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On "Axe Handles"


Patrick D. Murphy

If the dedication, "This book is for San Juan Ridge," can be said to emphasize place, then the epigraph can be said to emphasize time, specifically the transmission of culture down through generations. Snyder identifies his epigraph as "a folk song from the Pin area [of China], 5th c. B.C." Rather than "high" literature, he draws on popular tradition, orally transmitted. The opening two lines indicate that the new is crafted on the basis of the old and that such transmission of knowledge requires models. This lesson is then applied to marriage, so that craft and culture, as well as the older generation, the present generation, and the one yet to come are all implicated in custom and ritual. The "go-between" identified in the epigraph is literally a marriage broker. In a broader cultural sense, one could say it is also the artist or poet who, through his or her role as a communicator, brings different people together and educates them about each other.

Robert Schultz and David Wyatt comment that "instruction is at the heart of this book, emphasized in its beginning and returned to frequently." In essence, "Axe Handles" provides a contemporary version of the epigraph's lesson, with the emphasis on generational communication. The "hatchet-head" lies dormant, awaiting a handle, until the poet's son Kai remembers it and wants to own a hatchet in imitation of his father. We could think of Kai as also being a hatchet-head, full of potential for useful labor but lacking the vehicle for translating that promise into practice. As Snyder shapes the hatchet handle, he is serving as a handle of knowledge that Kai can grab onto in order to use the hatchet properly when it comes his turn to labor. Snyder makes this point through his own recollection of Pound and the saying that Pound derived from the ancient Chinese, that when making an axe the model is close at hand. Snyder, in his youth, served as a hatchet-head in need of a handle and found the handle and the pattern to become a handle in turn in the poet Ezra Pound, the essayist Lu Ji, and the college professor Shih-hsiang Chen. At the same time, Snyder is shaping Kai so that he will also become a handle, as indicated near the end of the poem.

Snyder does not call Pound or Chen either a hatchet-head or a handle but calls each an "axe," because in their lives they joined together the potential of the head and the knowledge of the handle in poetic and educational practice. Snyder in his fifties has also become an "axe," complete in both functions as a "model" and as an instrument in the service of the "craft of culture," and he appears confident that Kai will become an "axe" as well. As Katsunori Yamazato succinctly explains it, "Snyder's commitment to the wild territory and the subsequent inhabitory life leads him to understand a cycle of culture--flowing from Pound, Chen, the poet himself, and to his son Kai--in which one is both 'shaped' and 'shaping,' a cycle preserving and transmitting 'craft of culture.'"

From Understanding Gary Snyder. Copyright 1992 by the University of South Carolina.


Tim Dean

The metaphor of the axe handle - which organizes the volume of that title similarly to the way in which the star and pine-cone organize Myths & Texts and the way the figure of the wave structures Regarding Wave - is both a figure for interdependence and a figure for the notion of model itself. As the first poem in Axe Handles, 'Axe Handles' begins the first section of the book, Loops, thereby advertising itself as a mode of beginning, a model of starting which always loops back to an earlier beginning. Not only does the opening poem lend the book its title, but it also features on the back of the book-jacket, printed in full, thereby functioning as both beginning and end of the book. Instead of any cover photograph of the poet, or any description of contents or critical endorsements of the book, Axe Handles pictures a Japanese figure on its front, painted in a modern stylized version of traditional Oriental technique by a contemporary Japanese artist, Mayumi DOA, and entitled 'Treasure Ship, Goddess of Snow'. On the back cover is reprinted 'Axe Handles': front and back cover together thus indicate by the mode of presentation - both poetic and pictographic - that the book is about modeling and about the kind of continuity provided by a certain model of modeling.

Although the book is dedicated to a place rather than any person - 'This book is for San Juan Ridge' - there is an essential recognition and development of the notion first elaborated in Regarding Wave that central to the continuity afforded by models is the woman. That is, the fundamental model of the axe handle as a metaphor for model comes to be represented as inseparable from the model woman who functions generatively - through her maternal body to provide for the continuity of the species. Thus the book's epigraph - quotation functioning as model - analogizes the axe handle and the woman:

How do you shape an axe handle?
Without an axe it can't be done.
How do you take a wife?
Without a go-between you can't get one.
Shape a handle, shape a handle,
the pattern is not far off.
And here's a girl I know,
The wine and food in rows.

From Book of Songs (Shi Change) (Mao no. 158): a folk-song from the Pin area, 5th c. BC.

