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.”
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