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Poem as Work-Place: Gary Snyder's Ecological Poetics

Nick Selby

For the American poet Gary Snyder the poem is a work-place. The idea of work, I shall argue throughout this paper, is central to Snyder's ecological poetics because it allows him to throw explicit attention on to the act of ‘writing the land'. This is clear from his well- known environmental concerns, and his work with various ecological projects in America since the sixties. Critics have thus tended to see his poetics as an assertion of the interconnectedness of all things that is both Buddhist and ecological. According to Helen Vendler Snyder is better known as an ‘ecological activist' than poet, but I shall argue that his poetics is an ecological poetics: it is the site for acts of reading that are ecological in their attempt to read land and poem as one. I want to suggest, however, that Snyder's ecological poetics discovers dualities -- land versus poem, human versus nature, self versus other -- even as it seeks to overwrite them in what Snyder terms the ‘real work' of integrating self, society and, most crucially, environment. Whilst this marks his challenge to the ideology of mainstream America, it also marks the extent to which his poetry is a product of deeply ingrained patterns of American culture. Snyder's poetic work ethic, this paper argues, is the ground upon which anxieties about the annihilation of personal and cultural identities, anxieties at the heart of American thought, are worked through. This is because the dualities which Snyder's work expose indicate a troubled relationship to the land, they discover faultlines that are deeply ingrained in American culture. Snyder's ecological poetics recognises that these can no longer be sublimated into romantic myths of the land, but must be seen as the traces of divisive self-division at the heart of the American psyche.

The poem ‘I went into the Maverick Bar' from Snyder's Pulitzer Prize-winning collection Turtle Island (1974) bears the traces of such anxieties in its nostalgic recollection of fifties America. To read the poem's opening lines is to enter an apparently hostile environment, a working-class bar in ‘Farmington, New Mexico'. Not only does the poem's first-person narrator tell us that his ‘long hair was tucked under a cap / [and] I'd left the earring in the car' (lines 5-6) as a measure of his sense of alienation from the other people in the bar, but the waitress' question ‘where are you from?' (line 10) is eerily ambiguous, made more threatening by its being set against the syntactically strange ‘Two cowboys did horseplay / by the pool tables' (lines 7-8). Interestingly, such anxiousness results from the fact that the bar is seen as a place of leisure, not work. The cowboys ‘play', as does a country-and-western band, and a couple get up to dance. Against (or within) this setting the narrator remembers working in Oregon in the fifties:

They [the dancing couple] held each other like in High School dances
                                          in the fifties
I recalled when I worked in the woods
                                          and the bars of Madras, Orgeon.
That short-haried joy and roughness --
                                          America -- your stupidity.
I could almost love you again.

(lines 15-21)

The narrator's sense of his relationship to America, though fraught and ambiguous like the syntax of these lines, is one which he seeks to clarify through his relationship to the work he once did in the woods and bars of Oregon. If his alienation seems to frame a challenge to the complacent America portrayed in this bar, it is also seen to be the product of imagery traditionally thought of as ‘deeply' American. Thus, although the poem specifically recalls the fifties -- itself a period fraught by questions of Americanness -- its nostalgia is a complex site that brings together a series of typically American readings of the land as a work-place. It is in this relationship between work, land and identity that the poem is able to play with various American personae. In the space of these few lines, and because of their indeterminacy of reference, we encounter the Beat outsider of the fifties (the apostrophe to America's ‘stupidity' leads to a declaration of allegiance that sounds strikingly similar to the Allen Ginsberg of Howl and Other Poems); a ‘joy and roughness' which recalls Walt Whitman as ‘one of the roughs'; and a romanticising of work in America's Northwest that recalls a mythology of rugged frontiersmen who see the land as a space for the testing of individual and national identities.

The variety and complexity of such personae mean that the poem does not express Snyder's ‘unbecoming egotism' as David A. Carpenter claims, nor does it fully manage to accomplish, as Bert Almon believes, the ‘real work' of turning America back into ‘"Turtle Island," the aboriginal name for the continent'. What we do encounter, though, is a poem that works by turning back (seemingly without irony) to a ‘real' experience of America as that which ultimately validates identity. Thus, in the final lines of the poem, we witness a re-inscription of founding ideological assumptions about America, ones that write of the American land as a place for a mythical regeneration of self:

                    under the tough old stars --
In the shadow of the bluffs
                    I came back to myself
To the real work, to
                    "What is to be done."

