Poets on the Peaks

Found this review of Poets on the Peaks:

Poets on the peaks: Snyder, Muir, Kerouac, Whalen

The High Sierra of California

Gary Snyder and Tom Killion with excerpts from John Muir 2002; 128 pp. $50 Heyday Books

This is a beautiful and powerful book showcasing the work of Tom Killion, an artist I think ought to be better known (www.TomKillion.com.) It is an adaptation of an earlier limited-edition collection of his woodcuts that he handprinted on Japanese papers at his Quail Press in a garage in Santa Cruz. The fruit of three decades of hiking and sketching in the High Sierra, Killion’s art is supplemented by Sierra diary entries from John Muir and Gary Snyder.

I find myself dipping into it again and again: it takes time to absorb its beauty and intensity It could be called “Three Views of the High Sierra,” as it contains the responses of three radically different men to the mountains that thrust their way up inland California from Sequoia National Park to Yosemite.

My greatest pleasure comes from Killion’s woodcuts. A native of Marin County and a passionate recorder of the natural beauty being plowed under there, he has adapted the Japanese woodcut style to his (and our) native territory.

Some of his Sierra snow scenes–a frozen alpine lake under a full moon, snow-heavy trees at Tuolumne Meadows–have the calm, domesticated delicacy of the Japanese woodcut masters but are empty of humans and habitation. Others depict California’s fierce mountains with a raw power not seen even in Japanese prints of Mt. Fuji. A few remind me of my own Sierra adventures: the peak of an orange tent, for instance, dominates the foreground of mountain peaks and drifting snow. You can almost hear the silence.

Killion’s work is interleaved with quotations from John Muir, the Scots-born shepherd who travelled the Sierra in the 1870s carrying little more than an overcoat and a hunk of bread; he became the mountains’ earliest defender. Muir’s ecstatic prose poems–as bereft of human presence as most of Killion’s art–are balanced by homely, familial entries from Gary Snyder’s hiking diaries over the past five decades–full of Buddhist musings and references to Yosemite fellow trail workers and his wife and son. Here a more human sensibility is at work.

–Katy Butler

“On Climbing the Sierra Matterhorn Again After Thirty-One Years

Range after range of mountains Year after year after year I am still in love.

October 4, 1986.

–GARY SNYDER

“Today the falls were in terrible power. I gazed upon the mighty torrent of snowy, cometized water, whether in or out of the body I can hardly tell–such overwhelming displays of power and beauty almost bring the life out of our feeble tabernacle. I shouted until I was exhuasted and sore with excitement. Down came the infuriate waters chafed among combative buttresses of unflinching granite until they roared like ten thousand furies, screaming, hissing, surging like the maddened onset of all the wild spirits of the mountain sky–a perfect hell of conflicting demons.

But I speak in the manner of men, for there was no took nor syllable of fury among all the songs and gestures of these living waters. No thought of war, no complaining discord, not the faintest breath of confusion. One stupendous unit of light and song, perfect and harmonious as any in heaven.

… If my soul could get away from this so-called prison, be granted all the list of attributes generally bestowed on spirits, my first ramble on spirit wings would not be among the volcanoes of the moon … [but] into the inner substance of flowers, and among the folds and mazes of Yosemite’s falls. How grand to move about in the very tissue of the falling columns, and in the very birthplace of their heavenly harmonies, looking outward as from windows of ever-varying transparency and staining!

Alas, how little of the world is subject to human senses!

–JOHN MUIR, JANUARY 18, 1870

Poets on the Peaks Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, and Jack Kerouac in the North Cascades

John Suiter 2002; 340 pp. $40 Counterpoint

Writers have been seeking inspiration on mountaintops at least since Moses descended from Mount Sinai. More recently, an entirely different manner of scribes spent solitary time as “fire lookouts” in the Pacific Northwest, returning to create what came to be loosely known as Beat literature.

Gary Snyder was both the first up the mountain a half century ago in 1952, and the youngest of the three modern literary icons covered in Poets on the Peaks. Already an outdoorsman and scholar of poetry and Buddhism, Snyder climbed the mountain “loaded for zen” and impressed a crusty Forest Service supervisor as “a calm son of a bitch.” His college pal Philip Whalen, although less hardy, was also game to spend two seasons in isolation in the wilderness. Together they soon convinced Jack Kerouac to do likewise, and his resulting novel The Dharma Bums-inspired by Snyder–was Kerouac’s own favorite. Even though Kerouac found the aptly-named Desolation Lookout to be “a little too much for a city boy,” Suiter asserts that the experience was in many ways a high point of Kerouac’s troubled life.

All three writers went on to gain revered status and varying rewards. Suiter’s book is full of beautiful photos of the rugged mountainous locales both then and now, and draws upon interviews with whoever was there and from unpublished journals. It is a skillful chronicle not only of these important writers’ formative solitary retreats but of the fledgling West Coast literary scene of the time. Poets on the Peaks is a landmark work, compelling in both word and image. The lookouts are now mostly gone, replaced by airplanes and technology; the poetry inspired there remains.

“A bearded interesting Berkeley cat name of Snyder,” wrote Ginsberg in his journal after meeting Gary, “… studying oriental and leaving in a few months on some privately put up funds to go be a Zen monk (a real one). He’s a head, peyotlist, laconist, but warmhearted, nice looking with a little beard, thin blond, rides a bicycle in Berkeley in red corduroy and levis and hungup on indians….”

“Kerouac in the fall of 1968 was dying. He had been for a long time. In 1960, after three years of post-On the Road notoriety, he had written in desperation to Gary in Japan, “I’m fat, dejected, ashamed, bored perstered & shot. Living at home with my mother, open to invasions of all kinds…. I’m slowly going mad.” Kerouac’s old hermitage fantasy, dormant since Desolation and forgotten in the whirl of fame had begun to reassert itself with new urgency–no longer as a place to cultivate his soul however, but as a last ditch shelter to save his hide. “I must get a cabin or die,” he told Gary flat out early that year. “I’m really in bad shape & in danger right down the line & must do it This Spring.” … Clearly it was not enough … When for a month he tried taking refuge at his friend Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s rustic shack in Bixby Canyon on the Big Sur coast–“This coast crying out for tragedy like all beautiful places,” as Jeffers once described it–he didn’t last two weeks before falling apart with soul-sickening paranoia and delirium tremens.

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