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.