Archive for May, 2010

It’s a truism that real people, real lives, especially famous ones, are always other than their public simulacra. We live—even the less ‘famous’ (what defines fame exactly? a question of degree rather than of kind?)—variously memorialised by those who know and remember us, more or less otherwise than who we more authentically ‘are.’ We are all, as Levinas might say, ‘otherwise than Being.’ We are points of light, in flux, we are ephemeral, we are always On the Way, never yet quite arrived.

In the beginning of the year 2001 I was in Varanasi, northern India, to speak at a conference dedicated to the theme of Buddhism and literature. It was late-February, the time of Shivaratri, or Shiva’s birthday, and the ghats were augmented daily by small colonies of dreadlocked naga sadhus come there to make obeisance to the yogi-god. Also many Westerners, fellow-travellers, Shiva enthusiasts, dreadlocked, drum-toting and chillum-toking, who sat at the high end of the steps smoking ganja all through the nights. There were young ambisexual Krishna sadhus floating around, mellifluous and unctuous. There were tourists, Buddhists, white-clad philosopher-sages, old hippies, neo-hippies, everyone really. And poet-scholar-writerly types like me. We were all well stoned on bhang lassi, near-mandatory and freely offered by gracious hotel proprietors during this blessed month in this holiest and oldest (continually-inhabited) city of the world.

The month previous I had been in Bodhgaya, taking Buddhist refuge under Gautama’s bodhi tree with one of my Tibetan teachers. Only a few days after that, on January 26, India’s National Republic Day, the western state of Gujarat was struck with a massive earthquake that killed tens of thousands of people and animals in a single night. (Some two years later I wrote a sprawling Faulknerian novel sprung from this real event.) It was a wild, disconcerting, typically intense time to be in India—people moved from states of euphoria to despair, mixed with an acute sense of compassion along with a necessary detachment, in a matter of hours. I have only ever known India to be like that—a symphonic chiasm of radical confrontations and realisations. It is hard to go blindly there (even when you might actually be blind).  The Great Matters of Life and Death turn in electric panorama-colour before your third, transcorporeal intuitive eye, and it’s impossible not to learn something of critical import to whatever is to follow. If existentialism hadn’t (in its more cerebral form) been invented by Camus et cie. in Paris during WWII, someone would have had to find it in India. (And did—countless aeons ago, the Buddha just one among them.) Its sheer numbers, epochal history, awe-inspiring leaders and appalling human losses, its earthquakes and massacres, truly cosmically-adjusted religions and staggering beauties give eternal witness to Existenz in all its myriad sublimations. It’s life, and humankind, writ as large as it gets.

The day after Shiva’s birthday (the bhang lassi still lingering) I took the half-hour bus-ride to the smaller town of Sarnath outside Varanasi (where in Deer Park around 530 BC the Buddha is said to have given his first teaching to his erstwhile fellow renunciates). I had met the conference organiser at another Buddhist conference near Delhi some months before, who had invited me to Sarnath to speak about the American Buddhist poet Gary Snyder. I’d just written an M.A. thesis on Snyder’s long poem Mountains and Rivers Without End, a poem forty years in the writing and finally published in 1996. Snyder’s work had been with me since early youth, aging paperback copies of the New Directions editions of the 60s quietly mildewing in my hippie stepfather’s capacious bookshelf. Riprap, The Back Country, EarthHouseHold, The Real Work and especially Regarding Wave (still my favourite Snyder) accompanied my years of requisite teenage experimentation with meditation, psilocybin and a general Rimbaudian dérangement of the senses.

But the clarity, concision and finely-cut nuance of Snyder’s language is what drew me. It was only some years later that I read Kerouac’s Dharma Bums (of 1958), the first half-false memorialisation of Snyder and the Beat era that nurtured him. But by then I was more interested in Snyder’s mythopoetics, his biological thinking, his brilliant melding of a critical social-economic and Buddhist-ecological theory with the informed experience of years in the wilderness and Japanese Rinzai zendo. I would soon (literally) throw myself into old-growth forest activism in Australia, galvanised partly by Snyder and his work; during this time it was his essays in The Practice of the Wild, rather than the poetry, that took pride of place in my backpack when I went out wandering in the subtropical mountains of my native northern NSW, Australia.

To my mind Snyder was that rare writer, for our time at any rate: a Renaissance Man for real. He’d been there at the beginning of Zen in America, and had gone to learn the real thing in Japan, for twelve years, before anyone else. Alan Watts spoke of Snyder in his memoir In My Own Way as a kind of living embodiment of the creative dharma life—and for many he has remained that ever since. And all I knew, from about age 16, was that I wanted to live that way too, whatever it might cost. In India there seemed to be something inevitable in speaking publicly about Snyder’s work, in the Buddhist heartland of Sarnath, if only as a modest summation of a decade of deep immersion in its words and possibilities. Snyder was for me one of the great truth-tellers, and there seemed few around, who could also point out the most intelligent, sensible and beautiful directions our collective path could take into the 21st century—where we are now. Snyder’s work was prophetic, astute, deceptively courageous, utterly reasonable, deeply informed and, I thought and still do, universally indispensable. At the conference I didn’t really get to say that, time was short, ‘official proceedings’ (in India!) were langorous.

