Monday, January 30, 2012


A few paragraphs from Gary Snyder

I've been reading poet Gary Snyder's book The Practice of the Wild (published 1990 by Counterpoint in Berkeley, California -- in the page at the above link, scroll down till you come to the book), a collection of wide-ranging essays, thoughtful talk, meditative prose, on all manner of subjects related to wildness, wilderness, environment, the nature of life and culture and animal nature, and whatever else may be related.

Here are some paragraphs from the first piece in the book, "The Etiquette of Freedom," that have held my attention.


Do you really believe you are an animal? We are now taught this in school. It is a wonderful piece of information: I have been enjoying it all my life and I come back to it over and over again, as something to investigate and test. I grew up on a small farm with chickens, and with a second-growth forest right at the back fence, so I had the good fortune of seeing the human and animal in the same realm. But many people who have been hearing this since childhood have not absorbed the implications of it, perhaps feel remote from the nonhuman world, are not sure they are animals. That's understandable: other animals might feel they are something different than "just animals" too. But we must contemplate the shared ground of our common biological being before emphasizing the differences.

Our bodies are wild. The involuntary quick turn of the head at a shout, the vertigo at looking off a precipice, the heart-in-the-throat in a moment of danger, the catch of the breath, the quiet moments relaxing, staring, reflecting -- all universal responses of this mammal body. They can be seen throughout the class. The body does not require the intercession of of some conscious intellect to make it breath, to keep the heart beating. It is to a great extent self-regulating, it is a life of its own. Sensation and perception do not exactly come from outside, and the unremitting thought and image-flow are not exactly inside. The world is our consciousness, and it surrounds us. There are more things in mind, in the imagination, than "you" can keep track of -- thoughts, memories, images, angers, delights, rise unbidden. The depths of mind, the unconscious, are our inner wilderness areas, and that is where a bobcat is right now. I do not mean personal bobcats in personal psyches, but the bobcat that roams from dream to dream. The conscious agenda-planning ego occupies a very tiny territory, a little cubicle somewhere near the gate, keeping track of some of what goes in and out (and sometimes making expansionistic plots), and the rest takes care of itself. The body is, so to speak, in the mind. They are both wild. [...]

[...] It would be a mistake to think that human beings got "smarter" at some point and invented first language and then society. Language and culture emerge from our biological-social natural existence, animals that we were/are. Language is a mind-body system that coevolved with our needs and nerves. Like imagination and the body, language rises unbidden. It is of a complexity that eludes our rational intellectual capacities. All attempts at scientific description of natural languages have fallen short of completeness, as the descriptive linguists readily confess, yes the child learns the mother tongue early and has virtually mastered it by six.

Language is learned in the house and in the fields, not at school. Without ever having been taught formal grammar we utter syntactically correct sentences, one after another, for all the waking hours of the years of our life. Without conscious device we constantly reach into the vast word-hoards in the depths of the wild unconscious. We cannot as individuals or even as a species take credit for this power. It came from someplace else: from the way clouds divide and mingle (and the arms of energy that coil first back and then forward), from the way the many flowerlets of a composite blossom divide and redivide, from the gleaming calligraphy of the ancient riverbeds under present riverbeds of the Yukon River streaming out from the Yukon flats, from the wind in the pine needles, from the chuckles of grouse in the ceanothus bushes.

Language teaching in schools is a matter of corraling off a little of the language-behavior territory and cultivating a few favorite features -- culturally defined elite forms that will help you apply for a job or give you social credibility at a party. One might even learn how to produce the byzantine artifact known as the professional paper. There are many excellent reasons to master these things, but the power, the virtu, remains on the side of the wild.


Counterpoint Press has published much other worthwhile writing, including other work by Gary Snyder. The main page for the press is here.

If by any chance you're not familiar with Gary Snyder's poetry, the webpage about him in the Modern American Poetry website (at U. of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), here, is a good place to start.

