Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 552
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...
(The entire section contains 552 words.)
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