{lines 23-27)

Myths of the New World as Eden, or as God's plantation, as a virgin land, or the land of opportunity have all sought (paradoxically, perhaps) a way of writing America into reality. In just such a mythic space we see Snyder's narrator ‘rediscovering' his ‘real self'. The ‘real work' of this poem, then, involves recognizing the patterns of traditional imagery that turn America as workplace into America as poem.

The pattern of identification between poem, land and work is already well established in Snyder's first two published collections, Riprap (1959) and Myths and Texts (1960). His ‘Statement on Poetics' for Donald Allen's influential anthology The New American Poetry (1960) makes this clear:

I've just recently come to realise that the rhythms of my poems follow the rhythm of the physical work I'm doing and life I'm leading at any given time - - which makes the music in my head which creates the line.

However, it is in the very emphasis upon the physical, upon the attempt to ground poetry in the ‘real work' of the world, that Snyder's texts display a deep anxiety about seeing the land as poem. This is not just an anxiety of American poetics, but one which lies at the heart of American thought because it is coupled with anxieties about the effacement of identity within, and by, the land. Such anxieties disclose typically American concerns in the way in which their focus is transferred on to questions of the textual. I disagree, therefore, with Lawrence Buell who contends that an attention to the textual in American culture leads to a dissociation from the land. Whereas Buell argues that the marking of the gap between world and text effectively silences any environmental concerns, my point is that the anxiousness American culture displays in its marking of this gap is indicative of the anxiousness of its environmental imagination. The ‘real work' of Snyder's ecological poetics, then, involves the paradoxical recognition that reading the land and poem as one is to assert their discontinuity, it is to recognise the gap between culture and nature that any representation of the land as a work-place implies. To see American Literature generated from a ‘sequence of spiritual appropriations of, and by, the land', as Marshall Walker claims, is to mark how concern for the American land has always, in American thought from colonial times onwards, been marked by the turning of that land into a scene of writing. The considerable anxieties about selfhood and identity that are evidenced in American texts generally, and in Snyder's poetry particularly, thus disclose and write over anxieties about the land as the cultural determinant of American identity.

This helps to explain why Snyder's poetry is usually read as a fairly untroubled meditation on the visionary relationship between environments of work, mind and land. Typically, his poetry is described as one that ‘integrat[es]', in the words of Patrick Murphy, ‘the routines of physical work with the life of the mind'. What this paper seeks to challenge is the assumed ease with which such integration takes place. I shall argue, by looking at Riprap and Myths and Texts, that Snyder's poetry works to make troubled those notions of lyrical voice, imagist clarity and the poem as environment that are assumed ‘natural' to his visionary poetics. Indeed, it will be seen that the categories of ‘the natural' and ‘the visionary' which have troubled Anglocentric American thought since the Puritans, and were the particular focus of concern for the romanticism of Emerson and Thoreau, remain troublesome to Snyder.

The opening poem of Riprap, ‘Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout', clearly announces the book's major theme: an exploration of the relationship between land(scape) and self that is established through work. The poem derives from Snyder's experience working as a fire-watcher at Sourdough mountain in Washington State during the summer of 1953. Critics have tended to read it as a poem of visionary experience in imitation of the classical Chinese poetry that Snyder was studying at this time. What these readings forget is that it is a work-poem. Work as a lookout depends upon visual experience, on the act of looking. The narrator is thus defined by his relationship to the landscape because of his work of reading it for signs of fire. This relationship is embodied in the poem's structure, with its first half describing the landscape and its second half the ‘I' within that landscape. The work of the poem lies, therefore, in its bringing together of land and self:

Down valley a smoke haze
Three days heat, after five days rain
Pitch glows on the fir-cones
Across rocks and meadows
Swarms of new flies.

I cannot remember things I once read
A few friends, but they are in cities.
Drinking cold snow-water from a tin cup
Looking down for miles
Through high still air

The poem's attention is upon the work of mediation, or as I shall develop later, upon an idea of exchange. Not only is this implicit in the poem's form but in its imagery. And in both cases the insistent demand of reading the poem is that we see it as a work-place.

