Review by James Benedict PhD
ASPENS IN THE WIND
by Clifton Snider
Chiron Review Press
522 E. South Ave
St. John, KS 67576-2212
2009, 72 pp., $12.00
Clifton Snider’s ninth volume of poetry Aspens in the Wind comes after nearly a decade, where he has focused on fiction, writing the autobiographical novel Angels with Bloody Faces, a sequel to Wrestling with Angels (2001). He has also written an historical novel, The Plymouth Papers, featured in the poem “Plimoth Plantation,” a catalogue of family members from the seventeenth century, as well as indirectly in other poems about ancestors and relatives. While the new collection of poetry Aspens in the Wind is not as comprehensive as the previous Alchemy of Opposites (2000), it represents an interesting sequence of poetic reflections on subjects ranging from the native peoples of the Americas, writers, lovers, family (notably the death of his mother in the poem “Scrapbook”), friends, turning sixty, the wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, places in New Mexico, hate crimes, political activism, and pets/animals.
True to Clifton Snider’s historical conscience, the collection opens with two poems on the native peoples of the Americas, the Zoé of Brazil, and the Hopi of the Southwest. In the poem “Pueblo of Hopi” Snider describes a visit to Oraibi, the oldest town on the American continent. Paying homage to the Hopi foundation icons of adobe architecture, kachinas, chili bread, and oral traditions, Snider emphasizes the social conscience in which the collection is grounded. The link to the present is provided by a comparison of the traditional Hopi buns with Princess Leia’s variation on this hairstyle in Star Wars, stressing the hybridity of the postmodern US society. The obligation to support Native American cultures is stressed, when the author in the final stanza describes a purchase of art and bread, thereby making a contribution to the impoverished Hopi household. While poor in material things, the spiritual dimensions of Hopi culture are stressed by measures to protect the numinous realms against spirit thievery with camera lenses. Unrestricted access is appropriately denied the unknown tourist, accentuating the poetic justice of reserving the secret cognitive layers of Hopi culture for the initiates.
Continuing the theme of restricted areas in life, the poem “You Can’t Always Get what You Want” reflects on the realms of the possible and the withheld, and the (unmentioned) following verse in the Jagger/Richards song of the same title: “But if you try … you might get what you need.” Claude Levi-Strauss claimed that the characteristic of human consciousness is that it deceives itself, especially in terms of the difference between want and need. The logical conclusion is that while our hopes and dreams often remain ungratified, we should learn to appreciate what we have. Snider’s poems share this approach and continue the strain from Alchemy of Opposites, where many of the poems focus on the fact that solutions, as well as enlightening experiences, can be found in prosaic everyday life, if only we care to look. The poem ends with such an exercise, celebrating Snider’s decade-long relationship with a younger male lover and muse. The eponymous Rolling Stones hit was also the theme song of the 1985 Lawrence Kasdan movie The Big Chill, chronicling the process of a group of ex-hippies of Snider’s generation who settle into maturity, careers, and real time scenarios far from Woodstock, radical agendas, and psychedelic culture. In many subtle ways Snider’s collection is related to The Big Chill in that it deals with, for example, the legacy of the Vietnam War (the poem ”Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Angel Fire, NM”), queer politics, hate crimes and other issues facilitating falls from innocence into experience in the tradition of American Modernism.
Honoring his roots in the 1968 revolution, Snider’s political and social awareness is alive and well. The poem “A Lexicon of Florida” ends with a focus on the stolen votes in the 2000 election, and there is an activist edge to many of the poems. The final poem “So We Marched” links the watershed 1969 Stonewall March and the 1987 March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights to the 2008 march against the passing of proposition eight against non-heterosexual marriage–a focus area accentuated by the unfair laws for same sex partners in terms of civil rights, inheritance, pension schemes, etc. The two poems frame the collection, stressing Snider’s ever astute political engagement.
Snider’s love for New Mexico, where he did his PhD, is celebrated in the poem “Voices in the Wind”, describing a sojourn in Taos, where he recently completed his new novel The Plymouth Papers. The central poem is a tribute to his lover and it also celebrates the occasionally necessary solitude of the artist, especially when completing a major project. The peace and quiet of Taos far from the madding crowd is illustrated by the view from his studio, where the leaves of three aspens “twitter in the Taos wind.” The image relates to the alchemical project involved in any creative process, where integration of unconscious layers into consciousness takes place. In alchemical lore the time-honored symbol of this process is the tree, often outlined as a diagram from the first difficult nigredo stage to the crowning achievement of the lapis, the philosophical stone. The metaphor establishes a link to the poem “Binsey Poplars” by Gerard Manley Hopkins, where trees perform a similar transformative function: “My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled/ Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun…” Harnessing unconscious energy for poetic inspiration is Hopkins’s and Snider’s imperative, in Snider’s case adding a focus on the indispensible male muse, Snider’s younger lover. Snider’s poem concludes with a focus on the mature gay relationship that was denied Gerard Manley Hopkins.
