Near the beginning of Gary Snyder’s new Danger on Peaks, the poet asks, “Who wouldn’t take the chance to climb a snowpeak and get the long view?” While the question is part of a piece about climbing Mt. St. Helens, it can be read as an invitation as well — who wouldn’t take the chance to follow him into Danger on Peaks and see the view? The long view — mountains and loved ones (past and present) and the land — offers glimpses of “beings living or not, beings or not,/ inside or outside of time”, and is one well worth beholding.
But the book is more than just a pretty view. Informed by Snyder’s Buddhist ethic, it gives us a way to look at what we see, and it’s clear throughout the book — from the peaks of upheaval to the valley between them — that the cycle itself has something to teach us if we’ll pay attention.
Danger on Peaks is Snyder’s first collection of entirely new poems since Axe Handles, which was published in 1983. With a mixture of styles ranging from prose poems to haiku, the book is divided into six sections and takes its title from a poem in its fifth, “For Carole”:
Her lithe leg
danger on peaks
The whole book is a journey, and each successive poem leads the reader (in this case, me) a little further; it’s definitely not a random collection that can be skipped through at will. Reading the entire collection is an experience akin to going on a pleasantly challenging hike with a knowledgeable guide who loves the land he travels. The path Snyder takes here goes from the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens to reflections on people — friends and family — he’s known to the Taliban’s destruction of the large Buddhas in Bamiyan and the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. Near the beginning of the book, he writes of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and says in the poem “Atomic Dawn”:
Horrified, blaming scientists and politicians and the governments of the world, I swore a vow to myself, something like, “By the purity and beauty and permanence of Mt. St. Helens, I will fight against this cruel destructive power and those who would seek to use it, for all my life.”
I think this book is a testament to that. Whether it’s more direct, as in the poems in the “After Bamiyan” section, or less so, like the poems written about friends and family, the book is constructive and respectful, understanding of life, both in place and part of a whole.
I could choose many examples of this from the book, but I’ve decided to leave you with a couple of passages from this poem.
For Philip Zenshin Whalen
d. 26 June 2002
(and for 33 pine trees)
Load of logs
chains cinched down and double-checked
the truck heads slowly up the hill
I will think of you
pines from this mountain
as you shelter people in the Valley
years to come
Though our roles may change, we’re all part of something. Gary Snyder does well to remind us.