In formal terms the poem works because of the way in which the apparently unmediated description of the landscape in its first half (‘Down valley ...') mediates and is mediated by the gaze of the narrator (who is ‘Looking down for miles') in the poem's second half. But that gaze, his reading of the landscape, is the lookout's work. And in terms of imagery the smoke haze, heat haze, and swarming flies in the poem's first half alert the attention because they look like signs of fire, like smoke. The work of reading these signs is therefore crucial, and determines the process of reading the poem. This is seen both in the way that ‘smoke haze' is, upon further reading, shown to be the result, not of a forest fire, but of ‘Three days heat, after five days rain', and also in the fact that the final smoke-like image of the stanza turns out to be ‘Swarms of new flies'. Our work of reading the poem is thus analogous to the work it describes.

This is also evident in the line ‘Pitch glows on the fir-cones'. The line is not simply at the physical centre of the stanza. It balances -- mediates between -- the two smoke images because it discovers the poem's central pattern of imagery. The line's image, in which the natural is closely attended to, or read, is also an image that depicts such an act of reading as, inescapably, an act of mediation. The ‘fir-cones' are not seen directly, but through the medium of glowing pitch. This, in turn, alerts the reader to the work of the poem itself whereby the landscape is always mediated through acts of reading. The valley is seen through haze; ‘rocks and meadows' are seen trough swarms of flies; and, importantly, the poem's final image looks down at the environment surrounding Sourdough mountain ‘Through high still air'. Clear as this air may seem, it is still a medium through which the landscape must be read. Even the narrator's apparently clear vision of the landscape is a matter of mediation between the human and the natural. Thus the work of the poem means that we see the landscape through the poem just as the narrator sees the landscape through the ‘high still air'.

The poem suggests, therefore, that an apparently visionary experience of the land is marked, in fact, not by clarity and transparency in the relation between the human and the natural, but rather by a sense of that relationship as one of inescapable mediation. Always, the poem suggests, the land must be worked upon, it must be read. Snyder's poetics of the real, then, both throws attention upon the gap between text and world, and seeks to abolish that gap through the work of reading. Thus, although the act of reading is the poem's controlling trope, its real work, such an act does not signal a coming back to oneself so much as an anxious recognition that selfhood and identity are continually effaced by the land. At the moment of its realisation in the poem, the narrator's ‘I' is obliterated, forgotten, even as it reads itself into the land and the text: ‘I cannot remember things I once read / A few friends, but they are in cities'.

Such moments, in which the speaking subject is obliterated even as it speaks, have commonly been read in American Literature (and in Snyder) as moments of visionary transcendence. This results from the romantic legacy of Emerson, and has meant that the relationship between the human and the natural is seen as visionary, unmediated, a transparent integration of self and universe. Famously this finds expression in the passage -- according to Harold Bloom ‘the most American passage that will ever be written -- from Emerson's essay ‘Nature' (1836) when, for a moment on Boston Common, the self becomes all-seeing:

Standing on the bare ground, -- my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, -- all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me ...

Cary Wolfe points to the paradox at the heart of this passage, noting that here the ‘pinnacle of selfhood ... disappear[s] at the very moment of its attainment'. Indicatively American, such a paradoxical economy of the self may seem, initially, to operate similarly in Snyder's poetry. Accounts that situate Snyder's poetry, for example, in the post-Poundian objectivist ‘school' stress that its lyrical effect is powerful precisely because, paradoxically, it witnesses an Emersonian obliteration of ‘all mean egotism'. It thus seems to enact the ‘getting rid of the lyrical interference of the individual as ego' by which Charles Olson characterises objective verse. However, the visionary moment for Emerson's ‘I/Eye' works through an obliteration of any sense of the land itself as real. This is clearly in stark contrast to Snyder's poetics of the land as work-place.

If Emerson's vision seems ‘most American' it is because the relationship to the ground it describes is one of unmediated exchange between self and other, inner and outer natures. The image of the ‘transparent eyeball' does not describe a working of the land but a transcending of it. Emerson's symptomatically American moment therefore portrays a refusal, or at least an inability, to read the land: Boston Common becomes an unreadable blank page, ‘bare ground'. Thus, whereas Snyder's poetics of work marks a troubled exchange between land and text, Emerson's moment of visionary transcendence signals a spiritual appropriation of the land that turns its gaze away from that very land. What seems quintessentially American about this is the way in which anxieties about America's ideological foundation, the colonial appropriation of the land, are expressed as anxieties about the obliteration of the self. From its very beginnings, the writing of America has sought to transfer issues of the working of the land onto issues of selfhood. An early example of this is John Smith's dictum of 1608, directed to the first Jamestown settlers, ‘he who doesn't work, doesn't eat'. The real process of the colonial working of the land is here disguised, in Smith's work ethic, as a discourse of pragmatic self-preservation. For both Smith and Emerson the land is not real, it is a blank mythic space, a tabula rasa, upon which are written the struggles of American selfhood. The typically American, and romantic, gesture encoded in their work, then, seems to be the turning of the land into a text, moreover an American text.

