Mountains And Rivers Without End
Counterpoint: Washington, D.C., 1996 165 pp., $20.00 (hardcover)
Wet and covered with pine needles, Gary Snyder’s new book arrived at my door on a rare rainy day in Los Angeles. Perhaps this was a portent of things both remembered and yet to be read, as Mountains and Rivers without End unfolded like the handscroll journey that it is. The poem that begins the epic/journey, “Endless Streams and Mountains,” is instrumental in “clearing the mind and sliding in / to that created space, a web of waters streaming over rocks . . . .” This description of an anonymous Sung dynasty handscroll that Snyder had seen as a young man ends with his own translations of colophons and commentaries of individuals who had owned the scroll from the thirteenth to the eighteenth centuries. In a sense, Snyder affixes his own creation—the poems—as a new colophon and commentary upon the scroll, thereby giving it resonance for this century without marring the landscape itself. In his afterword to the almost fifty interlinked poems gathered here, Snyder states: “I had been introduced to the high snow peaks of the Pacific Northwest when I was thirteen and had climbed a number of summits even before I was twenty: I was forever changed by that place of rock and sky.”
Together with his life in nature, Snyder’s lifelong foray into Asian calligraphy, painting, and poetry—the “three jewels” of East Asian art—accounts for the “energies of mist, white water, rock formations, air swirls” in his work that integrate the traditions of Eastern and Western concepts of space, time, and history. Asian American and Asian Buddhist teachers alike—from the Reverend Kanmo Imamura of the Berkeley Buddhist Church, to Oda Sesso Roshi of Kyoto, to the Mountain Buddhists of Japan—have had lasting influences on his work. Other influences include the formal study of Asian languages, of Ezra Pound’s translations, and of the painting collections at Asian art museums from Seattle to Kansas City to Great Britain.
As a man firmly grounded in the twentieth century, Snyder crosses time and space in ways literal, metaphorical, and surprising. Rarely have Western or Asian travelers, scholars, and poets of earlier epochs had the means to cross whole continents and seas at will as Snyder has been able to do. “The Market” is an instance of this traversing of geographies and cultures. From North American enclaves in Seattle and San Francisco to Asian marketplaces in Kathmandu, Saigon, and Varanasi, the poet not only makes discoveries—of fish, rice, noodles, bananas—but also inserts himself squarely into the action of buying, haggling, giving, and receiving. Here and in other sections of this loosely woven epic, Snyder correlates and contrasts human activity with a compassionate, irreverent, and judicious eye for the telling moment.
His eye extends to natural as well as urban subjects, as in “Night Song of the Los Angeles Basin,” which is both a lyrical ode and a cautionary tale. Despite the popular media image of LA as a constructed Hollywood reality—or unreality—Snyder chooses to remind us that L.A. is essentially an ecosystem of desert basin, hills, and water. Thus, against the “calligraphy of cars” on expressways, Snyder counterpoints the activities of animals: mouse trails, gopher tunnels, marmot lookout rocks, the flight of hawks. Though Los Angelenos may yearn, as Snyder observes, for their “platters of tidbit and wine, snatch of fame,” it is finally the owl (and the pod who have the last word: “Owl calls; late-rising moon.”
Part of Snyder’s journey and mission—as in his other books, including Turtle Island, which won the Pulitzer Prize for poerty in 1975—is an integration of the kindred worlds of human belief, such as those of Native Americans and Zen Buddhists. Part two of Mountains and Rivers contains “The Humpbacked Flute Player,” based on ancient rock art, or petroglyphs, found in the Southwest United States and Mexico. While some believe that the flute player is carrying a pack on his back filled with seeds, Snyder connects the image of the flute player to Hsuan Tsang, the Buddhist scholar-pilgrim who, according to legend, brought the Heart Sutra back to China, in a kind of backpack, where it was disseminated to the rest of East Asia. One can see and hear this integration of beliefs in the following section:
Ghost bison, ghost bears, ghost bighorns, ghost lynx, ghost pronghorns, ghost panthers, ghost marmot, ghost owls: swirling and gathering, sweeping down,
Then the white man will be gone.
butterflies on slopes of grass and aspen—
thunderheads the deep blue of Krishna
rise on rainbows
and falling shining rain
tiny people gliding slanting down:
a little buddha seated in each pearl—
and join the million waving grass-seed-buddhas
on the ground ….
Could it be that Snyder sees himself as a modern Hsuan Tsang, as a scholar/poet/traveler bringing knowledge of Buddhism to the West and to his generation?
In contrast to such ancient knowledge, of course, is the cybertechnical knowledge of the twentieth century, which the poet does not deny. In “Walking the New York Bedrock Alive in the Sea of Information,” Snyder parodies this place where people who live in high condominium towers “get more sushi, / Garther more flesh, have delightful / Cascading laughs….” Here, Snyder suggests that we are floating—or drowning—in a sea of information, economy, and commodity infrastructure. As always, he does not let us off the hook for far below subways and streets, nature persists and “wind blows through black tunnels / spiderwebs, fungus, lichen.”
One of Snyder’s most haunting poems in its meaning and music is ”Afloat” (Part Four), where couplets depict a “tiny skin boat,” at once a kayak like a cricket husk—
like an empty spider egg
case, like dried kelp fronds,
like a dry cast skin of a snake,
like froth on the lip of a wave…
The boat is a vehicle comprising past, present, and future, for “there is no place we are / but maybe here…. Sky and water stitched together.” It is an archetypal boat, not unlike those of ancient China or Egypt that carried one’s soul to the netherworld. Perhaps it is not unlike the boat I saw once in the Sichuan Museum, in Chengdu, a carved wooden boat from Baolunyuan Village that belonged to a prince who “lived near the water” a thousand years ago. In Snyder’s poetic realm, the boat bespeaks the natural cycle of life and death, gliding from ancient mountain glaciers to all the waters Snyder has crossed, from inland channels in Alaska to the waters of the Ganges. Within this boat, Snyder is most known for sitting practice with his poet friends, including Lew Welch, Allen Ginsberg, Philip Whalen, and Jack Kerouac, among others. Perhaps only a Buddhist poet could gather that many people in the space of “the tiny skin boat.” Yet Gary Snyder, in his generosity of spirit and pen, has left room on board for yet one more person: you, as traveler or fugitive, seeker or wanderer.
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