If you’re not a reader of latter-20th century American poetry, then maybe you’ve heard of Gary Snyder’s fictional doppelgänger, Japhy Ryder, even if you haven’t heard of Snyder, himself. Ryder appears in Jack Kerouac’s “Dharma Bums” as a friend and mentor to Kerouac’s own fictional persona, Ray Smith. If you do remember Ryder, you have some insight into the themes that recur throughout this collection. Said themes include reverence for nature and an appeal to Eastern philosophical and religious traditions–most specifically Zen. Though there are other themes that you might not be expecting, such as fatherhood and the overarching theme of North America.
This collection consists of 63 pieces divided into four parts. Except for those of the last part, the pieces are all poetic. In other words, there are 58 poems and five short prose essays. The poems cover a lot of ground, though they are all free verse. Some of them are spare and others are prose poetry. They range from a few lines to a few pages. The vast majority of the poems put nature at the fore. Some have the tone of haiku—though not its form. By that I mean the tendency to describe without letting in analysis or judgement, attempting to offer a pure reflection of scenes from nature. There are some points at which Snyder veers into political commentary, e.g. with lists of statistics—some of which have no meaning as written (see: “Fact” the first piece in the section “Magpie’s Song”) and rants against the Liquid Metal Fast Breeder Reactor (LMFBR)–a technology that one suspects the poet knows no more about than does the reader. But for the most part the poems are portraits of North American wilderness, and can be enjoyed as such.
I found this collection to be enjoyable and evocative. Snyder transports one into North America’s great outdoors. I’d recommend this work for poetry readers.