The model of the axe handle thus begins to look unpleasantly familiar to readers of Levi-Strauss, or Irigaray, or Eve Sedgwick - those theorists who have analyzed the way in which women function as a medium of exchange between men, women coming to be defined as objects exchanged by men, their substitutable- and object-status representing the guarantee of male masculinity, which masculinity in turn is defined as the participation in and maintenance of that exchange.

Within the terms of this social arrangement of gender, it is also therefore not accidental that 'Axe Handles' images continuity in matrilineal terms, the axe handle coming to represent the model for the patrimonial training in masculinity which passes from father to son - the implication being, of course, that the boy learns how to be a man from his father. And patrilinearity is certainly not an alternative model of influence or tradition; instead it represents the very embodiment of tradition traditionally conceived. It is insufficient here to argue that we cannot expect any different from the epigraph considering its historical setting since although the text originates at a time when a wife was more overtly an object to be procured by or for the man, that structural relation between the sexes survives today in the symbolic function of the Law and its institutions - the Name of the Father, the marriage ceremony in which the bride is 'given' to the husband by her father, and suchlike. The structure has indeed been reinforced rather than dissolved by its transformation from a relatively literal structural arrangement into a more symbolic one. Neither is it acceptable to suggest that modeling and continuity is bound to be figured in terms of matrilineal masculinity as a consequence of the poet's family structure in which there are two sons but no daughters. The question has rather to do with the place of the woman in the structure of continuity and with the function of a certain image of woman as that structure's security. Ultimately, this gender question extends to issues such as the figuration of American land as feminine, to the figuration of the natural cycle via the metaphor of the female cycle of fertility, and consequently, to the place of the woman who wishes to write. If the feminine - as land, cycle, Muse or voice - functions as enabling metaphor for the man who writes, then what is the woman's relation to those metaphors, and how is the project of inhabitation gender-biased and heterosexism? These questions require extensive examination which is not possible here. However, I wish to indicate at this point the inextricability of the gender question from the terms and objects of analysis, so that in the space remaining such questions can be brought to the foreground, and in this way the issue of poetic beginning the issue of writing as a man in the American West - together with the implications and stakes of these contextual issues for my argument - can be considered more fully.

The place to begin - the place at which the textual paraphernalia I have been describing directs us to begin - is the poem 'Axe Handles'. Unlike the majority of the poems I have analyzed in detail so far, 'Axe Handles' is more overtly a narrative poem (as opposed to the shorter descriptive, reflective lyrics which characterize what is best - as far as I am concerned - about the earlier work). The poem is also more directly autobiographical, referring as it does to the proper name of Snyder's elder son, and comprising a consistent narrative voice from which other voices are clearly distinguished by the foregrounding of quotation. The narrative moves from a specifically defined locale and event - an afternoon near the end of April, throwing and making an axe with the son - to a generalized statement regarding the continuity of community and culture. This narrative movement of the poem, in which both the son and the father are seen to learn something new, provides a structural analogy between the tropic form and the reflective content of the utterance: in each instance there exists the movement from the particular to the general, and the generalization - the making general - has to do precisely with realizing oneself as a general instance rather than as a specific individual. That is, it is not only the statement which is made general, part of a larger whole, it is also the speaker who is made general, part of a process of which he is but an element. In this way, the text functions analogously at both the connotative and preformatted levels, and both the subject of the enunciation and the subject of the statement become subjectively dissolved or generalized. The process of generalization, of the dissolution of specificity, is achieved by beginning with alliterative details and with identifiable, distinctive voices. Thus, for instance, I think we can detect the indirect discourse of either father or son in the phrase, 'And go gets it' (this is not just a single narrative voice, whose grammar would be 'And goes to get it'). The sense of process, of narrative re-enacted rather than reported, is also produced by the present tense, which then contrasts with the past-tense reporting of memory, quoted in the present tense to indicate its resonance for the present process, yet shown as anterior to the discoveries made in the poem.

The importance of memory for continuity is made apparent early, since the child first 'recalls the hatchet-head', which then prompts the speaker's first recollection -'A broken-off axe handle behind the door / Is long enough for a hatchet' - and subsequently prompts further remembered analogies. What is significant is that the speaker remembers his own models - Pound, Chen - as he himself becomes a model for his son in the act of making a model. And what are remembered are words, words which 'ring' in the ear like axe-blows, and which are seen to be analogous to the axe handle as model by their intermediate status: just as the epigraph claims that one can no more make an axe handle without an axe handle than one can get a wife without a go-between, so the transmission of culture and its laws is seen to be dependent on linguistic mediation.

