Poetry lovers all know of Gary Snyder. His collection, TURTLE ISLAND, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1975. PRACTICE OF THE WILD is considered one of the most influential books about the environment of the last fifty years.
Snyder’s most recent collection, THIS PRESENT MOMENT, features a long poem about the death of his beloved. It is the last poem in the book and, in my view, the best one. In “Go Now,” Snyder avoids all the platitudes about death, instead describing how “the eyes / sink back and the teeth stand out.” After giving his beloved her drugs each night, Snyder tells us they “always / kissed sweetly and fiercely after the push.” “[S]he was all/bones, breath and eyes.” They hadn’t made love in eight years, and perhaps as explanation, Snyder tells us that “she had holes that drained all the time / in her sides, new ones that came . . . .” When he went to witness the cremation, “[t]he smell hit like a blow.” After such images, we believe Snyder when he says that the price of attachment is “’[w]orth it. Easily worth it –’ / . . . worth even the smell.”
In “Anger, Cattle, and Achilles,” Snyder describes two friends who no longer speak to one another – “[o]ne with cattle and poems, / the other with business and books.” He leaves us to wonder which one it was that he met lately in a bar, who urged him to
“ ‘listen to the music. / The self we hold so dear will soon be gone.’ ”
Another favorite of mine is “How to Know Birds.” Snyder tells us all the characteristics to note – color, markings, song, where they live, how they move. And after all that, Snyder says, “That will tell you the details you need to come up with a name / but / You already know this bird.” How true this is – once we know the name of something, we no longer really look at it, see it.
The collection consists mostly of poems of nature and place, Buddhist-infused. With all due respect and a healthy sense of “what do I know anyway,” several of the poems are lacking sufficient surprise, twist and levels.
But I am very taken with “Chiura Obata’s Moon.” In this poem, Snyder simply describes what he sees as he walks along the Lake Tahoe shoreline – note the poem’s form with long lines – and finds his way to a restaurant with a menu that offers more than tacos. Looking up, he can see Venus in the sky, two pine trees and a crescent moon. With a light and deft touch, Snyder shows us that this present moment (the collection’s title) is all there is, all there needs to be – “Looking south toward the darkening lake and the murmur of / trail gossip just at my back, it’s the right place to be – The tilapia-rice-and beans dinner comes hot and it’s good.”
These poems show why Gary Snyder has been so recognized and revered, and continues to deserve to be.