But the year before, living rough in the subtropical bush of southern Queensland while studying the Tibetan dharma for a year in one of the original Buddhist centers in Australia, I’d sent Snyder himself a brief and modest fraction of the regard I felt: little more than an extended haiku about reading one of his poems in one of those old paperback volumes. And while I was in India, he’d sent reply, inviting me to study with him in his last teaching semester at UC Davis, Spring 2002.

I’d written poetry with the usual adolescent self-absorption, and only patchily since. I’d performed early ones as a teenager but never made much effort to get them published, and had let the poetic mantle go, thinking poetry was probably an endangered species. As a writer prose had taken over, but by the time I set off for California in January 2002, two unpublished novels, at least one volume of poetry, multiple stage-plays, and much else besides gathering attic dust, seemed somehow irrelevant to this new part of the pilgrimage. I would go to Snyder with a beginner’s mind, as a poetic newborn, and see what suspended poetic life if any might still be in store.

The world, too, had its own typically perverse ideas. September 11, after I’d returned from six months in India, inaugurated for many precisely what was most feared about this ‘new’ century: fundamentalism, of too many kinds—whether religious, scientistic, intellectualist, populist. Then the anthrax scares followed, the sudden appearance of ‘the international threat,’ still more terror-attacks in different parts of the world (including India), Guantanamo Bay. When I landed in L.A. and stayed with a friend in her Santa Monica apartment, I almost immediately went down to Venice Beach and wrote an expansive, self-indulgent but acutely-felt Howlesque rant in part-rhyme, a long poem that seemed to come right out of my teenage revolutionary rhetoric, Ginsberg (I liked to think) somewhat cooled-down. Later Snyder, in the poetry class, thought as much himself, but I was already a bit embarrassed by it. What did seem clear though was that India, and the global events of 2001, had opened a new poetic lode for me, and it made sense to be writing poetry even though there seemed hardly anyone in the world still reading it. First love had struck again. I wanted to produce, and for the next three months or so, between classes and taking weekend trips to San Francisco or visiting a Buddhist center in the Santa Cruz mountains, produce I did.

It wasn’t easy being with the real version of the demi-god Snyder I’d constructed to suit my own needs as a callow revolutionary poet. He could be dry, sometimes prickly, often pedantic. He could seem obsessive about animals, plants and rocks; people and their ‘personal histories’ were it seemed dismissable. He sometimes looked like the gruff, misanthropic bears he was apparently channeling in many of his poems. (I met some of the real versions on a long hike that summer in the Yosemite mountains; they were very friendly.) Perhaps we want our heros to be our fathers, or mothers, not least our wise old men, woman warriors, or even saviours. Snyder was indefinably, courteously, drily, unemphatically himself. He liked my work and said so, even though we disagreed about some things—trivial technical details, such as the correct Sanskrit usage for a verse-unit—almost from the first class. It was coolly rigorous being around Snyder, who liked to be as correct as possible, in the technical sense, about almost everything. I was too driven by my own expectations, fuelled no doubt by arrogance, to have the presence of mind to fully appreciate the treasure-trove of lore and sheer perspective (Snyder was 72 that year) offered all of us in the class. Personally, I was at sea; but the dérangement in this case was a fertile one: I felt I was writing the best I knew how, and stayed almost constantly absorbed in the tuning of this new bandwidth I heard opening up in the inner ear: fiddling with the knobs and dials of something that in my fervor went beyond the analog sound-waves of 20th-century radio into the unheard fibre-optics of Buddhist emptiness, glimpses of non-dual insight, pulled into language. It was this challenge, as much metaphysical as linguistic, that Snyder and some of his poetic colleagues (Phillip Whalen and Lew Welch, to some degree Ginsberg also) had initiated from the 1950s in a minor miracle of poetic revolutionising I was not the only reader so captive to.

At the end of it all I read my Howlesque rant for the final class (Snyder said: it’s good but goes on too long), we all had a farewell dinner at a Nepali restaurant and after a few solitary weeks writing poems, I caught a train to New York. I paid the pilgrimage to Ground Zero, which in August 2002 was still a gaping maw in the earth, elemental and profoundly disturbing, giant iron girders sticking out of the wound of it. I wrote countless poems in sweaty Chelsea diners, saying goodbye, I thought, to America. Then I flew to Zurich, and from there travelled to Graz to work for the H.H. Dalai Lama Kalachakra teachings.

