Gary Snyder is now eighty-five years old. Most poets appear to slow down rather dramatically as they age, but not Snyder. In recent years he has published his correspondence and/or interviews with Allen Ginsberg, Wendell Berry, Jim Harrison, and South African scholar Janet Martin. But best of all is his recently published collection of new poems, This Present Moment.
This book will almost certainly be remembered for the long poem that is Snyder’s farewell to his wife, Carole Koda. Neither an elegy nor a lament, “Go Now” is an unsentimental look at the preparation and disposal of the beloved body. Knowing it will not be a poem for everyone, he begins it:
You don’t want to read this,
be warned, turn back
from the darkness,
Those readers who continue will find an unflinching but profoundly moving look at those moments and days after death (“this is the price of attachment” … “worth even the smell”). I find it almost impossible to find parts that can be quoted without trivializing the force of the whole, but I think readers with even a passing knowledge of Snyder’s life and work will need to know this poem.
“Go Now” and the shorter works of This Present Moment fit perfectly into the arc of Snyder’s writing life. Part of the adventure of reading Snyder has been following him as he travels–intellectually and spiritually, of course, but also, physically–through the world, to places most of us have barely heard about. There are the poems that continue Snyder’s engagement with his long and rigorous Buddhist practice, as well as ones that continue an imaginative relationship with the great myths of Europe and with the history and prehistory of North America. There are poems taking the chance they have for our attention to make sure we learn a few things. And then there are more of those wonderful poems that readers have found in every Snyder book for the last sixty years, the ones that look at the world we pass through:
Log Truck on the 80
Heading west down the 80
last slope before the valley,
past a loaded log truck
incense cedars with that stringy bark
Mind watching lanes ahead
roams back to the mountains.
On the left side across the river
out toward Forest Hill,
or back toward Duncan Canyon,
or south to Sailor Meadow–
dark forests pass in mind.
See a shady canyon, tangled gully,
under old pine and fir and,
there: the fresh cut stumps of cedar.
Someone napping with his chainsaw
Gary Snyder reads, appropriately, under the tent in the beautiful gardens of White Lotus Farm on September 17.