Emerson makes this explicit in his 1844 essay ‘The Poet'. Once again the exchange between poem and land is visionary, a matter of seeing: ‘America', he writes, ‘is a poem in our eyes; its ample geography dazzles the imagination' (emphases mine). This vision of America, its geography, is dazzling to the imagination because any real sense of the land is subsumed by the desire to see that land as a site of cultural exchange, as the ground upon which the work of literary nationalism can take place. But such a transformation of the natural environment into a cultural and textual one effectively displaces the kind of troubled concern with language's representative power that, as I shall argue, becomes evident in the work of reading Snyder's poetry. For this reason, reading Snyder through Emersonian models of visionary transcendence, models that ultimately fail to read the land, is to unread him, to assume the poem is the land and not a site for a working of the land.

A more useful model for reading Snyder's poetry is Henry David Thoreau's Walden (1854), a text, moreover, that Snyder read during his time as firewatcher at Sourdough mountain in 1953. Both Snyder and Thoreau trace the working of the land in an attempt to critique American ideology, to reground its work ethic. I shall argue, however, that, in the case of Snyder, to see the poem as a work-place is to disclose the extent to which his poetics is as much a product of deeply ingrained American concerns as it is a challenge to them. In fact, it is as a work-place that the poem becomes a site for the production of a specifically American -- though not Emersonian -- reading of ‘the natural'. What Thoreau and Snyder share, in such an act of reading, is a troubled sense of the gap between word and world that stems from deep seated anxieties about the turning of the American land into a text.

For Thoreau such anxieties are expressed in his mistrust of the process of exchange by which American culture of the mid-nineteenth century was increasingly implicated in the demands of the market-place. His hostility to the discourses of capital emerging at this time results from his romantic sense that any true and meaningful relationship to the natural is obliterated by an economy of symbolic representation:

I have ... learned that trade curses everything it handles; and though you trade in messages from heaven, the whole curse of trade attaches to the business.

The ‘curse of trade' is that it mediates the real, replacing it with a system of exchange that clouds our vision of the land we inhabit:

I perceive that we inhabitants of New England live this mean life that we do because our vision does not penetrate the surface of things. We think that that is which appears to be. If a man should walk through this town and see only the reality, where, think you, would the "Mill-Dam" go to?

The central business section of Concord, the Mill-dam, is thus, according to Thoreau, a fiction of exchange that displaces the real by the symbolic. Though Thoreau may attempt to ‘live deliberately' at Walden Pond in order ‘to front only the essential facts of life', this attempt is underscored by an anxiety that arises from the recognition that such ‘facts' are accessible only through the system of symbolic representation that is language. Thus the settling of the land becomes, itself, a trope for the struggle to apprehend reality. ‘Let us settle ourselves,' Thoreau writes

and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion ... till we come to a hard bottom and rocks in place, which we can call reality, and say, This is, and no mistake.

Snyder's attempt to render the (work) environment as a mythical space means that his poetic attention is similarly cast onto the problematics of textual representation. This can be seen in the following passage from ‘Piute Creek', another poem from the Riprap collection. Though this poem offers an apparently unmediated description of the landscape, it is controlled by a sense of the gap between word and world. The poem is thus haunted by loss, by the way in which the actual land is obliterated by the text that seeks to represent it:

All the junk that goes with being human Drops away, hard rock wavers Even the heavy present seems to fail This bubble of a heart. Words and books Like a small creek off a high ledge Gone in the dry air. (Riprap, p. 8)

As the poem continues, it envisages such a dropping away of human junk to be part of the process described by Thoreau of setting ‘rocks in place', of struggling towards a sense of grounded reality. But the clarity of selfhood and the attentiveness of mind that seem to be produced by this process are, however, less the result of an apprehension of reality, than the product of a mystification of the relationship between the human and the natural. The poem presents this relationship as part of a mutual and visionary system of exchange whereby the self and the land read each other

A clear, attentive mind Has no meaning but that Which sees is truly seen. No one loves rock, yet we are here. (Riprap, p. 8)

The difficulty of these lines lies in their dramatising of the problematics of representing the land in/as a poem. Just where ‘here' may be is subject to the slipperiness of a poetic language that struggles to negotiate between the literal and the metaphorical. Here, in this poetic landscape that is also a place of the mind, where even ‘hard rock wavers', the difficulty of settling ourselves and not mistaking reality becomes insurmountable.