From winter in Vienna I returned in November to a sweltering India, where I wanted to see Bodhgaya again (I had the germ of a novel to incubate there), and worked as an English teacher in a village school. In the outpost leprosy hospital where I was staying, removed from any contact with the larger town, I soon fell ill with a mysterious fever that might, or might not, have been dengue fever, and hung in a fortnite of delirium trying to maintain a grasp on what was real and what was required of me. Suchwise passed also my thirtieth birthday, sung to by almost a hundred diseased, mangy or limbless dogs going steadily mad in the hospital grounds, collected as strays from the outlying area by indefatigable Western Buddhists (Asian Buddhists tend to just leave dogs alone). Fearing the same certain fate, eventually I just stood up from my bed and walked to the nearest town under a blazing heat, and caught a train to Delhi. After nearly a year away, I limped—literally—off a plane and back into Australia, ill in mind and body, deprived and demoralised, but full of poems, and a new novel, set in India: by late-2003 it was a finished text, dragged out of my overwrought and probably still diseased system, worn out as much by what I was writing about as anything I’d managed to survive. Prose had again hijacked my will—I literally couldn’t put down the pen, or abandon the grandiose intention of the novel, the entire year. But the poems didn’t stop either. By early 2004 I had the completed novel, and a finished volume of poems—most of them those I’d written in the class with Snyder.

I also wanted more of the world again, terrorism notwithstanding. I took off for San Francisco and the offer of a job in the Santa Cruz Buddhist center, and the same pull towards the Beat heartland, high in my literary throat. I was ambitious, and painfully dependent on it, like a gambler throwing all his chips on his last card. In California again, America felt broken and deluded, full of its own impotent power-lust; I left a copy of my novel with someone at City Lights Bookstore, but I knew it would disappear somewhere. Just when I thought a summit had been reached, it was understood as only a modest point from which to view the rocky landscape of the Eight Worldly Fetters stretched out in front of me: there the desire for fame and gain, praise and pleasure, battled with loss and pain, blame and disrepute, all still to be traversed. That would be the real work (as Snyder might say), traversing that relentless terrain intact would remain the true challenge.

From San Francisco I flew to Munich, the day after the Madrid train-bombings, and from there travelled to Prague. The whole world seemed quietly, irremediably, hopelessly on fire, appalled and shocked by itself, and I felt the burning with it. On April 1 a young Czech erstwhile friend in my hostel dormitory broke open my dorm-locker and stole my laptop, presumably to be sold cheaply on the black market. With it went back-up disks, versions of a new novel, short stories, journals, all the minutiae of the half-year spent with or near Snyder, including some of his handwritten letters: the crises, the breakthroughs, the minor revelations that had kept the work, and life, going. Everything seemed prey to impermanence, and I spent hours in my dorm-room meditating on the fact (as well as spending the next week making obligatory visits to Prague’s Mala Strana police-station to discover precisely what Kafka and Kundera had been talking about). I’d thought much of this material would still be stored in Australia in disks or hard-copy, but when I returned after three years’ absence much had slipped, as it does, through the net. Apart from a handful of pieces, nor had any of it been published. It was the moral pain that hurt the most—the sense of losing something just when you feel you can least afford to. But my loss was petty next to those lives lost in Madrid. And they themselves emblematic of so many others we never heard about.

Years have passed since those months spent in Snyder’s company: time has distilled the memory of a tough graciousness, and it remains—to reconsider a word, spoken or written, or a qualifying thought, not merely of my own writing, but often of many of the events of daily life. Snyder taught an etiquette of the cultured as well as the natural, wild mind that comes through his language with a rigour and aliveness that will last a good distance. With that blessing of language, the dharma for me also remains, where much else is gone. When I meet people, even writers and readers, and happen to mention Snyder, it is still a small shock to realise how few (even Americans of his own generation and since, and despite his pop-cultural status) are aware of what he has achieved. Yet everything is of the nature of impermanence, something which Snyder was often careful to reiterate, when I knew him.

The only loss I really mourned, of the things stolen in Prague that day, is that single volume of thirty or so poems—I’d called it Moving Through Still Earth—that had seemed to do so much internal work, had carried the weight of an incomprehensible world in some balance, however fragile (and, as it turned out, temporary): India, earthquakes, the Buddhist dharma, the epidemic of terrorism, American war-evangelism, the sense of a counterculture passing irrevocably from history—it had all felt in that moment of poetic immersion suspended, much like the wasp’s nest in the timeless summer of my novice meditation on Snyder. I lately came across that first small poem, written and sent to him before the pilgrimage had even begun, well before the others I couldn’t find. It’s a haibun—mixed prose and verse lines—the (originally Japanese) poetic form Snyder has lately embraced. It says something, via his example, of what language can witness of that Mind that lives within the sentient biology it also transcends:


Wasp-Nest Grammar

An old paperback copy of Snyder’s Regarding Wave forgotten in the verandah sun of a feral place, weathered by rainforest multitudes. In the stasis of cicada-song, curlicues of wasp-nest encrusted in its pages. Mosaic of interlocked helix, as if high with wasp-invention (who dared feed spiders LSD?) The nest a wild commentary to the printed words, barnacle-blunt, like parasite fish which travel vicarious with the spouting whale of mammal’s cortical play, echo what the words say, but in a language unknowable to either.

paper  poem cocoon wasp    all vulnerable –

but this gritty wasp-grammar

builds form from sequence      another

Witness      it says

what’s in the difference   between what we say?




Paris, May 2010

(published online June 2010 in GROUP Magazine Issue #5: http://groupmag.blogspot.com/)

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