The Sunny Top of California: Sierra Nevada Poems and a Story. Norman Schaefer. La Alameda Press, 2010. 120 pages. Paperback. $14.00.
A poem is like a Chinese fortune cookie: surprise and insight, wrapped inside a small mystery.
The joyous hardship of climbing a peak For a clear far view
Climbing poems are so rare—odd, even—that it helps, it’s reassuring, when a poet like Norman Schaefer has chalk under his fingernails and real gobies from firing V4s. You gain some trust when his shoulders are sore from dropping his pack at timberline: this guy speaks our language. The edge of each line may be ragged, but its knot is tight:
Blue lakes with golden trout, Meadows and all their flowers, Granite that won't break When you pull down hard.
A century and a half is all that white guys have been tromping the Sierra. Mountaineers who write down words about it are just a blink to the melting glaciers. The Paiutes before us spoke only in footpath and sweat lodge, and before them there’s nothing but mute, powerful scratchings, storied into soft volcanic rock near the Happy Boulders. Puzzled, we retreat to our own time of words, brief as Schaefers “paper-thin silver crescent” rising barely before dawn.
Within our span here, already Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder climbing Matterhorn Peak together in the fifties—that’s a third of the way back to our white kin’s 49er dawn in the Sierra. Yet I can’t shake their influence (happy not to, really), and I notice that Schaefer can’t either. Thanks to the Beats we sound more like T'ang Dynasty Zen Lunatics dancing over ragged cliffs than we do like Paiutes or even the crag rats in our own lineage like John Muir:
I lift a cup of tea to the alpenglow and clear autumn morning, alone, happy, thirty miles from a road.
That’s “shack simple” in the words of the Beat poet Lew Welch. To catch its mood, where the simplest things become poignant, it helps to be emptied of action-figure busyness and filled instead with a receptive stillness, as you are after climbing, after exhausting yourself on terrain. Poems are quick hits, a distilled essence. You’d think they would get more popular in a distract- ible, sound-bite age. But no, nowadays poets mostly talk to other poets:
Awareness blossoms everywhere This lake knows I’m here. I thought I heard a voice on Diamond Mesa: “Forget yourself and you're free.”
Tune in, I urge you. It will be illuminating. A slim volume in the pack, poetry is Light & Fast. Best of all, take these poems back to from where they came. Read them up high, in the alpine zone. Sure to produce shouts of joy.