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More Desert Poems

I’m sure David Hinton’s Desert Poems isn’t for everyone, but it has become a personal favorite because it helped to answer some questions I’ve been exploring lately while at the same time raising new questions I’d like to explore further.  Now that I’m no longer working, my goals —if I ever had any — have definitely changed. No matter how much I’d like to think that I am the same person I was at three or four years old,  my way of seeing the outside world has changed radically since then, and has changed even more in the  seventeen years since I  retired.

I long ago rejected the idea that our possessions define who we are and immediately agreed with Emerson’s quote, “Things are in the saddle and ride mankind”  when I read it during my freshman year in college.  Things have always been less important to me than to many of my peers, and I’ve tried, probably unsuccessfully, to live by Emerson’s idea that not wanting something is the same as having it — and doesn’t weigh you down nearly as much.  Things have become even less important in the last few years when I started working to get rid of things so someone else doesn’t have to later.

After stating our culture’s view that we can truly understand others by studying their “things,” Hinton then calls that assumption into doubt.

We make
things. Fire, stone
tools, shelter
and language, burial

rituals, art, mytho
logies, blood-
soaked war and
love and world—wide
infrastructure: we

make things, and they
define what we
are. It seems

straightforward
enough, the anthropological
given. So how
is it I

can this easily
walk out
beyond the last
scrap of abandoned wall
or story, maybe

wander a trickling
riverwash where

crows feather mountain

wind? We
must be
something other than
what we are.

If we aren’t our possessions, then what are we?  Can we find who we are by re-experiencing Nature firsthand?  I’m not sure, but I do know that I feel more at home wandering through the woods photographing nature than I do sitting in my den working at my computer. There is nothing quite like sitting on a high ridge overlooking distant mountains to make me feel like I’m where I belong.  

Old age doesn’t seem to be one of Hinton’s major themes, but this poem suggests how getting older can make you see the world differently than you did in the past.  

Thinking of home
long ago and
far away, I

can’t understand
being so old

so soon. It’s early
winter. If I
look for what
became of

all that possibility
I once

was, I find
snow lowering
day by day
across mountains. Soon
I’ll live

deep in all that
lucid white.

Wondering what happened to your youth is not at all uncommon for those of us in our 70’s.  It’s a cliché, but Hinton seems to save it by suggesting that the snow in the mountains is what has become of “all that possibility”  — and it is not just white hair.  It is a “lucid white” that somehow makes old age seem like a reward, not a punishment. Perhaps it even suggests en-light-en-ment?

1 reply on “More Desert Poems”

“We must be something other than what we are.” Yes. Nietzsche famously said, “become what you are,” but I think that’s only the first step. Rilke’s message, “You must change your life,” is given focus in Hinton’s poem. It’s been pointed out that in Rilke’s poem, the word translated as “change” is “aendern,” which means “alter,” as when you alter an ill-fitting garment. “Wither into the truth” is the way Yeats put it. And Bob Dylan said, some years ago, “Even the President of the United States sometimes must stand naked.” I’m not holding my breath.

What do you think?

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