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Critical Essay by Tom Lavazzi
SOURCE: "Pattern of Flux: The 'Torsion Form' in Gary Snyder's Poetry," in The American Poetry Review, Vol. 18, No. 4, July-August, 1989, pp. 41-7.
In the essay below, Lavazzi documents the connection between Snyder's cosmology and his poetic structure.
It would be best to consider this a continuing "revolution of consciousness" which will be won not by guns but by seizing the key images, myths, archetypes, eschatologies, and ecstasies so that life won't seem worth living unless one is on the transforming energy's side.
Snyder's view of social reform is the inevitable consequence of a poetics that pushes beyond the margins of the page and asserts itself as a psychosocial mode of existence. To change a culture is not to overthrow its social-political institutions, but to change its mind, its world view. The dialogue among text, self, and the world—both the public world and the non-human, other world of nature—permeates Snyder's poetry. Poetry becomes a means of expanding the consciousness, of mentally channeling us into the "transforming energy" and exploding our field of awareness in order to make such a "revolution of consciousness"—which is also a revolution of spirit—possible.
One way this expanded, "liminal consciousness," as Charles Molesworth phrases it, "this in-between awareness" is achieved is through an image-symbol nexus that mobilizes an intricate network of relationships, blending sexual, ecological, spiritual, and social concerns. The touchstone image is a spiral, whorl, or knot. Its distancing effect as a figure of speech is lessened, if not eliminated, by incorporating it in the poems as a verbal (twisting, turning, folding writhing, whirling, swooping, curving, circling, intertwining, tangling), as an object (seashell, animal horn, tree trunk, nebula, wave, sex organ), and sometimes by embedding it in the structure of an entire poem. Thus the spiral is more than a "symbol" of unity, of a sexual/ecological/spiritual complex—it is a re-presentation, a reenactment of it. As "torsion form," to borrow Jerome Rothenberg's term, or vector, the spiral functions as energy graph, mapping forces both in the external world and the unconscious. Because of this, it is continually transforming; the symbol-making hand of the poet is kept in the background, allowing free play of the archetypal motion to find its own forms in any given situation.
The poems, then, not only accept their referentiality, as Robert Kern points out, but are actual means, as seed syllables in chants are means, of breaking ego boundaries and imaginatively penetrating to the sources of being. The poems are not "imitations" of the things presented, but linguistic interpretations of and interpenetrations with them. "Nature's way and mind's way rhyme," says Hugh Kenner, speaking of the relationship between nature and language structure. By refusing to view the poem from a modernist, new-critical perspective as autonomous art object, Snyder establishes the poem as the only available voice for the things or states of being presented. The subject and object become, in this sense, one, and the poem exchanges beings with the objects it encounters. Charles Altieri points out that a major achievement of Snyder's poetry is its "development of an ontological function for aesthetic structure." The poems create a mind space where the "other" and "self" meet to conceive the whole.
As "The Bath" demonstrates, an important step in getting beyond the self, beyond the boundaries of the ego, is becoming aware of the body—not as an entity or personal identity, but as an outgrowth or branch of a larger continuum. Though the poem begins familiarly and straightforwardly, the speaker "washing Kai in the sauna," toward the end of the first stanza, we get a taste of what is to come: the speaker is "washing-tickling out the scrotum, little anus," Kai's "penis curving up and getting hard," the sexual contact producing a spontaneous delight in Kai who begins "laughing and jumping, flinging arms around." From the start, the boundary-breaching, destabilizing verbals are there, embedded in the poem: "curve," "curving," and "flinging" in stanza one and, in later stanzas, "winding," "turning," "flow," "curling," and "boiling." When Masa enters, in the second stanza, the sexual joy deepens; the poem becomes slippery, lubricous, and begins its graceful acrobatics. Snyder reaches out to "cup" Masa's "curving vulva from behind," and the contact sends a current of awareness through him, a mute, pre-verbal message: the vulva becomes "a hand of grail" (not "like" one—the identification is immediate and actual), which evokes the visionary image of a
… turning double-mirror world of
wombs in wombs, in rings,
that start in music,
is this our body?
