December 10, 2007
Through the poems of Gary Snyder, you unfold the convolution of an observant, creative mind. Snyder’s poems condense the mood of a moment and reshape it into deeply personal abstractions. Here’s an example from his book “Mountains and Rivers Without End.”
I struggle with the poetic shorthand, feeling ruefully unenlightened until last week, hiking a ridge above Davis Canyon, where we happen upon a lode of petrified wood. It all comes clear as I pick up a heavy, red-tinted log in which every molecule has been converted through nature’s alchemy into stone.
The piece of wood I’m holding weighs at least 10 pounds. It has all the outer appearance of wood with its grain and fibrous texture. Inside, under the calcified bark, the wood is hardened and heavy.
This is a Gary Snyder moment, where connections ” cosmic and earthly, past-present-future ” meld with the petrified limb in my hands. Just as the wood transcended its original composition from herbaceous plant to mineral-based rock, so does my understanding crystallize.
High above desolate canyons, we found the petrified wood. We bend down, searching the ground for specimens. Some are colorful chips; others are large logs with smooth bark. All of it has been converted into a stony finality; decay leading to permanence. There is a haiku buried in this wood.
We ignore the weather blowing in on the ridge, the wind whistling through pinon and juniper. Occasional patters of rain are whipped from a menacing black cloud swirling over the Blue Mountains. Holding that petrified branch, I reflect on the canyon we have just ascended.
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The canyon closes around us with high walls. No visible escape. We trust to the one who knows the route, still doubting every move as we climb through boulders imbedded in red clay mortar. A slickrock ramp covered with damp lichen is slippery, requiring a rope. We traverse a narrow ledge, wet with yellow mud, over a huge gulf of open air. We scramble over loose rock slabs, between trees, onto a sagebrush mesa. Canyon walls meander eternally below.
OK, I’m no Gary Snyder, but I’m striving to describe moments that etch themselves into my brain. It’s not about making sense of them, but rather absorbing them. I’m taking a mental snapshot with a wide-angle, telephoto, macro/micro lens.
The next morning, the storm presses upon us. Our tents are soggy from a night of rain, and we stand around a fire warming our hands and sipping coffee in a steady drizzle. Torn shards of cloud drift against canyon walls, push up against them, rise over them, flowing.
Driving out of the canyons in a steady rain, the slickrock reflecting a wet sheen, it strikes me that poetry is an everyday experience if you only open your eyes. The Earth sheds its images gladly, openly, while the mind struggles to translate them into meaning and continuity. Poetic moments belie the rational struggle and merely accept the moment.
The car tops a hill and a flock of black ravens lifts off from the side of the road where a cow carcass has been left for dead. A coyote lopes across open ground, his eyes flashing back in distrust. The rib bones of the cow protrude through tattered hide. The coyote runs beneath the arch of a soft rainbow. Tawny grass catches the low rays of the winter sun.
Now that I have my Snyder mindset, everything is a poetic moment, a facet of space, time, nature, humanity. Poetic images form, evaporate like steam, unspoken. All is ephemeral, tenuous, caught in the moment, the place, the light, swept up in reflections that illuminate the desert on this rainy morning in December.
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