Gary Snyder: “Four Poems for Robin”
Gary Snyder was one of the first contemporary poets I read seriously, and he helped shape my conception of what a poet ought to be. He seemed to occupy many worlds: an environmentalist long before “environment” was a household word, Snyder’s politics were not only expressed in his writing but embodied in his life. Yet he was also cosmopolitan, interested in the Far East and sophisticated enough to move among the Beat poets who were his close friends. His work straddled both East and West, reconciling reason with instinct, encompassing both the unsettled and unspoiled “backcountry” and the great literary cities of our civilization. When I read him as a teenager, Snyder seemed poised to capture and express the diverse possibilities of life in the latter half of the 20th century.
These days I am a different reader, and Snyder seems to me a different poet. The poems present a man pulled in conflicting directions, one who never stops wanting to disappear into the wilderness—in Japan, India, the Far East, and the forests of North America—but who is also constantly beckoned by civilization, by the company of people, and in particular by the society of women. Between Snyder the Beat poet and Snyder the nature poet, there stands a third figure: Snyder the love poet. And this brings us to “Four Poems for Robin,” one of his most beautiful love poems.
It is also one of the saddest. “We were the youngest lovers,” he writes. “When we broke up we were still nineteen.” Spoken from the perspective of an older and wiser poet, “Four Poems for Robin” contemplates and commemorates what his younger self and his lover chose to walk away from. It is a poem that uses memory to explore love, but it is also a poem that uses shifts in time and location to explore memory, and to probe the nature of choice and regret.
The entire poem is structured loosely around places and seasons, which tend to suggest emotions that are often not explicitly stated. The first lines of section one describe the poet’s situation, “[s]iwashing it out once in Siuslaw Forest”: he is alone, sleeping outdoors (siwashing) and alone, and is so cold that he can barely sleep at all. Then, in line seven, his memory takes the reader into a different time frame, one that contrasts in nearly every way with the previous. Rather than sleeping alone, outdoors, in a foreign country, in the cold, we now have the image of the poet in his adolescence, “[s]leeping together” with his lover “in a big warm bed.” Throughout the section, the poet is placed in a “present” moment that is not quite present: the word “once” in the subtitle makes it clear that the moment of remembering is itself in the past, so that when the memory itself comes, it does so at a double remove.
The emotional arc of this first section reflects the temporal distancing. Who wouldn’t prefer the “big warm bed” to the cold “sheet of cardboard”? And yet Snyder refrains from evaluating until the end, and what he says there suggests a certain level of equanimity, even neutrality:
I don’t mind living this way
Green hills the long blue beach
But sometimes sleeping in the open
I think back when I had you
The contentment hinted at is almost immediately undermined: “I don’t mind. . . . But . . .” While conceding only that he sometimes thinks about Robin—as if total happiness would have consisted of forgetting her entirely—the first section nonetheless ends on a note of clear, if muted, regret.
The second section introduces a new pairing of present and past. As in the previous fragment, the instance of remembering takes place at night; the section’s subtitle locates it in spring, and it is a spring night, too, that is being remembered. The double framing of memory—the fact that it is a memory that is being remembered—reminds us that this is a poem about memory and regret, the record of a contemplative and attentive mind engaged in the act of exploring itself and its relation to its own remembered past.
Section two gives us a new take on the lovers’ relationship. The speaker now suggests that Robin is the only part of that former life that he remembers: “All that I wanted then / Is forgotten now, but you.” Also ending in a memory, section two leaves the lovers outside. Instead of a “big warm bed,” we see Robin’s body “cool” and “[n]aked under a summer cotton dress.” On a spring night, that summer dress—like the young lovers’ romance—seems to have arrived too soon, and is perhaps inadequate to the situation.
The speaker’s emotions are obscured in the first two sections. They happen deep within the double frames of memory. The third section, by contrast, brings those emotions startlingly to the fore. “Bitter memory,” Snyder rails, “like vomit.” Robin, who appears in a dream, is also depicted for the first time in emotional terms: “[w]ild, cold, and accusing.” Snyder, after waking from this unpleasant dream, also finds himself in the world of strong emotion. He is “shamed and angry” and rues “[t]he pointless wars of the heart.” This section’s drama is a far cry from the calm and restraint of the first two.