Snyder's contact with the sexual organ brings him to a greater comprehension, a deeper awareness of the essential forces, essential rhythms of life. The real-world vulva appears to be in motion, "curving," and is collocated with the more abstract "turning" image; both are expressed as verbals, as participle phrases, to stress ongoingness and their inter-relatedness as diverse expressions of the same energy. "Double-mirror" suggests the reflection of a reflection, the elusiveness of identity as it is gradually dematerialized in the poem. As soon as Snyder makes physical contact with the vulva, the poem drops away from its narrative structure and the syntax begins to leap. In the line "a soapy tickle a hand of grail," for example, white space, a thought/breath pause, forms the only bridge between the juxtapositions of pure sense imagery and more metaphoric (and ultimately visionary) modes of perception/expression. The vulva feels like an indistinct braille, but its sound double, "grail," is what appears on the page. The seen and felt guide the speaker's quest into the trans-sensual and ultimately unsayable. As soon as the sense/mind juncture is achieved, the poem's imagery implodes, penetrating into the heart of creation, the generative life force. Visually, the image "wombs in wombs, in rings" shifts almost instantaneously from representational to abstract, with only a brief caesura between, while phonically the end of the line "rings," concretely and percusively, into the next line—an undefined music, rhythm, and sound, which must carry on where language, even as stripped of particular literal context as these last images are, cannot go. As Snyder says in "Poetry and the Primitive," the poet is always "steering a course between crystal clouds of utterly incommunicable nonverbal states—and the gleaming daggers and glittering nets of language."
At the end of the second stanza, the mind leaps once again, this time back to the immediate context of self/body, but with an expanded consciousness of the latter's significance. It is not just the speaker's body but "our" body; not just the personal body—his, his wife's, his child's, all naked, close, and touching—but the human body; not the body as biological entity, but as a "way": It has brought him, imaginatively, to "the gates of awe," the brink of creation; it is formally inevitable, then, that "this our body" becomes the refrain line for the poem, a touchstone for the interconnectedness of the personal/familiar, physical/sexual, and spiritual/visionary that the poem's imagery and movement enact.
Snyder's poetry is full of such sudden plunges. At any moment, the omission of a connective, the creation of a white space, the break of a line, plummet us or send us imaginatively soaring into bottomless, boundless, timeless being. In "Song of the Slip," for example, the first line, "SLEPT," in bold type, resounds with a Jungian suggestion of sleep/unconscious as a medium for slipping beyond the self; from the start, we are propelled into a world of dream time and dreamscape. The second line, "folded in girls," interweaves the masculine self with the feminine other and necessitates the ritualistic "feeling their folds":
folded in girls
feeling their folds; whorls;
the lips, leafs,
of the curling soft-sliding
roaring and faring
to beach high on the dark shoal
moves in and makes home in the whole.
As in "The Bath," contact with the sexual organ precipitates syntactical and imaginative leaps: After a brief internal caesura following "folds"—the semicolon, which is also a connective—we are hurled into relationship with an abstract, essential motion-form, "whorls." The collage technique and pared down syntax eliminate grammatical lapses between the two images, and "folds" speaks directly to "whorls." Starting off on that note, the poem is a hop-scotch integration of body, nature and the unconscious—"lips, leafs,/curling soft-sliding/serpent-sleep dreams." The fold-whorl-curl-serpent image cluster cross-syntactically transports us "roaring and faring" into the depths of the collective unconscious, and the phallic seed-prow speeds us the rest of the way onto the "dark shoal" of origins, the life force itself. The poem's closing line slips back out of the unconscious and integrates it with the conscious by resolving the fragmented activity of nouns and verbals—objects in motion—into the key concept of wholeness.
Ontologically, Snyder's poetry presents patterns and figures of flux. In "Re-inhabitation," Snyder defines men as "composite beings whose sole identifying feature is a particular form or structure changing constantly in time." As "The Bath" and "The Song of the Slip" show, this sense of participating in a larger continuum, of acknowledging our relationship to a being much greater than the ego-centered self in its particular historical pocket, can be explored both in the realms of the visionary and of the everyday. Often, as in "The Bath," the diurnal is a way into the former realm; in "Night," however, the sense of the vastness of being is latent in images that, though highly resonant, remain in the daily realm. In all three poems, sex is both symbol of and key to the merging of self with what lies beyond. In "Night," the sleeping lovers lying with "Twined legs" and "hair all tangled together" unconsciously mimic what Wilhelm Reich called "orgonomic functional thinking … frozen motion": form as movement, which was often expressed, for Reich, in the "basic form" of the "sexual embrace." In the poem, this interlocked state is only temporary; the sum is soon "hitting the shades"; a record has been left "soundlessly spinning," suggesting that beneath any particular melody or tune, beneath any formalized musical expression, is the essential mandala rhythm of movement and change, combinations and recombinations, like legs crossed and recrossed as lovers turn in sleep. The music stops, but the movement, the rhythm continues. The voice of the poem, which slips out of the individual consciousness of the sleeping poet-lover, holds both images in mind—the intertwined bodies and the spinning record—and threads through the whole scene and series of events (the night of lovemaking, the house left in disarray, the first strands of morning light), pushing toward a larger synthesis: the knowledge that we are only temporary gatherings of energy (the sex/love continuum is only one of its manifestations) and that at every moment we are part of a larger entity that flows through us and that we ultimately flow back into.