It is tempting to compare the avowal of 'the phrase / First learned from Ezra Pound' with the avowal 'I cannot remember things I once read' at the center of the earlier poem, and to suggest that it is only once one is sufficiently established to become a model for others that the relation to one's own models can be articulated. Such an argument is tempting to elaborate principally because Snyder's poetics often seem so Pounding. However, I think it is less a case of uncovering a poetic repression than it is of perceiving another way in which the Other speaks through the subject, a perception which the poem's speaker clearly achieves: just as the son 'sees' what his father shows him, so too the speaker 'sees' his own sonship is-a-is Pound, Lou Jib and Shi-hissing Chen (biographically, we might note that the mentor Chen is the 'father' for whom the 'son's' literal second son is named). In this way the speaker recognizes himself as the tool of earlier speakers: once again, rather than recognizing the self in the Other, he recognizes the Other in the self.

To the extent that the model relation is associated with an 'Essay on Literature', it is possible to interpret this poem placed at the head of the book as an implicit statement of poetics; if this interpretive extension is correct, then the poetics is a traditional one of mimesis, in which continuity between representation and its referent is assured because 'The model is indeed near at hand'. Although the mimetic relation appears to involve no loss, it is still the case that it is a cultural relation which must be learned: it must be translated and taught to the next generation so that its transmission is assured. One mode of that transmission is, of course, poetry. Thus although figuring transmission in patrimonial terms makes the relation a linear one, it is the interdependence of cyclical relation which the volume wishes to stress.

The acknowledgement of necessary mediation constitutes a recognition of the voice of the Other - whether that Other be linguistic, paternal, the landscape, the teacher or the woman. In allowing the Other to speak - indeed, by making it the function of poetic discourse to articulate the Other's voice - a relation of interdependence is seen to exist. It is in this sense that the notion of a mediated relation between the sexes (which is proffered as analogy for the model of model-making by the epigraph) - that is, the idea of the impossibility of even bodily immediacy in a sexual relation - in fact constitutes a Lacanian notion, a notion of impossibility which is held as a consequence of recognising the linguistic alterity whose very intervention makes relation possible. The paradox of the Other is that it both enables relation and disables relation, rendering communication always imperfect and effectively disharmonising connection. That is, the necessary routing of desire through the Other of symbolisation - through language, the Symbolic - precipitates an opacity which alienates the subject from any direct relation to its own desire. It is for this reason that Lacan can say that 'man's desire is the desire of the Other' - which does not translate as implying me desiring what you want, but rather signifies the way in which the Other, the function of alterity, commandeers desire, making its fulfillment strictly impossible. Hence the much-vaunted Lacanian pronouncement upon the impossibility of the sexual relation - a pronouncement whose emphasis is not on the impossibility of the sexual but on the impossibility of relation.

There is in Snyder both a recognition and a refusal of such medically. The recognition occurs in the form of identifying and acknowledging structures of interdependence - in which, for instance, one is not just a father but also at the same time a son. The disavowal of medically occurs principally visa-a-visa language, when the notion of medically makes of language a mediate function analogous to the tool (say, an axe handle). As Headgear discusses it in 'The Origin of the Work of Art', the tool occupies a curiously indeterminate - because intermediate - relation between the worker and the object.' The inner jacket-cover of Axe Handles quotes David Latecomer quoting Jakobson in an appropriately displaced assertion about language's medically- 'Language is chief among tools that make tools. Poetry as language is a tool to make tools - a tool, but also a model, like the axe handle.' This is drastically incorrect. Language is not a tool, since language speaks the subject rather than the reverse (we note in passing the diametrically opposed interpretations derived from jakobsonian linguistics by Latecomer and Lacuna). No one can master language in the way that somebody like Snyder can master the craft of tool-making and tool-use. The unconscious as an effect of language an effect, that is, of the disjunction between signifier and signified - means that language is constantly evading our grasp, failing to effect our intent. Unlike the axe or the saw, language is always doing rather more or rather less than we either desire or know.

It is for just this reason that the Other cannot ever be directly spoken for. The Other can speak through the subject - this is Snyder's shamanism poetics - and can indeed speak the subject (in which case it is the subject who tends to be spoken (for), but the recognition of the Other in the self implies the impossibility of self-mastery, let alone any control over the Other.

By Tim Dean. From Gary Snyder and the American Unconscious: Inhabiting the Ground. New York: Macmillan.


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