock
Kurt for hot wire
Gary for cold beer
Carole for brave laugh
          til she leaves,
          crew greaves …

Oak and Pine looking on
Old Kitkitdizze house now
Has another wing—

So we’ll pour a glass and sing—
This has been fun as heaven
Summer of ninety-seven

The opening section of the book, Mount St. Helens, documents his relationship with the volcano that the Sahaptin Indians called Loowit. He first visited Spirit Lake when he was thirteen, and two years later, after asking the mountain for help, he climbed to the summit on Aug. 13, 1945. Descending to Spirit Lake Lodge, Snyder reads that 150,000 have died at Hiroshima and vows to fight the destructive power of the atomic bomb. Years later, following ten years of living in Japan, he returns after the top of the mountain has been blown apart. Viewing “fields of prone logs laid by the blast,” he thinks of Siddhartha on the night he left his home for good and of his guests sleeping off a frenzy of dancing —“angelic boys and girls, sleeping it off.” (A curious cosmic connection between vastly different manifestations of nature.)

The least satisfying section of the book is titled Dust in the Wind, which contains several of the poet’s rather unsuccessful attempts at haibun (or what the dust jacket blurb refers to as haibun). This ancient Japanese literary art form has been embraced in the last few decades by haiku poets worldwide and harks back to the granddaddy of all haibun: Matsuo Bashô’s great 17th century travel journal titled Oku no hosomichi (several good English translations are now in print). The form—long or short—consists of prose interspersed with haiku: an intellectual and emotional juxtaposition of prose and poetry, so to speak. Obviously, there is a lot of interesting experimentation going on with some highly successful results. Snyder, alas, rather that taking an imaginative leap into the standard three-line haiku after a prose paragraph, adds, in most cases, several lines of longer poetry. This approach seems flat, lacks resonance, and is heavy with the weight of too much information. That said, there are paragraphs in “Cormorants” that I find stunningly beautiful. The poet likens “the threads and dribbles of bird-white” flowing down rock ledges to the “white writings of Mark Tobey.” He adds, “Each bird-scholar has its own stone chair and the long full streaks below. Some rocks are unoccupied, unwritten.” After I read these visually evocative lines, it seems that an impression of calligraphic images is left on the surface of my eyes. There is a spiritual correlation here between the written word and the graphic arts: Snyder’s Zen Buddhism and Tobey’s being long-grounded in the Baha’i Faith—spiritual and artistic forms mirrored into each other. (For those unfamiliar with Tobey’s work, let me recommend Arthur L. Dahl’s Mark Tobey: Art and Belief. )

Going all the way back to Riprap & Cold Mountain Poems, it’s always been life-enhancing going along with Gary Snyder on his journeys. It’s all been more than worth it ! So, I obviously recommend this book — it’s one to which I’ll return and reread in its entirety in the future. I feel it appropriate to end this review with a poem Gary Snyder has written for his wife, to whom he has lovingly dedicated this book.

FOR CAROLE

I first saw her in the zendo
at meal time unwrapping bowls
head forward holding back the cloth
        as server I was kneeling
to fill three sets of bowls each time
up the line
Her lithe leg
proud, skeptical,
passionate, trained
by the
heights     by the
danger on peaks

 

©2005 Modern Haiku • PO Box 68 • Lincoln, IL 62656