By Jim Miller
Gary Snyder is a courage teacher. His fine new book of poems, This Present Moment, is a meditation on wonder and impermanence. In it, for instance, we learn to value our laptops “Because whole worlds of writing can be boldly laid out and then highlighted/and vanish in the flash at ‘delete,’/so it teaches of impermanence and pain.”
And it’s true, the miracle of creation that comes out of “a formless face/which is our Original Face,” but as soon as the words are formed the self who made them is no longer there.
Still there is beauty, and moments of grace are there to be found and cherished in “the morning and night coming together,” the “glacier scrapes across the bedrock,” and “the deep dense woods.” You just need to follow “the shining way of the wild” and “hang in, work it out, watch for the moment.”
Snyder takes us on a world tour in this collection from the glories of the High Sierras to the gorgeous landscapes of the Italian countryside, from the Eiffel Tower to his wife’s cremation.
A Buddhist, Snyder knows that to love anything–from a gorgeous sunset to a lifelong partner–is to invite loss and intense suffering: “This is the price of attachment,” he tells us, but it is still “Worth it. Easily worth it.”
My first encounter with Snyder came when I read Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums as a teenager and it inspired me to find the work of the poet mythologized as Japhy Ryder. During that same period, I started going to Grateful Dead shows and reveled in the connections between the Dead’s early history and the Beats. Neal Cassady, fictionalized as Dean Moriarity, the hero of On the Road, was the driver of the “Furthur” bus featured in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test that documents the first Happenings where the Dead was born, etc.
So the Grateful Dead were at the heart of that great American romantic myth that so many of us tapped into and viewed as part of our lives in a meaningful way. The subculture that was rooted in but outlasted the counterculture was a beloved community of sorts that transcended the band itself.
And over the course of dozens of shows and several decades, my friends and I developed a deep appreciation for the music in and of itself as we came to see that, as with jazz, the best solos were all about how Jerry Garcia occupied each distinct moment and struggled to make them his own.
Whether it was his trembling voice on “Morning Dew” or his ascendant guitar on an exceptional “Fire on the Mountain,” we rose and fell, lived and died, with every note.
Then he was gone but the music lived on in various manifestations and the graying road warriors Bob Weir and Phil Lesh brought in other players who told the old stories in new ways.
Yesterday, I saw the last of the two California “Fare Thee Well” shows with a group of old friends, wild men of yore who’ve all come to live in very different ways and places that we might never have imagined. As I listened to the dying bittersweet notes of the last show, with Garcia long gone, my friends and I much older, and my eleven-year old son by my side, I thought of my favorite line in Snyder’s new book.
It comes in a poem where he tells the story of two friends, long estranged, one who he hasn’t seen in years and another he meets in a bar where they sit in the back as a band plays. Snyder remembers: “he told me sweetly ‘listen to that music/The self we hold so dear will soon be gone.'”
Unlike the other Beat heroes, Snyder opted out of the myth, never wanting to play a part in somebody else’s story.
Instead, he stuck to the real work, knowing that it is always all about:
This present moment
That lives on
This column is part of Jim Miller’s “summer chronicles” series based on the Brazilian model. In that literary tradition, a chronicle allows poets and writers to address a wider readership on a vast range of topics and themes. The general tone is one of greater freedom and intimacy than one finds in comparable articles or columns in the European or U.S. Press.