The contrast between domestic, inside space and natural, outdoor space forms an important part of the poem’s structure. The third section still finds the speaker outside, though he has moved closer to domesticity, sleeping “[o]n mats on the porch,” he is still unable or unwilling to actually enter the house. And just as the speaker’s location becomes an important thread connecting the sections, so too do certain images. The falling rhododendron blossoms of section one, which reappeared as hanging cherry blossoms in section two, now become the Pleiades, “thick autumn stars” hanging in the sky. The stars’ remoteness reflects the new distance between the poet and Robin. At first they are snuggled in bed, and then walking together in Oregon, but by the third section there is no hint of the pair touching. And Robin herself has gone from warm (in the “big warm bed”) to cool (“your cool body”) to “cold” (“[w]ild, cold, and accusing”).
Each of the first two sections refers back to a concrete memory of the past: the big warm bed, the Oregon orchard. In section three the memory is replaced by a dream: the “[w]ild, cold, and accusing” Robin who appears here is a product of the poet’s imagination, and is thus both more immediate and, in a sense, less real. Section four contains both dream and memory. The first memory recounted is the decisive October in which Robin “chose to be free.” The second is an “[a]fter college” encounter, apparently the last time the two saw each other:
You said, that October,
In the tall dry grass by the orchard
When you chose to be free,
“Again someday, maybe ten years.”
After college I saw you
One time. You were strange.
And I was obsessed with a plan.
This seems starkly impersonal, especially when compared to the earlier memories: did words pass between them at all? They seem to have been passing by each other without, perhaps, any real contact at all. The word “strange” means weird, odd, but also, of course, foreign: a stranger is an estranged person, a foreigner. By remaining where she was, Robin has become alien to Snyder, though he is the one who traveled.
Breakups bring responsibility. The discovery that it is Robin, not Snyder, who “chose to be free” is perhaps a bit surprising—up to this point the onus has been placed mostly on Snyder, who left to travel the world “obsessed with a plan.” Section four makes it clear, though, that it was closer to mutual. Robin could have waited it out, but she did not. And Snyder, when he returned from his travels through the East, could have returned to her—but did not either:
Now ten years and more have
Gone by: I’ve always known
where you were—
I might have gone to you
Hoping to win your love back.
You still are single.
I thought I must make it alone. I
Have done that.
The emotional turmoil of section three comes into sharper focus here. Each, it seems, has chosen to be alone: Snyder by wandering and not returning, Robin by choosing not to wait. It is no wonder that whatever anger each might feel at the other doubles back and presents itself also as shame.
Like its emotional landscape, the poem’s temporal schema is more complex than its apparently straightforward surface might suggest. It is worth looking closer at the crucial word “now.” It appears in each of the first two sections as a signal that we are in the poetic present, and it also appears twice in the fourth section. “Now ten years and more have / Gone by,” and this time “now” really seems to mean now. Sections one and two gave us a “now” that was itself being spoken in a recalled past time, but section four seems to be occurring in the present, as if time had finally caught up with itself.
The second occurrence of “now” in this section makes the sense of now-ness, of the poem’s happening in our present, even stronger:
I feel ancient, as though I had
Lived many lives.
And may never now know
If I am a fool
Or have done what my
This “now” is grammatically odd: “may never now know” initially seems an awkward and congested thought; “never” and “now” strain against each other. It takes a moment to mentally reorder the words into the more straightforward “and now I may never know”—Snyder feels he may have passed up the opportunity to know with confidence whether he made the right choice. But the ghost reading of “never now know” persists, even after we have done the mental reordering. The original order suggests that there will never be a moment, a present, a now, in which Snyder is granted the full apprehension of the rightness (or wrongness) of the decision he has made; not only this present now, but every now that lies ahead, will be deeply riven with uncertainty and emotional ambivalence.
Even more than the longing for Robin, it is the longing for a quasi-mystical moment of certain apprehension that animates this poem and gives it its power. Snyder’s final stanzas, describing the love he and Robin shared, are both sad and charmingly naïve. At 19, everyone thinks of their love as possessing a “grave, awed intensity.” All lovers, at that age, feel that they have “what the others / All crave and seek for.” That is what first love feels like. And because first love ends, it is possible to fool oneself into thinking that it was perfect, that if it had been allowed to continue it would have lasted, as it were, forever.
Troy Jollimore's first book of poetry, Tom Thomson in Purgatory, won the 2006 National Book Critics Circle Award. His other poetry collections include At Lake Scugog (2011) and Syllabus of Errors (2015), both published in the Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets. His poems have appeared in the New Yorker, McSweeney’s, the Believer, and other...