Getting Rid of Excess Baggage

Section II of Mountains and Rivers Without End begins with a poem called “Market” and ends with a poem called “The Hump-backed Flute Player.” Thematically it’s not always clear what the point of the section is, but generally the section seems to be about the “baggage” that we carry with us. And, as we all know, 20th century Americans, lucky Canadians and Australians, carry way too much baggage.

“Market” begins with a rather benign description of John Muir packing “pears in the best boxes” and taking them off to market. After, in my opinion, an overly-long listing of market “equivalencies,” i.e., “Seventy-five feet hoed rows equals/ one hour explaining power steering,” the poem concludes with a gruesome description of a market in Varanasi where animals are held for sale in abysmal conditions: “ They eat feces/ in the dark/ on stone floors/ one-legged monkeys, hopping cows/ limping dogs blind cats/ crunching garbage in the market.” The concept of “market” is a complex one and the poem portrays two extremes of the market quite well.

“Journeys” contrasts a rather magical hike in the mountains to the view the narrator discovers when he hits the LOWLANDS:

Underground building chambers clogged with refuse
discarded furniture, slag, old nails,
rotting plaster, faint wisps, antiques newspapers
rattle in the winds that come forever down the hall

Again, we discover how man has polluted what should be “sacred” ground.

A later poem, “Covers the Ground” begins with the John Muir quotation, “When California was wild, it was one sweet bee garden…” Now the land is covered with “mobile homes, pint-sized portable housing, johnny-on-the-spots, “cubic blocks of fresh fruit loading boxes,” and “trucks on the freeways.” In other words, as the last line of the poem suggests, “us and our stuff just covering the ground.”

To me the most interesting poem in the section is the last one, “The Hump-backed Flute Player.” The poem begins with the lines “The hump-backed flute player/ walks all over/ Sits on the boulders of the Great Basin/ his hump…is a pack.” A later line suggests that the pack he carries is really emptiness: “he carried/”emptiness”/ he carried/ “mind only”/vijnaptimatra.”

RANT FOLLOWS: TOO MUCH of this poem seems intent on tying this figure, Kokop’ele, to important cultural figures in Chinese and Buddhist history. Now, I’m not sure how other readers may react to this kind of linkage, but it annoys me. I feel like I’m reading Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” or taking more Joseph Campbell lessons on archetypes. Hell, I’m not going to take a summer-long seminar at Stanford in order to understand the subtleties of this poem. I JUST WANT TO KNOW HOW THE HELL SNYDER THINKS THIS RELATES TO “MARKET.” Wasn’t it the Beat poets that objected to academic poets? I’ll take Snyder’s word that this is a universal archetype. … RANT ENDED

The point of the section seems to be that we need to get rid of the excess baggage that weighs us, and our society, down. We need to free ourselves of our obsession with things if we are going to put ourselves back in touch with nature. I’m not sure, though, that Thoreau didn’t convey the same idea better in Walden’s Pond.