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Poetry from the mountains, from Heaven and Earth

Mountains and Rivers Without End

Gary Snyder

Because Gary Snyder's latest book was advertised as an epic poem, with a title forged straight from religion and myth, I dreaded cracking it open.

How many words are there for mountain, I wondered, how many metaphors for river? Imagine my surprise, after the dust settled, to find myself with a fruitpicker hitching his way across the Northwest. I perked up.

Bumming, I thought, is about as mytho-poetic as one can get in this day and age: Odysseus with his thumb out. The first poems in the book are brilliant, poignant, colorful. There is a sad music to them, a local wisdom that is quintessential Snyder. "Man/out of town/go hitching down/that highway 99." Or: "The road that's followed goes forever,/in half a minute crossed & left behind."

One of my favorites from the migrant period, called "Three Worlds, Three Realms, Six Roads," is a long catalog poem (a trademark of epics, as I understand) divided into six stanzas of sorts, each subtitled. The first lists "Things to Do Around Seattle." Then around a lookout. Around Kyoto.

It's fascinating stuff, the marrow of a life made up around simple joy. But after that first section the book starts to wander aimlessly, although it is not the wandering nor the aimlessness that unravels the book for me, but the pointlessness of aimless wandering. What do San Francisco, Japan, Australia and Alaska have in common‹except they're all places Snyder happened to visit‹after all?

Then and there, I began to question the nature of the book. Isn't an epic a long journey of mythic proportions? Is the tracing of one person's life epic then, and if so, aren't all our lives epic? An epic poem, too, twists a seamless cord of story, a narrative, but Mountains and Rivers Without End seems more a collection of often unrelated poems.

Try as I might, I couldn't find enough connections to make the book epic. As a collation, however, it's a fine volume that carries one to places that cannot be occupied, only approached, full of hard questions and full of images to live with, as in "A room of empty sun of peaks and ridges/ a universe of junk, all left alone."

Or, "all about the bay, such smog and sense of heat. May the whole/ planet not get like this." And, "I came to buy/ a few bananas by the Ganges/ while waiting for my wife."

It is regrettable that the volume never returns to reign over its own homeland.

Flying Over Sonny Liston

Gary Short
University of Nevada

Another poet to keep an eye on is Utahan Gary Short, whose second book, Flying Over Sonny Liston, won the 1996 Western States Book Award for poetry.

I read the book start to finish late one night, and found the poetry gripping in its rawness, courageous in scope. Short reaches in all directions with equal service‹back to childhood, into neighbors' lives, into his own loss‹to pull the poems to light and, in doing so, cracks the egg of pain and strokes the feathers of joy's bird.

All night the bent apple trees
drop their fruit in the storm,
& I don't hear one fall, not one.

What else fell while I slept.

In an elegy to his brother, dead at 39 of a disease that diminished the man's fingers to "thin white candles," Short writes, "This rain is not consolation./This rain is lawless."

While I read, I remembered meeting Gary at a conference‹his boyishness at 44, how thin and energetic he was in high-top sneakers, and that he was very kind. At the same conference I met Snyder. Upon shaking hands he had said, "You must be a gardener," which still reminds me to pay attention.

When I read Short's poetry, I could imagine his handwriting. And I felt us friends.

I grew up in a house of shadows:
I knew ghosts.
If this life is quick light
between two darknesses,

then I am lonely.

In the title poem Short quotes James Baldwin, "Inarticulate in the way we all are, when more has happened to us than we know how to express." Gary Short's poems are well-crafted, far-reaching, ambitious. Inarticulate he is not.

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