The interdependency of the sexual and spiritual and the comprehension of sex as a "way," a path toward an enlightened, holistic consciousness is more obviously the theme of "Song of the Tangle":
Two thigh hills hold us at the fork
round mount center
we sit all folded
on the dusty planed planks of a shrine
drinking top class sake that was left
for the god.
calm tree halls
the sun past the summit
heat sunk through the vines,
swirling in the tangle
the tangle of the thigh
through which we push
Bob Steuding claims that the poem describes the meditative/erotic "yab-yum," a type of Tibetan "sitting coitus," and points to the importance of love, for Snyder, as "an act of communion" and of worship. Quoting Snyder: "'To follow the ancient path in company with a lover means both must have practiced the lonely yogas and wanderings, and then seek the center of the individual-body and group-body mandala; dedicating their two bodies to the whole network'" ("Dharma Queries"). As in "The Bath," image and structure actualize the poem's ontological stance. The nature/sex nexus is established in the first line "Two thigh hills…." "High" (height of the natural object; spiritual elevation) is contained in "thigh"—literally and as a ghost rhyme—and the hills "hold" the "us," the poet and his presumably feminine companion, establishing a sympathetic connection among them. The nature/sex/enlightenment formula is completed by the second line, physically centered below the first to visually suggest the poem's imagistic and spiritual center—the Buddhist shrine. The poet and his companion sit "all folded" before the shrine, sharing food that was meant "for the god." Though ego-centered consciousness is left behind almost from the start, imbibing the food of the god (which is also a product of nature) is, ritualistically, the jumping off point: in the rest of the poem, the identity of the human worshippers, the "we" of the poem, is merged with nature; the shrine becomes the scene of ritualistic self-annihilation. As in "The Bath," the poem opens with a relatively stable situation, clearly locating the speaker and his companion in time and space. In the third stanza, however, human identity begins to dissolve into the surrounding sounds and motions, only partially resurfacing in the "we" of the last line. Structurally, this merging of self and other is emphasized by indenting and aligning key images—the shrine, the worshippers, and the images of nature (trees, sun, vines, cicadas, and brush). But worship, here, is not a matter of bowing before icons; no image of Buddha is mentioned; in fact, the worshippers are the Buddha, and the interpenetration of god-worshippers-nature is established not only imaginatively, but biologically, through eating, thus weaving an ecological strand into the nexus.
The cicada's song, the sound center of the poem, whirls together the sexual, spiritual, and biological; it is the undifferentiated voice, the seed syllable expressing an undefinable, illimitable wholeness. The song of the tangle is at once a physical and an imaginative interpenetration, both sexual intercourse and metaphysical quest—"the brush/through which we push."
Buddhism, especially Tantrism, is a strong current in Snyder's aesthetic. Tantrism provides a path out of "ego-driven anxieties" and into the diversity of life. The key is tensionless harmony, being able to see all aspects of life—suffering and joy, birth and death—as part of the whole network, of the fabric of life. Altieri claims that the purpose of the dialectic in Snyder's poetry is to "reduce tension by affirming the opposites' need for one another"; they mutually support each other to present a dynamic, holistic moment of consciousness, like wind eddies stirring up leaf fall on a bright, clear fall day: they just happen together; the day is not less bright because dead leaves swirl at our feet, but we should be aware of them.
