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Holistic hipster

Gary Snyder delivers his opus

by Catherine A. Salmons

Old ghost ranges, sunken rivers, come again . . .
walk the path, sit the rains,
grind the ink, wet the brush, unroll the
broad white space . . .

[Gary Snyder] This invocation to the muse of the Chinese scroll painter who unfurls his yin/yang-balanced cascade of boulders, temples, and streams with a few sweeping brush strokes sets the epic tone of Mountains and Rivers Without End, the long-awaited memoir in verse by Pulitzer-winning poet Gary Snyder. As far back as Snyder's 1950s Berkeley grad school days, when he hobnobbed with his fellow Beat pioneers of San Francisco's flowering North Beach scene (Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer) and published his first book of poems, Myths and Texts, rumors already swirled that he was writing this book -- THE book -- a single work of magnificent scope that would flow through the years and channels of his life like an all-encompassing scroll. Four decades later, this project's completion couldn't help being heralded as a Literary Event -- even if Mountains and Rivers weren't the graceful opus that it is.

It's no random gesture that the scroll metaphor forms the book's central, narrative premise (its vital force; in Eastern terms;, its "chi"): Snyder studied scroll painting and calligraphy, and he has long approached his poetry as a kind of stylized fusion of experience and myth. A scholar of Asian languages and translator of Chinese poetry, he is a practicing Mahayana Buddhist, an adherent of meditation, a mystic; here, he configures the episodes of his personal epic -- minutiae from a scroll painter's landscape, a series of living sutras.

Seattle. Tacoma. Yreka. Eugene. City names echo in mantra-rhythm, in the segment titled "Night Highway 99," where the poet as elder Odysseus recalls the wandering days of his youth: hitchhiking across the Pacific northwest, working at logging camps, sleeping in deserted cabins. Sense of place -- the naming of local deities, the cataloguing of flora and fauna (the quintessential duty of any Epic Traveler) -- is the motif throughout Snyder's saga of his trek to Japan, his stint on the oil tanker in "Boat of a Million Years," where he stands watch, "abt-fish and yut-fish" cavorting among dolphins in the Red Sea port of Ras Tanura.

These mini-portraits of the poet as a journeyman laborer are interspersed with an eccentric, lifelong "Things To Do" list for the soul. "Three Worlds, Three Realms, Six Roads" reads like a sensual Book of Hours, reminiscent of such Snyder classics as "The Bath" (his hymn to the human body from Turtle Island, the book that won the Pulitzer in 1975). "Earrings Dangling and Miles of Desert" is, on the surface, simply an index of the ritual uses for sagebrush (genus Artemisia, as in the Greek Artemis, goddess of the hunt). It's the Native American incense of ceremonial purification, the mugwort or "moxa" of Chinese medicine, the European wormwood that "gives the flick of danger to the drink absinthe." (Snyder may be stretching it to equate that toxic liqueur with sacramental wine, though all the mad French poets -- Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud -- consumed it religiously.)

But embedded in these botanical meanderings (as everywhere in the book) is a Buddhist anthem of respect for the earth -- a reaffirmation of the environmental politics that made Snyder famous as an outspoken eco-activist in the '70s. This theme marches through the book like the title's endless mountains and streams, a constant in the scroll frame's evolving panorama. "Walking the New York Bedrock Alive in the Sea of Information" (in which Manhattan looms "like a sea anemone," its "prana-subtle power-pumping heartbeat buildings . . . Wide and waving in the Sea of Economy") may be this generation's best poem on the mixed blessings of technology -- a resounding (almost Blakean) elegy on the Information Age global village. Never has Snyder preached so powerfully, "channeling" for a host of literary ancestors: Basho meets John Muir meets Marshall McLuhan. It's a holistic hipster's answer to Ezra Pound.

Mountains and Rivers is, in short, a return to the prophetic Gary Snyder of 30 years ago -- who, having sat out most of the '60s (literally) at a Buddhist monastery in Japan, emerged to open San Francisco's "Human Be-In" on January 14, 1967, trumpeting into a conch shell like some apocalyptic hippie archangel. (He appears in old photos, sandwiched between a wild-maned Allen Ginsberg and a grinning Timothy Leary -- may Timothy rest in peace, in his corner of the cosmos.) Any critique of these words (which the poet has lived in so long they've grown around him like a second skin) would be nothing but superfluous puffery. I have little to say beyond "bravo" -- and what a shame the book couldn't be printed as a scroll, instead of confined within its hard covers. Alas, books of poetry cost too much as it is, and are bought by far too few.