Gary Snyder is back on the trail with a new collection of poems


Gary Snyder is the quintessential poet of Ecotopia, that fictional state of the Northwest mindset that runs from Northern California to British Columbia.

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Seattle, WA (USA) -- Snyder's roots go deep in this forested land of tall volcanic peaks and rushing snowmelt rivers. He was born in San Francisco, reared on small farms in Washington and Oregon, graduated from Reed College in Portland, worked as a forest fire lookout, a merchant seaman, a longshoreman, a forest ranger.

The 74-year-old Snyder lived in Japan for more than a decade and had a Pacific Rim perspective before anyone had heard of that term. His devotion to Zen Buddhism predates by decades the great flowering of interest in that religion on American shores. He was also in the forefront of environmental consciousness about preserving the fragile beauty of the imperiled natural world.

Snyder, who lives in the Sierra Nevada mountains of Northern California, should be receiving great plaudits for all his pioneering efforts on these important fronts, but the sad fact is that he has largely dropped off the poetry radar in recent years. The last collection of new poems by this winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award was published more than two decades ago.

Snyder finally has emerged with a resonant new collection of poems -- "Danger on Peaks" (Shoemaker & Hoard, 110 pages, $22). All of Snyder's considerable strengths are on display in this most welcome volume -- his unstintingly curiosity about life in all its forms, his love of travel and different cultures, his gentle and generous good humor, his direct writing style that mixes concrete imagery with understated, often pros-like phrasing.

This is a poet at home in his soul and in his world, a poet who is every bit as comfortable conversing at a Carl's Jr. hamburger shop with a semi-truck driver ("these things are huge, how the hell do you drive them?") as he is reflecting on the haunting sound of a bell ringing at a famed shrine in Kyoto, Japan ("From across the valley/ it's a dark whisper/ echoing in your liver,/ mending your/ fragile heart.").

"Danger on Peaks" opens with a section that is both resoundingly Northwest and surprisingly timely. Snyder offers nine poems on Mount St. Helens, written at various times in his life. He details his first ascent of the mountain in August 1945 when as a 15-year-old he reveled in the exhilarating triumph amid "a pure transparency of blue." But then he returned to find the lodge bulletin board covered with Oregonian front pages screaming news of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, leaving those cities obliterated and hundreds of thousands dead.

Snyder recalls that horrifying moment: "I swore a vow to myself, something like, 'By/ the purity and beauty and permanence of Mount St. Helens, I will fight/ against this cruel destructive power and those who would see to/ use it, for all my life.'"

But the "beauty and permanence of Mount St. Helens" was forever altered on a May morning in 1980 and Snyder revisits the volcano-blasted landscape two decades later. It is a reflection of Snyder's Buddhist perspective that he focuses more on the flow and growth of new life rather than bemoaning the loss of a place so strong in his personal memories.

As Snyder writes, with deep appreciation, "Wild/ natural process takes time, and allows for the odd and unexpected./ We still know far too little about it ... Baby plantlife, spiky, firm and tender,/ stiffly shaking in the same old breeze."

Other poems in "Danger in the Peaks" are strikingly personal. Snyder reminisces about road trips (the interstate seems to be his favorite counterpoint to the world of nature), jokes about being "the only guy with an earring" decades ago, offers bittersweet remembrance of friends who have passed away, bemoans the wanton destruction of the famed Bamiyan Buddha carvings in Afghanistan at the hands of the Taliban.

The one noticeable flaw in "Danger in Peaks" is that it is such a scrapbook sort of collection, without real pace or purpose, including poems of some brilliance, but others that seem almost trivial, not much more than snapshots of inconsequential moments in Snyder's life (and not just poems in the section titled "Daily Life"). A nine-line poem comparing highway signs for franchise outlets to "skinny wildweed flowers" is a silly little trifle.

Yet "Danger in Peaks" does have many rewards, especially for fans of Snyder's considerable body of work and for those who need to be reminded about it. An observant, reverent eye for the natural world remains this poet's greatest asset and greatest gift to readers ("smell of sweet grass/ warm night breeze"). That means there is reason aplenty to dip into this fine new Snyder collection, two decades in the making.