Delight is the innocent joy arising
with the perception and realization of
the wonderful, empty, intricate,
single world beyond all discrimination
("On 'As for Poets'")
Clarity in Snyder's poems often reveals darkness: darkness=depth, both geologically—into the earth's evolutionary past—and psychologically—into the "wilderness" of the unconscious. Tantrism's emphasis on comprehending birth and death, or the "womb tomb" as Snyder refers to it, means that, aesthetically, the "poet holds the dark and the light in the mind, together" ("The Real Work"). The enlightened dialectic moment irradiates several of Snyder's best poems, kindling a warm hum in the imagination of a reader as the energies are released through syntactic fluidity, image collocations and collage structuring. The poems are reifications, Metonymic whirlpools; by responding to the poem, the thing on the page, we also respond to the inspired, intense mind-in-action it presents.
In "Rainbow Body," dark and light are imagistically presented without conflict, and the lack of "ego interference" (Snyder's term)—the mind's transparency—is achieved through the poem's dialectical structure and through a voice that originates in nature and the unconscious and only temporarily locates itself in the personal "we." For Snyder, the "real work" of mankind today is to "uncover the inner structure and actual boundaries of the mind," which requires a certain amount of boundary breaking: "We all live within skin, ego, society, and species boundaries" ("Poetry and the Primitive"). "Rainbow Body" jostles our sense of self in just such a deconstructive way. "The goal of revolution is transformation."
The poem opens with night sounds and images. A "wall of twanging shadow," not a man-made wall but a nature-made one of "bamboo thickets," is alive, in all its "dark joints and leaves," with the chanting of cicadas. The imagery is free floating; the voice is not connected to a particular speaker; it is not until the third stanza that a "we" half surfaces—they "half-wake" and then flow quickly back into the natural imagery. In Altieri's words, "the role of the lyrical ego or creative synthetic imagination" is lessened "by treating place as the poet and the human writer as (merely) an attentive mediator." In the second stanza, the voice takes on the ancientness of a volcano "rumbling down wind"; as "ash and steam" rise from the volcano to mix with "salt clouds" that brush its summit, an illusion of "breathing the Milky Way" is produced. But who or what is breathing? The night, the volcano, or the voice? The syntax, stripped of all personal and relative pronouns, simultaneously makes all three possible; the confusion is functional, carrying the imagistic effect beyond optical illusion to a mind/body interchange of being—voice = breath = steam and ash rising from the rumbling gut of a millennia-old geological formation = an astrophysical rhythm:.
Salt clouds skim the volcano
mixed with ash and steam
from the night gleam
summit, near Algol,
breathing the Milky Way.
The Milky Way is comprehended in the breath/thought of a single line; as the vision's scope and the voice's range expand, the lines work their way back out to the margins of the page. The effect of interrelatedness, of seamless bonding is heightened as the stanza's imagery merges into the final touchstone image of the torsion form, this time a galactic whorl of stars.
In the third stanza the volcano's voice, now become a chant, a "great drone / in the throat of the hill," joins with an almost ritualistic beat—"The waves drum." The aural image cluster of cicadas-volcano-waves unites the natural surroundings into a single, pulsing rhythm, empty of human speech and significance. The movement of the poem corresponds to natural cycles, so the rhythm of night/day rolls the dark imagery over into light as the poet and his wife wake "in the east light/fresh." The dark/light structure of the poem, then, evolves naturally. The fourth stanza is filled with light, clarity, and identification with the nonhuman. The human couple literally flow into nature as they "swim out through a path in the coral"—not a human but a sea made path:
& into the land of the sea-people:
rainbows under the foam of the breakers
surge and streaming
from the southern beach.
the lips, where you float
with the subtle currents
outward roil of lava….
The ocean has "lips," suggesting a sexual/biological exchange of being, as if the humans were being swallowed or, by osmosis, ingested by the nonhuman. The sixth line isolates the words "clear, wave," feeding the concept of enlightenment into that of wave forms. In Snyder's poetry, waves, to use Sherman Paul's phrase, express "contours of feeling." Paul calls the wave Snyder's "Ur phenomenon"; it is the "current of the universal being." The syntactical collocation of "clear" and "wave" makes the ocean a medium, a natural analogue to meditation. In "Tanker Notes," Snyder describes the mind as a "clear spring—it reflects all things and feeds all things but is itself transparent"; it is "the hidden water underground." To enter the ocean is to enter an other world, a world simultaneously of nature and the unconscious, a world of "subtle currents" and "sea-tangles," of mergings and flowings and transformations that deny stasis and categorical definition and alter the nature of perception.