Sunday, January 15, 2012


Building the Barricade

This past fall I read Building the Barricade by Anna Swir, book of poems translated from Polish by Piotr Florczyk (Calypso Editions, 2011; the book includes the original Polish poems in addition to the translations). Anna Swir (or Swirszczynska), who lived 1909-1984, took part in the anti-Nazi resistance in Poland during the Second World War; she was in Warsaw during the uprising by the underground in August 1944, and she volunteered as a nurse at an improvised field hospital. Most of the poems in Building the Barricade are from those experiences.

The poems in Building the Barricade (which which all of the quoted passages here are taken) are stark, spare, terse as military dispatches. Swir wrote the poems many years after the experiences from which they were written (the book was first published in Poland in 1974), though the poems still convey the hardened immediacy of the days and hours and moments Swir was writing about. The poems are absolutely free of ornament; they waste no time telling what they have to tell.

From the poem "Conversation through the Door," in which the speaker in the poem shows up at an apartment (during the street fighting throughout the city) to tell parents that their son, a soldier in the Resistance, is dying:

He opens the door,
doesn't unhook the chain.
Behind him his wife

I say, your son asks for his mother
to come.
He says: his mother won't come.
Behind him his wife

I say: the doctor let him
have wine.
He says: please wait.

He hands me a bottle through the door,
locks the door,
locks with the second key.

Behind the door
the wife begins to scream
as if she were in labor.

The 1944 Warsaw Uprising took place as the army of the Soviet Union was approaching Warsaw from the east, and the German army was retreating toward the west. Tens of thousands of residents of Warsaw died either during the fighting or from mass murder atrocities committed by the German Nazi military. At least 200,000 residents of Warsaw were forcibly evacuated by the German army as the army retreated, and were sent to forced labor camps, or to concentration camps to die. At least 80 percent of the buildings in Warsaw were destroyed during the war. The 1944 Warsaw Uprising took place in a city in flames.

Why am I so afraid
running down
this burning street.

There's no one here
except flames roaring skyhigh;
and that bang was not a bomb
only three floors collapsing.

Naked they dance, liberated,
waving their hands
from the window caves.
What a sin to spy
on naked flames,
what a sin to eavesdrop
on breathing fire.

(From the poem "I'm Afraid of Fire".)

Many of the poems seem, on the surface, to be simple reports of randomly observed incidents. In their very simplicity they reveal large stories that have repeated themselves throughout the city gripped in bloody battle, in which life becomes reduced to the barest extremes. In the poem "He Got Lucky," Swir writes about a man carrying some books; in an almost offhand act of harassment, a German soldier grabs the man's books and throws them down in the mud.

The old man picks up the books,
the soldier hits him in the face.
The old man falls,
the soldier kicks him and walks away.

The old man
lies in mud and blood.
Underneath, he feels

Not all of the poems in Building the Barricade are bleak or hardened; in a few of the poems, Swir reaches beyond the evident despair and finds signs of life. Here and there a kind of raw lyricism emerges, a glow of warmth and an intimation of happiness, the possibility of a future. From the poem "First Madrigal," in which she writes of spending a night with a lover:

It was rich
like a coronation ceremony.
It was fleshy
like the stomach of a woman in labor
and spiritual
like a number.

It was only a moment of life,
though it wanted to be a conclusion.
By dying
it wanted to understand the mystery of the world.

That night of love
had ambitions.

I've written about Anna Swir's poetry previously in this blog, here. Every time I read her poems, I'm amazed by the power and and range she's able to find, in poems that seem to be almost impossibly pared down to the bone. Out of a century of fire and ashes, out of a nightmare of piled bodies and incinerated cities, Anna Swir's poems offer answers to impossible questions.

As a girl
I climbed from the attic window
onto the roof
in order to jump.

As a woman
I had lice.
They cracked
when I ironed my sweater.

I waited an hour
before a firing squad.
I went hungry
for six years.

Then, when I gave birth to a child,
they cut me open
without anesthesia.

Then I was killed
by lightning three times,
and I had to be resurrected three times
without anybody's help.

Now I am resting
after three resurrections.

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