Desert: Poems by David Hinton
Shambhala , 2018; 144 pp
Reviewed by Edward A. Dougherty


David Hinton is revolutionizing American poetry, first by his immaculate and comprehensive translations from classical Chinese, then by his lucid and contemplative nonfiction, and not least of which is his own poetry. Desert: Poems, the only book of his own poems since Fossil-Sky (2004), enacts the Taoist/Ch’an Buddhist worldview and practices he’s been preaching for decades in all these forms.

The form of the poems is slippery. Is it one sequence? Three untitled sequences? Or is Desert a set of individual poems all set in one landscape? But even this is part of the theme. Just as the self is discrete, a person with a name and a history, each of us is also unified with the unfolding flow of manifest reality that emerges and disappears into unseen energies. The poems do not employ such lofty philosophical language, simple stating that the desert is “the perfect / place to find / yourself without // yourself.”

The landscape’s stark features figure prominently in the poems, in words that feel elemental, like sky, clouds, talus, grass (often parched). Some may find such repetition affected, but the language seems to emerge from and reflect the landscapes themselves. Because deserts seem empty, we say that they are far from anything or in the middle of nowhere, but Hinton is interested in that distance and emptiness. It is part of the practice of confronting who and what we are, at an elemental level. Discovering distance within is part of awakening to a more healthy relationship to our self and the world.

Seeking a clear, definable and separate self is natural to human beings, but it’s also part of what’s keeping us from identifying—not just appreciating from that safe distance but actually identifying—with the flow of the universe. As Hinton says, “Sometimes I / need someone / to be. It’s / another kind of // refuge.”

But by looking into the sky, and image that stands for and enacts the meditative gaze into the mirror-like clarity of awareness itself, we might sense the borders of the self expand to include. He writes, “You can / gaze into all those / deep-sky // depths here. Try / it. Any hint where // I might / end and you / begin?”

This is a wise and profound book. Desert takes ancient ideas and shows just how contemporary they are, and it takes practices from another culture and demonstrates how they operate in an American landscape. It is a book that slows you down, invites t a deeper gaze. It is a book to carry with you to pause many times within routines and be reminded of these depths and connections. It is a book to keep by the bedside or on the altar.