Through the daylight clarity of water, which acts like a lens for the empty consciousness, the dark is still evident, but the "outward roil of lava," solidified evidence of the island's cataclysmic origins, is not exaggerated or dramatized as a symbol of "evil." It is simply there, part of the seascape. Of course it is a reminder of the temporariness of any state of being, of the great earth processes that precede and outlast all life, of the inevitability and naturalness of change. But the image itself diffuses any "moral" we might try to attach to it. As Molesworth puts it, "Snyder's unconscious is amoral, or premoral, and the laws of identity and contrariety do not apply to it." The lava is cool and solid; it has a still life; it is a "frozen motion" melding a geologically remote past with the present into a single living instant, "into the eternal now of geological time" ("The Incredible Survival of Coyote"). And "roil," as a motion, speaks to tangling sea grasses and to the continual spiral breakings of waves into billions of tiny stars.
In "Rainbow Body," opposing categories of animate and inanimate, human and nonhuman, alive and dead cannot be applied with certainty. The language of the last two lines of stanza four, pared down to naming and essential movements and modifiers, brings us face to face—almost lip to lip—with a "cobalt speckled curling / mouth of a shako clam." The meeting is matter of fact—no attempt to evaluate or interpret or turn the clam into symbol—and yet the clam's relevance to the poem and to Snyder's aesthetic is apparent in the unconscious gesture of its body's evolution, the biologically determined "curling" of the mouth, the sign of its interrelatedness. The entire poem performs like a living, breathing organism; throats, lips, and mouths suggest an internalizing process that ranges from a single clam of a particular species to the entire galaxy. The "bamboo thickets," the "sea-tangle tendrils," the "roil of lava"—all are involved and all carry, in the very nature of their structure, the sign and sense of the whole.
In the poem's last stanza, the poet and his wife enjoy a simple meal of "melon and steamed sweet potato / from this ground." Though the image, like the action it describes, is simple, it comes in the wake of the knowledge mimed by the previous image clusters. The emphasis of the stanza is on human involvement, on man's place and responsibility in this vast body of being. Here the human couple live quietly and cooperatively with the land: "We hoed and fished—/ grubbing out bamboo runners…." And now, relaxed and nourished, they "nap in the bamboo thicket / eyes closed, / dazzled ears." The poem's emotional ambiguity, however, is not resolved but sustained in the closing stanza; flowing naturally out of the event of napping, the last two lines drop off into darkness and thoughtless profundity, keyed to the indecipherable sounds of the surf, inevitably involving the poem's final, peaceful moment with the bulk of its pluralistic image structure.
The final stanza is fulfilling in two ways. First, it realizes the non-dualistic awareness of Tantrism and Mahayana Buddhism's emphasis not just on zazen (meditation), but also on active involvement in the world. Second, Snyder tells us in "Re-inhabitation" that "knowing who and where [we are] are intimately linked." The plants, animals, and geology of a region are the "ground of our own mind" ("The East West Interview"); maintaining contact with our bio-energy sources, the food we intake and transform, helps keep us sane and in touch with our own bodies, and through them with the body of nature. The goals of Buddhism and ecology unite in the manual labor and relinquishment of consciousness of the last stanza; the poem is not brought to a closure but cadenced, keeping its dialectic ever open.
In "Re-inhabitation," Snyder describes a satellite photo of the earth as showing "the whole blue orb with spirals and whorls of cloud," and paraphrases Stewart Brand in calling this photograph a "landmark of human consciousness." The clouds tell us: one world, one nature. In "Poetry and the Primitive," Snyder quotes from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad: "'Now this Self is the state of being of all contingent beings.'" Buddhism merged with ecology means our own bodies and minds are also the body and "mind" of nature. The connection with the primitive is clear. The shaman poet, or "poet as healer … is asserting several layers of larger realms of wholeness" ("Poetry, Community & Climax"). They include identifying with nature, integrating the unconscious and conscious, and identifying with the "other" outside our group—humanity at large. "This is the kind of healing that makes whole, heals by making whole." From the primitive perspective there is, literally, no separation between man and nature. In Black Elk Speaks, according to Snyder, Black Elk describes all living things as "individualized turbulence patterns," temporary interruptions and shapings of a universal energy flow ("Knots in the Grain"); this "primitive" ontological theory is directly relevant to Snyder's aesthetic: "I like to think of poetry as that … as the knot of the turbulence, whorl …" and "the poem or the song manifests itself as a special concentration of the capacities of the language and rises up into its own shape." Snyder also compares the structure, the phenomenon of his poems to "bushi or fushi" (Japanese words for song) "which means a whorl in the grain … an intensification of the flow [of energy] at a certain point that creates a turbulence of its own which then as now sends out an energy of its own, but then the flow continues again." The torsion form, as knot, whorl, spiral, or more generically as "turbulence pattern," with its origins in Buddhism, ecology, and primitive ontology, means to Snyder what the gyre meant to Yeats: it is a key image, a pivotal point for his entire aesthetic. Buckminster Fuller's definition of man as a knot of metabolic processes—processes that occur everywhere in nature and come together in a certain way and for a certain period of time to compose the biological entity called "man"—may be another intellectual source for the ecological twist in the spiral. At any rate, the concatenation of biology, ecology, Buddhism, and the primitive in Snyder's aesthetic is evident. In "Poetry and the Primitive," Snyder says:
The Australian aborigines live in a world of ongoing recurrence—comradeship with the landscape and continual exchanges of being and form and position; every person, animals, forces, all are related via a web of reincarnation—or rather, they are "interborn." It may well be that rebirth (or interbirth, for we are actually mutually creating each other and all things while living) is the objective fact of existence which we have not yet brought into conscious knowledge and practice.
