The distinction between the “natural” and “human” worlds is complex. It is often completely accepted that humans exist above the rest of the world. People do not question the hierarchy of being. Gary Snyder’s book, Turtle Island, addresses that distinction as one that is a complete social construct. Through the use of poems and short essays, Snyder effectively sends the message that humans are natural. One poem that clearly exemplifies this message is The Bath. The Bath is simply a description of an inherent, instinctive act that spans species–bathing. Most animals bathe their young, and that is exactly what this family is doing. He and his wife are cleaning their son, taking care of him in the most primal of ways. Although the majority of the poem does consist of the basic description of the scene in the sauna, Snyder is clearly using this imagery to address a larger question.
Throughout his writing, Snyder always comes back to the body. The body is the best way to see that humans are natural. Our discomfort with sex, nakedness, and our general relationships with our bodies come from this idea that we are somehow removed from the natural world. A body is a constant, physical reminder that we are a part of the rest of the earth.
In the poem The Bath, the fifth stanza reads,
Or me within her,
Or him emerging,
this is our body (Snyder 13).
These lines are so simple, and yet they encompass a human being’s physical relationship with the world and with her own body. These three lines–the act of sex, the birth of a child, the acceptance of a physical place in the universe–are incredibly written. The simplicity of Snyder’s writing is an insightful nod to the obviousness of our relationship with our earth and all the rest who live here. He can make a hugely profound statement just with three lines. It is the circle of life shown through the female body. It is two bodies becoming one and creating another. This is one of the most natural actions that exists–reproduction as a connection between us and the rest of the world.
Snyder describes bathing his son, “through and around the globes and curves of his body” (Snyder 12). I have to admit that when I first read this poem, all the vivid description of the body of the child and his mother definitely took me off guard and left me feeling uncomfortable. However, after talking over the poem in class and thinking a lot more about it, it has come to be one of my favorite poems in the book. I think that moving past that discomfort is the point of this writing. The only reason that this blatant description of naked bodies makes us uncomfortable is because of society’s collective decision that we are not animals. This delusion that we are not only so far removed from, but that we are better than the non-human world does not allow us to see ourselves for what we really are–animals with bodies. We stigmatize anything that connects us to nature, especially our own bodies.
The last stanza in this poem reads,
This is our body. Drawn up crosslegged by the flames
drinking icy water
hugging babies, kissing bellies,
Laughing on the Great Earth
Come out from the bath. (Snyder 14).
These last few words of Snyder’s writing tie up the poem with a blatant connection to the earth.
In the first two lines of this stanza he combines a natural element with a human action. He writes of sitting next to a fire and consuming water. By making these active statements about fire and water, Snyder smoothly connects people with the earth itself. Then he moves on to more active statements, this time about human bodies. This transition makes it clear that there is no existential difference between us and the elements–we all exist in this world. He invites us to ‘come out’ and see what he sees.
The repetition of the question, “is this our body?” (Snyder 12) and of the answer “this is our body” (Snyder 13) echo Snyder’s commentary on our connections with our physicality. By repeating these lines throughout the physical description of the naked act of bathing, he addresses the fact that this poem is probably making the reader uncomfortable. He knows that it will, but by asking the question of whether or not this is our body, he draws the reader into the issue. Everyone who will ever read this poem will be able to connect with it on a physical level because we all have bodies. We are all made up of matter and atoms. We all exist in the same world no matter how much we may have convinced ourselves that we do not.
Greg Brown’s “Two Little Feet” reflects much of what I have written about in this blog. In a poetic way it talks about the separation of humans and nature.