'A willow tree among the streams'

Gary Snyder in Honolulu, March 2000 / March 2012

Gary Snyder's feet, March 19, 2012

“I did it, first of all.” That was Gary Snyder's response to our distinguished visiting writer, Shawna Yang Ryan, when she asked him where he got the idea for the poem he’d just read. The poem was “Changing Diapers." As she said, diaper poems are not what one expects from Snyder. Or perhaps this one is, given the sharp contrast between the father changing his son's diapers and the violent, nay imperial, context of the background, a poster of Geronimo holding a Sharp's repeating rifle. The poem goes like this:

     Changing Diapers

     How intelligent he looks!
          on his back
          both feet caught in my one hand
          his glance set sideways,
          on a giant poster of Geronimo
          with a Sharp's repeating rifle by his knee.

     I open, wipe, he doesn't even notice
          nor do I.
     Baby legs and knees
          toes like little peas
          little wrinkles, good-to-eat,
          eyes bright, shiny ears
          chest swelling drawing air,

     No trouble, friend,
          you and me and Geronimo
          are men.

The Apache Geronimo, whose family was massacred by Mexicans, massacred them back; the Geronimo who fought the fight he could not win against the USA: this is the backdrop to the loving action (also a repeating action, but not a violent one) of changing a baby's diaper. That “Operation Geronimo” was (well after the fact of this poem) the first name for the US action in which Osama Bin Laden was killed only complicates an already complicated narrative of violence and counter-violence that Snyder taps into here. What is there not to worry about?

Snyder is the last surviving member of the trio who read at the University of Hawai`i at Mānoa Art Auditorium on March 2, 2000. Playing jan ken po (Americans not from Hawai`i call the game "rock paper scissors”), Snyder, Nanao Sakaki, and Albert Saijo read to one another and to a large audience. All three men performed Zen-inflected poems about the state of the world and—more importantly—the state of being in the world. Local Hawai`i literary activists, Richard Hamasaki and H. Doug Matsuoka published the reading as a cd in 2003. This was, to my knowledge, the last time Albert Saijo, who died in June, 2011, read in public. Bamboo Ridge published his book Outspeaks: A Rhapsody, in 1997, and City Lights was slated to publish a follow-up book, but Saijo retreated (in all senses of that term) to Volcano Village, cancelling his contract with City Lights. When I went to ask him for work for Tinfish, he said no. When literary historians asked to come interview him, he said no. 

Yesterday, Snyder told Yang Ryan's students that he had often been asked to write poems for particular purposes. “Write us a poem against the Vietnam War,” someone would demand. Despite his firm opposition to the war, he said, he could not summon up a poem. But in the 2000 reading, Snyder was clearly concerned about global political issues.  The first poem he read, namely “Oil,” came out of his travels with the merchant marine in the Persian Gulf and that Pacific. Written in 1958, the poem struck me as current twelve years after I heard it performed in Honolulu, and over 50 years after it was written. One phrase sticks out: “what all these / crazed, hooked nations need.” In "Dillingham, Alaska, the Willow Tree Bar," he wrote about Alaska, where salmon run and "pipeline workers are "Drinking it down, / the pain / of the work / of wrecking the world." Then, in “Magpie's Song,” Snyder brooded on oil-bearing shale as he drove across Nevada in the 1970s. He also read and sang a poem called “Mother Earth: Her Whales,” which appeared as an op-ed in the New York Times (1972) in the wake of a conference on the environment in Stockholm. In this poem, no nation-state goes uncriticized by Snyder, beginning with the Japanese:

     The whales turn and glisten, plunge
     and sound and rise again,
     Hanging over subtly darkening deeps
     Flowing like breathing planets
     in the sparkling whorls of
     living light-

     And Japan quibbles for words on
     what kinds of whales they can kill?
     A once- great Buddhist nation
     dribbles methyl mercury
     like gonorrhea
     in the sea.

That evening, many of Saijo's poems were rants, too. He delivered attacks on government (oh my, he sounded a Ron Pauline note in “Procrustes”), against bad water and other poisons, against laws the forbid the smoking of marijuana.

Amid all the rants were moments of levity, many of them dark, but coming out of the poets' Buddhist training. Saijo read about a “bush bunny baby,” a perfect bunny, except that it was dead and its head had been cut off; he performed a poem called “Numbnut” about his favorite cat, a tom: “Time to hang up the gloves, guy,” he read, before offering the slogan, “Be empty and see now.” Saijo and Sakaki both made serious play with advertising language. In “Top Ten of American Poetry,” Sakaki (in heavily accented English) recited the language of the American constitution and of McDonald's, Bell, Monsanto, Coke.  Only a sign about private property was anonymous. He later read a poem in which a dinosaur, trapped in the earth, became a plastic tree in contemporary Japan. Happy Meal, anyone? And Saijo took on a Microsoft ad that claimed that doing things in a hurry “leaves more time for happy.”

These poets recognize the difference between "happy" and "happiness."  The Zen Buddhism they all studied is a guide to the latter, not the former.  I asked Snyder yesterday about the effect of his spiritual practice on his poetry.  He beat a clear path away from my question, referring the "stink of spirituality" in bad Zen poems, some of which he read gleefully to us.  Today I realize that it was the right question but on the wrong subject; poetry is not the end, for Snyder, but a means.  He means to save the world, not in an egocentric, but in a very literal sense.  In his essay, "EcoBuddhism," he writes that,  "The biological health of the planet is in trouble. Many larger animals are in danger of becoming extinct, and whole ecosystems with their lakhs of little living creatures are being eliminated. Scientific ecology, in witness to this, has brought forth the crisis-discipline of Conservation Biology, with its focus on preserving biodiversity. Biodiversity issues now bring local people, industries, and governments into direct and passionate dialogue over issues involving fisheries, marine mammals, large rare vertebrates, obscure species of owls, the building of huge dams or road systems—as never before."  In response, he proposes awakening "the mind of compassion."  This compassionate mind is not still; it is active, activist: "The actualization of the spiritual and political implications of ecology—that it be more than rhetoric or ideas—must take place, place by place. Nature happens, culture happens, somewhere."  He concludes by asserting the significance of place: "All of us can be as placed and grounded as a willow tree among the streams—and also as free and fluid in the life of the whole planet as the water in the water cycle that passes through all forms and positions roughly every two million years. Our finite bodies and inevitable membership in cultures and regions must be taken as a valuable and positive condition of existence. Mind is fluid, nature is porous, and both biologically and culturally we are always fully part of the whole."  Or, as he told us last night, we are surrounded by many plants and animals, and it behooves us to learn their names.

On his recent visit to our campus, another western Buddhist poet, W.S. Merwin, talked about the tree as itself a place.  Snyder's supposition that we can be as "grounded as a willow tree among the streams" extends our concept of place outward from where we are at this instant--I am in K āne`ohe, Hawai`i as I write this--to the larger world.  But we need to be here to be there.  So both these poets urge us to consider the earth beneath our feet in order to honor the earth entire.


You can hear a 2009 reading by Gary Snyder at Berkeley here.

Timothy Gray wrote an excellent book on Snyder, Gary Snyder and the Pacific Rim.  Iowa City: U of Iowa Press, 2006.

I blogged more extensively about Saijo on Tinfish Editor's Blog, here.

Joanne Kyger reads Albert Saijo's “Bodhissatva Vows” here (click at the bottom).