It is clear that the empirically observable interconnectedness of nature is but a corner of the vast "jewelled net" which moves from without to within. The spiral (think of nebulae) and spiral conch (vulva/womb) is a symbol of the Great Goddess. It is charming to note that physical properties of spiral conches approximate the Indian notion of the world-creating dance, "expanding form" … "each whorl or part of a whorl [quoting D'Arcy Thompson] … constitutes a gnomon to the whole previously existing structure."
"Comradeship with the landscape" is not just a "primitive" feeling—it is an ecological principle; "jewelled net" is a Buddhist image of interconnectedness ("om mani padma [jewel in the lotus] hum"). The language and imagery of the above passage fuse the three perspectives, all of which stress the same fundamental values—unself-consciousness, transformation, totality, and self-fulfillment through absence of self. And, as several of Snyder's poems demonstrate, sexual contact with the male or female "other" is a way of penetrating into the life-generating secrets of the "jewelled net," of immersing the self in the universal flow of transforming energy. For Western culture, as Snyder points out in "Poetry and the Primitive," woman became the dominant symbol of nature and "The Other," intertwining notions of the "Muse" with "Romantic Love" and making the lovers' bed "the sole place to enact dances and ritual dramas that link primitive people to their geology and the Milky Way." Thus the telescoping of vulva/womb into spiral conch: the former is a means of self-expansion through physical penetration, and the latter is not merely a symbol but a physical product of the "world-creating" forces, a living torsion form. Each whorl of the conch grows out of the previous to form the whole, just as we develop as individuals from former selves; as present cultures evolve out of previous ones; as the spiritual world blossoms out of the physical; and just as all physical objects—human and nonhuman, animate and inanimate—enter into and become each other (are "interborn"), physiologically and spiritually, by slipping into and reemerging from the transforming stream of energy through growth, death, or intense meditative/ imaginative effort.
To Snyder, the primitive, biology, and ecology are, like Buddhism, not simply sources for poetic imagery. They stratify an aesthetic program that can deepen our consciousness of the range and responsibilities of the self. This is fundamental revolution:
The biological-ecological sciences have been laying out (implicitly) a spiritual dimension. We must find our way to seeing the mineral cycles, the water cycles, air cycles, nutrient cycles, as sacramental—and we must incorporate that insight into our own personal spiritual quest and integrate it with all the wisdom teachings we have received from the nearest past. The expression of it is simple; gratitude to it all, taking responsibility for your own acts; keeping contact with the sources of the energy that flow into your own life (i.e., dirt, water, flesh). ("Re-inhabitation")
And in "Poetry and the Primitive":
The primitive world view, far-out scientific knowledge and the poetic imagination are related forces which may help if not to save the world or humanity, at least to save the Redwoods.
The artist, then, though not a "moralist" in conventional, Judeo-Christian terms, has an ethical responsibility. He delves "into personal depths for nutrients hidden there" and gives them "back to the community. The community and its poetry are not two" ("Poetry, Community & Climax"). Art puts us back in the mainstream. It does this through looping—from present to past and back again, from conscious to unconscious and back again, from self to other and back again. Art is the "recycling of neglected inner potential … an assimilator of unfelt experience, perception, sensation, and memory for the whole society."