Myths and Texts is generated from a similar sense of the precipitousness of linguistic exchange, wherein ‘words and books' become symbolic tokens of an object world of ‘small creek[s]' and ‘high ledge[s]'. Its opening line -- ‘The morning star is not a star' -- is troubled by the same disjunction between appearance and reality that troubled Thoreau's attempt to see beneath the surface of Concord's business centre. As an explicit reference to Walden's closing sentence ‘The sun is but a morning-star', the line introduces a text that, like Thoreau's, mythicises the American land as a workplace. Whilst, in so doing, Myths and Texts describes how the work of logging destroys the land, it also effaces that very land by exchanging it for the symbolic economy of a text. The text has no meaning but that which is generated from its relationship, not to the land, but to other texts. Thus, in ‘Logging', the first section of Myths and Texts, the destruction of the ‘woods around Seattle' by ‘San Francisco 2×4s' (Myths and Texts, p. 4) comes to signify a wider anxiety about American culture itself as destructive because it is framed by two other accounts of how exploitation of the land leads to cultural annihilation.

The first of these texts, a biblical quotation from the book of Exodus 34:13, seems here to depict the destruction of the forest as an act of sacrilege: ‘But ye shall destroy their altars, / break their images, and cut down their groves' (Myths and Texts, p. 3). Snyder's irony, though, is acute. In its original context the words are an injunction forming part of God's covenant with Moses and His chosen people: if the land is to be a promised land then its original inhabitants, their rituals, and their culture must be destroyed. This formative myth of the West, which resonates so strongly with Anglocentric myths of America as the promised land, is followed in the poem by a description of the destructive effects of working the land in the ancient East: ‘The ancient forests of China logged / and the hills slipped into the Yellow Sea' (Myths and Texts, p. 3). The work of logging thus becomes significant, an image for the precariousness of American culture as a whole, because through it the land is mythicised as a text of loss:

San Francisco 2×4s
           were the woods around Seattle:
Someone killed and someone built, a house,
           a forest, wrecked or raised
All America hung on a hook
           & burned by men, in their own praise.

Such an inscription of the land betrays the desire to turn the land into that which it is not, a text. Thus, the preservation of the land as a text, as a critique of an economic system based on the commodification of that land, means that the land itself is obliterated within the text's own symbolic economy. The ecological disaster upon which all America hangs like a hook, and out of which Snyder's poetics is generated, is, paradoxically, one that can be apprehended only through metaphor, the exchange of text for land, word for world. Here, then, Snyder's poetics forces a confrontation with loss as the condition of language itself whereby the sign is substituted, exchanged, for an object already lost.

That Myths and Texts is acutely aware of language's lateness, of what Jacques Derrida has described as the way in which ‘the sign is ... put in place of the thing itself', is apparent in the closing passage of the ‘Logging' section. The gap, Derrida's l'écart, between the world and its representation is here anticipated by an imagery of splitting and rupture in which the bifurcation of the natural and the manufactured is predicated upon loss, a loss of the land that also witnesses the loss of an empire:

Pine sleeps, cedar splits straight
Flowers crack the pavement.
       Pa-ta Shan-jen
(A painter who watched the Ming fall)
       Lived in a tree:
"The brush
May paint the mountains and streams
Though the territory is lost"

    (‘Logging 15,' Myths and Texts, p. 16)

The poem's recognition of this gap leads to the attempt, in its second section ‘Hunting', to reconnect with the earth through the description and poetic enactment of the ritualized observances of the hunter and the shaman. Though this recalls Thoreau's description of hunters as displaying a ‘peculiar sense [of being] a part of Nature themselves', it also envisages the integration of self and other, the human within Nature, through a shamanistic reinhabitation of the land which the poem describes as the ‘Hatching [of] a new myth' (Myths and Texts, p. 19). Again, the land is mythicised as a text of otherness and loss, a site in which the colonial imperative underpinning American culture is played out. This is felt starkly in the following passage with the poem's attempt to name, and thereby consume, the things of the land:

Now I'll also tell what food
we lived on then:

Mescal, yucca fruit, pinyon, acorns,
prickly pear, sumac berry, cactus,
spurge, dropseed, lip fern, corn,
mountain plants, wild potatoes, mesquite,
stems of yucca, tree-yucca flowers, chokecherries,
pitahaya cactus, honey of the ground-bee,
honey, honey of the bumblebee,
mulberries, angle-pod, salt, berries,
berries of the one-seeded juniper,
berries of the alligator-bark juniper,
wild cattle, mule deer, antelopes,
white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, doves, quail,
squirrels, robins, slate-colored juncoes,
song sparrows, wood rats, prairie dogs,
rabbits, peccaries, burros, mules, horses,
buffaloes, mountain sheep, and turtles.

