This Present Moment by Gary Snyder
Counterpoint Press, 2015
88 pages – Amazon
Readers not really familiar with all of Snyder’s work—perhaps those who might just read him in anthologies—tend to think of him as a so-called ‘nature poet,’ and it’s true that he’s written a lot of non-fiction about environmental issues. His poetry books—including Turtle Island, for example, for which he won a Pulitzer, but any of his books really—do feature many poems with him out in the woods, by himself, wondering about his place there, rather than in, say, a city or a suburb, or on a farm. But being a nature poet is an idea Snyder tried to put to rest in No Nature, his selected works (and a great place to start if new to his poetry), even as he also ‘owned’ the idea in a larger sense, by emphasizing that what we call Nature-with-a-capital-N is not just poems about trees (and mountains and rivers) but includes everything, us and trees and birds (there are lots of birds throughout his new book This Present Moment) sure, but also machinery, like trucks and generators, and even computers in the poem, “Why I Take Good Care of My Macintosh,” the most humorous (and to my mind unusual) poem in the collection. A taste:
Because it broods under its hood like a perched falcon,
Because it jumps like a skittish horse and sometimes throws me,
Because it is pokey when cold,
Because plastic is a sad strong material that is charming to rodents,
This is something that you could almost believe Billy Collins or Tony Hoagland might have written, though is also reminiscent of Anne Waldman or Snyder’s old friend, Allen Ginsberg, with its use of repeating the word ‘because’ at the beginning of most of the (long)(for Snyder) lines, building energy in what’s sometimes called a ‘chant poem.’
Notice again the mix of what would typically be called ‘nature’ stuff, like animals and weather, and manufactured stuff: plastic, along with the actual Mac computer, which isn’t even in a house, but his tent! It almost offends my backpacking sensibilities (I always take a good old-fashioned notebook and pen, just like the cavemen used to do) but it’s just what people do, computers are a part of our lives, and to ignore tech and other contemporary ‘things’ in our poetry is, according to Snyder, to ignore the larger idea of Nature, and the buddhist idea that all places are beautiful.
Though this is a new collection, these poems are not all necessarily new. Overall, This Present Moment feels more like an even earlier collection of Snyder’s, Left Out In The Rain (1988), in that the poems are more wider-ranging, more stand-alone, than Danger On Peaks (2005), and most certainly Mountains and Rivers Without End (1995), which is one long book-length poem, and which may be the most important book of poetry in at least the second half of the 20th century. Hard to top that, and I don’t get a sense Snyder wants to, not here anyways. Instead, this is a collection of smaller, shorter works, which he’s perhaps known for (as shorter poems fit better into anthologies).
If there is a larger theme throughout This Present Moment, it’s mythology, or myth, doing what Snyder has always been doing in his work, weaving together myths from different cultures (mostly from the Pacific Rim, but now Greek and Roman too), searching for a larger mythology, a larger story perhaps, a larger way of understanding what being human means. What strikes me is that Snyder’s style—the consonant-heavy fragments, the mostly serious imagism—is just so different from most other popular contemporary poetry (‘popular’ in poetry perhaps meaning read by more than three hundred people). It always has been, I guess, and of course every good poet has a unique style and voice, but the humor and irony and complete sentences of Billy Collins and Tony Hoagland, say, and/or the poems leading purposefully nowhere by Dean Young and John Ashbury, seem to be de rigueur. Even the more serious-minded poets like Wendell Berry and Ted Koozer lack the roughness, the wildness, the wilderness of Snyder’s poetry, where they seem more concerned with common urban or rural (and white) americana living. In fact, poets closer to what Snyder in style and content might include Louise Glück, Mary Oliver, and especially Joanne Kyger (one of Snyder’s ex-wives) though they, and the previous poets, aren’t trying for an epicness, that sense of myth and history that informs all of Snyder’s work, and which makes him not just a good poet, but a great one.
The weakest part in This Present Moment is in the first of four sections, “OUTRIDERS,” in a sub-grouping of four poems called “First Flight.” The first three poems are lists, and I’m not opposed to list poems at all, if they transcend the idea. These, to my mind (and ear) don’t. “The Names of Actaeon’s Hounds” is just that, a list of dog’s names, some of which are funny and odd. Knowing who Actaeon is helps, and I will confess I didn’t remember (though I swear I had read his story before!): A character from Greek mythology, a hunter who is changed into a deer, and eaten by his own hunting dogs. That is interesting, more interesting than a simple list of dog names, but it’s not in the poem. And even if you knew who he was, I’m not sure you’d get anything more out of the poem other than a feeling of being-in-the-know about Greek mythology, and/or the poetry of Ovid.