The interdependency and moral value of science, the primitive, and the poetic imagination are clearly presented in "Toward Climax." Within ninety-eight lines, the poem takes us on a journey from life's elemental beginnings—"salt seas, mountains, deserts"—to the present (late 1960s)—"Forestry. 'How / Many people / Were harvested / In VietNam?'" From pre-human beginnings we quickly pass through a state of preverbal, unself-conscious, physical oneness with the environment; we then move on to the beginnings of language and an awareness of our difference from, but also kinship with nature and our effects on nature ("big herds dwindle / —did we kill them?") and, consequently, the need for ritual to preserve unity and fertility; nature-worshipping rituals lose their potency, however, (we "lose dream-time") as agriculture and city-building—the beginnings of modern civilization—take over; "Reason" and law further bracket our perceptions and only in the present do we begin to remember ancient knowledge, to respiritualize nature, to internalize natural phenomena as a mode of consciousness. The irony of this poem's final section is intensified by the depth of human life, history, and prehistory; the "unfelt experience" and "sense-detritus," behind it.
The imagery of the first stanza is pre-human—a heterogeneous rhythm of "Cell mandala," "nerve network," and primate body parts. Man evolves in the second stanza and the next few stanzas are a collage of interactions and identifications with nature:
scavenge, gather, rise up on rear legs.
running—grasping—hand and eye;
Bison, bear skimmed and split;
opening animals chests and bellies, skulls, bodies just like ours—
pictures in caves.
Then, man begins to learn more about his world: he learns plants; he learns how to "send sound off the mouth and lips" to form a language that unites "inner structures," the subconscious, with the "daily world"; through language he becomes "kin to grubs and trees and wolves"; he learns to "dance and sing," to celebrate his world, and to go "'beyond'" into myth and dream-time. Then, with the beginnings of agricultural society, he begins to think about getting "better off"; he begins to "make lists" and to "forget wild plants, their virtues / lose dream-time." He turns his back on nature and becomes self-involved—"get safer, tighter, wrapped in, / winding smaller, spreading wider"—the counter motion / image of the outward evolving, looping, all-encompassing torsion form. He starts laying out towns, draining swamp lands and, in the poem's second section, making laws, but eventually, in section three, discovers that "science walks in beauty." Biology and ecology try to reconnect us with our environment:
nets are many knots.
maturity, stop and think, draw on the mind's
stored richness, memory, dream, half-digested
image of your life.
The knot, as torsion form, as Buckminster Fuller describes it, is a design of intersecting forces or energies. From this perspective, it is not one specific thing—a double coil of rope; it can also be a plant transforming solar energy into oxygen, the intertwined bodies and passions of two lovers, the merging of conscious and unconscious, or loops of time—in this poem, the intersecting loops of pre-history and the present. The abbreviated, elliptical syntax of the poem collages essential traits from various geological/evolutionary periods to enact great time leaps within a few inches on the page:
fins legs wings—
teeth, all-purpose little early mammal molars.
catch fire, move on.
eurasia tundra reindeer herds
sewn hide clothing, mammoth-rib-framework tent.
squash blossom in the garbage heap, start farming.
cows won't stay away, start herding.
The syntactical compression creates an effect of poetic density and diversity analogous to the mental and geological pressure of the poem's ecological, time-warping, and ultimately moral vision.
As we have seen, the torsion form in Gary Snyder's poems, as symbol/energy graph, whirls together Buddhist, ecological, and primitive perspectives, and not just for artistic effect. The polysemous texture of the poetry is a vital expression of the density and diversity of consciousness, and a sense of moral responsibility follows in the wake of such an expanded awareness. In Snyder's poetics, too, the per-spectives are fused so thoroughly that the sense of the whole of his aesthetic program can be adequately expressed only through a hyphenated word group: "jeweled-net-interpenetration-ecological-systems-emptiness-consciousness" ("Re-inhabitation"). Seven individual words here function as a unit; no word can be extracted without altering the meaning of the whole. The hyphenated word group is perhaps the only semantic unit in modern English that approaches the indefinableness of the seed syllable, the "om" of Buddhism, the "wha, wha, wha" of Raven and Magpie in a Hopi ritual ("Through the Smoke Hole") or, as Gen, Snyder's young son, put it ("The Bath"):
Bao! Bao! Bao! Bao! Bao!
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