Following the pattern of earlier collections, Axe Handles is a compilation of journal entries, evocations of the natural world in conjunction with bioethical declarations, lyrics in praise of the human spirit based on the sensual textures of the body, and philosophical insights grounded in the accumulated wisdom drawn from Snyder’s experiences with “the real work” of writing, reading, and raising a family in a caring community intricately involved with the environment in its largest dimensions. The title poem is a summary of Snyder’s core beliefs, using the metaphor of a tool that is both an extension of human power and potential and an instrumental illustration of artistic vision in action. Citing an illustrious poetic predecessor, Snyder proclaims, “the phrase/ First learned from Ezra Pound/ Rings in my ears!: ’When making an axe handle/ the pattern is not far off.’”
Snyder uses a pattern of recurrence to describe the way in which he shapes the handle for his son Kai, enthusiastically proclaiming “And he sees” to demonstrate the process of transmission of acquired knowledge, summarizing “Pound was an Axe,/ Chen was an axe, I am an axe/ And my son a handle,” past, present, and future in a chain preserving the “craft of culture” that the poet holds dear.
The same kind of care for a craft and appreciation of a useful and beautiful instrument is expressed in the poem “Removing the Plate of the Pump/ on the Hydraulic System/ of the Backhoe,” a title that functions as the first stanza, followed by:
Through mud, fouled nuts, black grimeit opens, a gleam of spotless steelmachined-fit perfectswirl of intake and outputrelentless clarityat the heartof work
in which Snyder fuses the lyric form with a philosophical proposition to shape a crisp, sharp image that conveys the essence of his feeling about the things that matter most to him.
These two poems set the direction and spirit of the collection, which includes many date-specific observations from Snyder’s journal that evoke the natural world, such as his expansion of Matsuo Bash’s famous frog haiku (“Old Pond”) or his always sharp-eyed re-creations of the moods of the terrain as he walks through mountain and river landscape, bringing places to life in poems such as “True Night,” “So Old,” or “Geese Gone Beyond.” He sees the natural world as the home that supports and surrounds his family, which leads him toward observations of his family that generate meditative reflections on the place of family and friends in a social community.
Many of these poems are taken from his residence in Japan (“At the Ibaru Family Tomb/ Tagami village, great Loo Choo: Grandfather of my sons”) and establish connections between his very American youth and his extensive involvement in the culture of Asia, and Japan in particular. There are also some political poems (“Talking Late with the Governor/ about the Budget,” dedicated to Jerry Brown, then governor of California). In an exposition of the high-spirited, often exuberant, and primarily optimistic tenor of the collection, Snyder concludes the volume with a fond recasting of the familiar Pledge of Allegiance, “For All,” in which he proposes an oath of responsibility and revitalization, a restated commitment to “Turtle Island,” the ancestral home of his core values, the “ecosystem/ in diversity,” which he treasures and hopes to protect and restore.