Gary Snyder’s This Present Moment is the first new book by the esteemed poet since 2004. The wide-ranging collection traces his travels – from the Dolomites to Lake Tahoe, from Paris to Delphi – and provides glimpses of some of his personal journeys.
Much will seem familiar here, to the delight of readers. Snyder, now in his mid-80s, knows how to balance new insights with the lifelong values that have shaped his award-winning poetry and made his “Practice of the Wild” one of the premier environmental books of the past 50 years.
Snyder’s writing is still crisp and evocative, focusing, as it always has, on the ephemeral nature of life and on the here and now. When he looks up at the sky, for example, noting that the sound of a jet has passed, he describes how a planet shines through the trees.
Then he adds – in keeping with his Buddhist training – “It’s been years since I thought,/ Why are we here?”
“This Present Moment” maintains Snyder’s steadfast, wise witnessing as he walks a Siberian Outpost meadow, gazes at clear-cut forest, or considers changing farmland in Italy. Snyder’s clearsightedness and meditative voice, even in the face of struggle or destruction, give the work much of its power.
The writing also shows some of his relationships, and his softer side.
In the poem called “A Letter to M.A. Who Lives Far Away,” the speaker tells a young girl:
Not all poetry has
But this time
I’m writing back, the way
you did it
It’s to your credit
You got me to write this form
Since real poetry is born
From a formless place
Which is our Original Face.
Other connections emerge as the poet muses about his Macintosh that “broods under its hood like a perched falcon,” and considers the life of Thomas Jefferson while spading his spring garden. Snyder’s thoughts, like his travels, are expansive and surprising.
Compared with most of the writing here, the book’s final poem, about the death of Snyder’s wife, is graphic and unsettling. Many should heed the apt warning:
You don’t want to read this,
be warned, turn back
from the darkness.
Those who wisely look away should remember the lessons of earlier pages, such as the lovely poem “How to Know Birds,” which illustrates in a subtler, more humane way the lessons the collection has to teach about holding and honoring each moment.
Elizabeth Lund reviews poetry for The Christian Science Monitor and The Washington Post.