Snider’s intertextual nod to Gerard Manley Hopkins emphasizes the queer tradition which both poets share. In the sonnet “Gerard Manley Hopkins 1844-1889” Snider emphasizes that in Hopkins’ day and age it was imperative for a man in his position (“poet, priest, professor, mage”) to sublimate a problematic non-mainstream sexuality. The reward was “greater glory” in the form of world-wide posthumous recognition. Even so, the poet’s “black lines on paper whispered more than told” in palimpsests chronicling the split between gratifying your libido and celebrating sublimation as a goal in itself. The post-Freud reader will inevitably decode Hopkins’ impulse as an expression of sexuality repressed for religious and political reasons.
Historical records of genocides of GLBTQ people, as well as present-day hate crimes, are shadow texts to the sonnet on Gerard Manley Hopkins. The theme is further explored in the poem “Dancer from the Dance” about the murder of the young cross dresser Lawrence King (1993-2008). The title is lifted from Yeats’ poem “Among Schoolchildren”: “O body swayed to music, O brightening glance, / How can we know the dancer from the dance?”, stressing that Larry King and his killer were school kids, that the killer was probably unaware of his own unconscious gay feelings, and hence unable to decode the dance. The poem “30 Years” mentions the unsolved murder of Snider’s older gay brother and many other poems in his oeuvre are to greater or lesser extent founded on the themes of GLBTQ discrimination, one of the major issues that has shaped Snider’s poetry and political consciousness.
Other gay authors such as Oscar Wilde (“Desert Sand”), Mishima (“Seppuku”), Auden (“Poem at Sixty”)–the latter also mentions Edward Field and Allen Ginsberg–celebrate the gay canon now taught at CSULB, where Clifton Snider was a faculty member for a number of years. Multiple echoes of Emily Dickenson, Kafka, Coleridge, Yeats, Bukowski, Annie Proulx, Jung, and others proliferate in the poems, providing readers, students, and teachers alike with plenty of learned intertextuality of all persuasions to ponder.
My favorite poem in the collection is “Visiting the Cave of Pech-Merle”. The cave’s function as alchemical crucible, via the metaphor of the oyster producing a pearl from a grain of dirt, creates a rich atmosphere that encourages the reader to share the numinous experience of the art from the Upper Paleolithic period in the caves in the South of France. The stunning prehistoric images from the Gravettian stone age culture 25.000 years ago are of course readily available on the Internet, but Snider’s inspired description will no doubt motivate many readers to include the caves in their next holiday itinerary. The poem emphasizes our links to a distant past as hunter-gatherers who via shaman-painters attempted to control causality with sympathetic magic – painting the desired animal of prey in order to attract and slay it. The creative impulse was then as now an effort to transcend into “the spirit realm… to see what’s on the other side,” and thus associated with the poet’s craft.
The archetype of the poet-magi is present throughout Snider’s oeuvre. In Aspens in the Wind, like in his previous collections, there is a sustained focus on exploring the sacred through its manifestations in a profane quotidian. Alchemy, Christian mysticism, Zen, Zuni/Hopi shamanism, and Jungian paradigms, often paired with a political awareness, are the central vehicles inspiring Snider’s maps of the contemporary psyche. Snider’s poems carry on the shamanic tradition in a postmodern Western context, offering us directions by pointing to central values in our culture: family, relationship, friendship, loving-kindness, nurture, respect for sexual and cultural alterity, and a view to the continuity of the human predicament, particularly via artistic expression. In Clifton Snider’s recent poems, each of these constitute a temenos, a magic circle where we may find respite and alchemical individuation in stressful times.
James Benedict is the author of the poetry collections Distillations I, II, and III series as well as of a book on gym life: Gymnospheres. A sequel book with more stories from the gym is forthcoming. James Benedict has also written two long poems on transgender issues: Trans Verse 108 Hearth and Trans Verse 117 The Baghdad Carpenter. His collected Trans Verse is going to press autumn 2010. His website can be found at www.jamesbenedict.vpweb.dk.