“Old New Mexican Genetics” lists the names Spanish conqueror-bureaucrats used, when Mexico (including a huge chunk of what is now the American Southwest) was still a Spanish territory, to classify various bi-racial peoples, like “Indio,” “Mestizo” and “Mulato” but also “Lobo” and “Coyote.” Interesting, and information that can make you shake your head in disbelief, but poetry? Is it? Is “Polyandry,” a list of different castes in the Indian sub-continent taken from ancient history and/or Hindu mythology that practiced just that? Maybe. Left unstated but undeniable is that fact that the list is long, Snyder’s point being, I think, to show that polyandry was perhaps fairly mainstream at some time and place in human culture. Meaning, implying, that he’s in favor of it.
The difference between his previous, earlier, younger, work, and This Present Moment is that while still imagistic, he’s not just letting things stand for themselves, but now, as an old wise man (I don’t mean that sarcastically, it’s praise), he’s leaving implications in his poems. So, for example, we get what appears a very Snyder-esque poem-within-a-poem, “Otzi Crosses Over,” which begins in prose, but breaks up into fragments as it goes:
I concluded that he was crossing the range to get to a settlement on the other side where his daughter lived. He had unfinished arrows in his quiver that he could finish over the winter, and he’d return to the south side of the range next spring.
Moretti and I had spent the day in Bolzano studying his tools, clothes, herbs, flints, everything about him —and then when we were up on the Dolomite ridge near Sella Pass I realized we were looking far at the range he had indeed walked over — and it all fell into place.
dddddddddddddddddddddddddddOn his Way
He walks steady up the slope —bedrock and plant clumps — wind in his ear, beard waving a bit in the breeze — low clouds from the west in puffs — passing over and through the high peak points; blue sky gaps seen —farther on a set of white and gray cloud puffs hides a ridge. View through a notch to farther blue cloud-shadow patches and sunshine —breeze softens — getting into snow now, sun behind clouds but still lots of light,
Sore knee, and painful shoulder — but —about to step out on the icefield, cross it and go down the other side, more snow and rock and alpine fire below. This moment sun and wind — my little knife, my fire-kit, my settled daughter, this lonely route.
“Otzi Crosses Over” might be one of Snyder’s most personal poems ever, and this from someone who is associated with the Romantic ‘I’ poetry lineage. What sounds like a journal entry or essay about a perfectly preserved man found in a glacier in the Italian alps over just over a decade ago turns into Snyder imagining himself as Otzi, relating to him, and thinking about his own approaching death. And isn’t this what poetry, and all of the humanities, does? Gives us ways to think about other humans so that we can learn for ourselves what being human is, or means, including the end of the is, the end of being. Most striking, especially after a recent interview on NPR for this book, in which Snyder said that he was ok with death, wasn’t afraid of it, there’s that second-to-last word: “lonely.” Not a usual word for Snyder. And he shows us why.
Because if those poems from that first section feel weak, it’s only because the poem “Go Now”—effectively the last poem of the collection—a chronicle of the death of his third wife (unnamed, so I won’t either) is so powerful. It’s also unusual in that it’s one of his longer short poems and it’s also more of a narrative, more of a story, slipping away from his signature fragments, which works in this case in that with the majority of his other poems, those fragments create pauses, and space, which a reader can fill with her own experiences. Here, though, Snyder wants very much to leave not just an image (though he does, effectively and brutally, of his dying wife’s thin body) but of the passing of time. And yet, at the same time, it is a poem, and also feels like (but) a moment. Which is the point.
There is one last very-Snyder-esque poem, more of an epilogue and/or a summing up, and/or an answer to “Go Now,” untitled in the book, but for which the book itself is named:
This present moment
that lives on
This is the consolation, if there can be, to death, to loss, to be able to step back from our pain, from other’s pain, from the pain of the world, and to remember, to know, that in the bigger picture of time ‘this present moment’ is nothing. And yet Snyder’s koan to us is that he thinks we should (must?) live in the present moment. How to do that if the present moment is nothing? Well, how to do anything else? You can’t live in the future, and the past is gone. And yet consolation that this present moment becomes ‘long ago’ is tempered by that fact that it also ‘lives on.’ And that’s what I see Snyder wondering about (not working hard at maybe, but more in a bemused nostalgic way). This Present Moment is a swirl of feelings and memories, of loss and loneliness and beauty and life and living, and being human which, again, is what we can learn from poetry and poets like Snyder—learning to live with all of them, with the contradiction of the past inescapably separate from the present, and yet also being a part of our present.