Gary Snyder first published “True Night” in his collection of poems, Axe Handles, in 1983. Much in the imagistic style of the modernist poet, Ezra Pound, “True Night” presents the reader with a series of sense images rooted in the consciousness of the poet who is startled awake by the scuttle in his kitchen caused by thieving raccoons. Enraged that his sleep has been disturbed and his home has been broken into and pilfered (again), the poet brandishes a stick, shouts at the retreating raccoons, and chases them into the coolness of night outside. The embrace of cold air, the moonlight, and the presence of nature awakens the poet and calms his mood into deeper state of pensiveness. He yields himself to a sense of oneness with all the beings that surround him. He then recalls his sleeping wife and children, who lie in a deeper darkness within the house, the “true night” that calls him to return to the center of his life as a husband and father, and returns to bed to sleep before the everyday practical duties that await him at day’s dawning.
Considered by most critics to be Snyder’s strongest poem in the collection, Axe Handles, “True Night” involves the reader in an experience of the immediacy of consciousness through the poet’s perceptions. However, it is also a poem about the proper setting of priorities in a spiritual seeker’s life. The spiritual life is not continuous enjoyment, a series of “highs” and insights. The real work lies in the balance of everyday life and art that waits for our response with the coming of the dawn.
“True Night” opens with the narrator’s mind sheathed in sleep in a dark bed. From without this embrace of dream, an insistent “clatter” draws the poet’s mind from sleep into wakefulness, like a fish on a hook. As he awakes, the realization seizes him that the clatter must be coming from a raccoon because of the distinct sounds of bowls, plates, and jars crashing and rolling about and the fact that he’s been through this “ritual” before. The narrator rises unsteadily from bed, grabs a stick, and stumbles off to confront the intruder only to realize that there are more raccoons than one. Describing himself from the raccoons’ perspective as a “huge pounding demon,” he chases them around the corner outside and hears their claws scratching bark as they scurry up a tree.
From the bottom of the tree, the poet looks up at two young raccoons gazing down at him while clinging to two broken branches that stand out from either side of the pine tree. Admonishing them like bad children, the narrator “roar[s]” at the two for continually waking him at night and ransacking his kitchen.
The narrator now stands silent beneath the tree, focusing on the cold air against his naked skin. Instantaneously shocked into fuller consciousness, he comes to himself and the environment in which he is now fully immersed, becoming aware of how his bare foot contours itself to the gravel on which he stands, and how the stick he holds is positioned. At this moment of nondiscursive consciousness, time seems to stop. It is as though he were in this moment “forever.”
In this moment of consciousness, the narrator encompasses all he surveys: the long streaks of cloud that flow into “milky thin”...
(The entire section is 742 words.)