    (‘Hunting 13', Myths and Texts, p. 31)

Not only does this push Snyder's poetics to the limits of its metonymic economy, its representative power, but it also engages an Adamic myth of naming, the sort of myth that has commonly been seen as central to American cultural identity. This textual working of the land, reminiscent of colonial descriptions of the New World, thus struggles to close the gap between myth and text in an attempt to integrate self and land, to see them in a relationship of productive exchange. Rather than providing a poetics of integration, the final poem of the sequence actually marks the fissure between myth and text, word and world. With its two sections entitled, respectively, ‘the text' and ‘the myth', this poem sees the identity of the land as something that can never come back to itself, something that is always subject to disfigurement, even as it is traced in the text. Thus, in the poem's first section, the land as text is a workplace, and the poet (again) a firewatcher: ‘Sourdough mountain called a fire in: / Up Thunder Creek, high on a ridge' (‘Burning 17,' Myths and Texts, p. 53). In the poem's second section the reading of that land appropriates it to myth, and it is thus disfigured, becoming a property of mind, and not of solid reality: ‘Fire up Thunder Creek and the mountain -- troy's burning! / The cloud mutters / The mountains are your mind.' (‘Burning 17,' Myths and Texts, p. 53).

To conclude I want to return, briefly, to the Riprap collection, and, finally, to its title poem. Throughout this paper I have been suggesting that to read Snyder's poetics as one striving for a visionary integration with the land is, necessarily, to mark the divorce between nature and culture, land and text and thus to expose a faultline in American culture. Riprapcannot simply be read (as it often is) as a text of universal interconnectedness. It is a text shot through with a sense of fissure, and breakage, of the act of sundering that is at the heart of the act of working the land, whether that be in the cleavage between land and self from which the structure and imagery of ‘Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout' is generated; or in the figure of the ‘single-jack miner, who can sense / The vein and cleavage / In the very guts of rock' in the poem ‘Milton by Firelight' (Riprap, p. 9); or in the split between word and world that is exposed in our work of reading these poems, and which can be read as a product of a capitalist economy of exchange.

In his ‘Afterword' to the North Point Press edition of Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems Snyder explicitly aligns the work poems of Riprap with Chinese and Japanese poetic models by noting how they strive to read the world without being affected by language's mediation. The poems in Riprap perform, he asserts, ‘... the work of seeing the world withoutany prism of language, and bring that seeing into language'. In its ‘work of seeing the world' the title poem of the collection, I would argue, confirms an anxiety at the heart of American culture, one not so easily dismissed as the book's ‘Afterword' implies, namely, that the land is unknowable except through the prism of language, but to bring the land into language, is to obliterate it.

This poem (‘Riprap') opens with this paradox, with its laying down of words before us becoming a metaphorical path for a sensing of the vein and cleavage between word and rock, idea and thing, America and its land:

Lay down these words
Before your mind like rocks.
                      placed solid, by hands
In choice of place, set
Before the body of the mind
                     in space and time:
Solidity of bark, leaf, or wall
                     riprap of things:

The work of the poem is not, therefore, its overt attempt to integrate the environments of land and poem. Rather, the poem asserts that ‘rocks' are not ‘words', only ‘like' one another, and that romantic transcendence, that which sees the poem as a riprap, a cobbled path leading up a mountain, is only a metaphor, moreover a metaphor of working the land. To see the poem as work-place is to expose the workings of language, and to make fraught our relationship to the object world. The ecological lesson of Snyder's poetics lies, finally, in an attending to the fracture in the very guts of the real:

In the thin loam, each rock a word
                     a creek-washed stone
Granite: ingrained
                     with torment of fire and weight
Crystal and sediment linked hot
                     all change, in thoughts,
As well as things.

It is in recognizing the deeply ingrained patterns of America's acculturation of the land that the real work of ecological reading can begin.

From Sycamore 1:4 (Winter 1997). Copyright © 1997 by Sycamore. Online Source

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