Attention Span 2012 | Andrew Schelling
Kenneth Rexroth | In the Sierra: Mountain Writings | New Directions | 2012
According to editor Stanley Robinson, Kenneth Rexroth spent more time, cumulatively, in the High Sierra than John Muir. Rexroth also wrote extensively of his trips. They show up famously in the poetry, in chapters from his Autobiographical Novel, in his work for the WPA guide to California, in newspaper columns, and in the one book of his never published in book form, Camping in the Western Mountains. All of what’s collected in Mountain Writings is worth reading, and the only material that seems dated has to do with pack animals (now prohibited in most of the Sierra). A curious addition to this book is by a guy named Carter Scholtz, who analyzes Rexroth’s astronomical references in the poetry. Turns out that Rexroth truly knew his stars & constellations, and by the descriptions of night sky, you could pretty well calculate when Rexroth was out there, by year and month and location. It’s worth noting that Rexroth’s high altitude gear was probably not much different from John Muir’s. None of the high-tech modern stuff had been invented yet, and needless to say, mountain recreation then was limited to skilled mountaineers.
Kenneth Rexroth | An Autobiographical Novel | New Directions (paperback reprint) | 1964, 1966
The mountain writings led me back to this book, still one of the epic evocations of American life. Most of it takes place in Chicago—by Rexroth’s descriptions a hotbed of left politics, bohemian lifestyle, and avant-garde art. Particularly the ins & outs of anarchism, syndicalism, Trotskyism, Leninism, and related socialist or utopian lifestyles. As a backdrop you see the artist struggling with paint and language—for most of his youth Rexroth was more committed to painting, and his poetry was really agit-prop material he performed on soapboxes in the Chicago parks. There are Dada-esque artists, sinister revolutionaries, gangsters, dance hall operators, prostitutes, bootleggers, judges, politicians, and the insane. It’s a splendid carnival tale, originally dictated into a machine, then cleaned up—I find it better epic & and more wide-ranging than almost any American novelist. At the close, Rexroth meets & marries Andrée; they travel through the Pacific Northwest, ending up (after seasons of work in the mountains) in the little coastal city of San Francisco, late nineteen-twenties. There are goats on Telegraph Hill, union halls, and Chinese opera houses. They find work—it falls into their laps—and make the decision to “grow up with the city.” This would be the start of the San Francisco Renaissance.
Rebecca Solnit | Savage Dreams: A Journey into the Landscape Wars of the American West | California | 1994
The U.S. gov’t has waged nuclear war on the lands & people of the American Southwest since the mid-1940s. That assault has also been a continuation of war on Indian people, as the Western Shoshone land rights are still unsettled. In fact Shoshone people have been heavily involved in protests that go back to the first so-called tests. This book convinces me that there is nothing test-like about these tests; they are the thing itself. Solnit is an activist successor to Thoreau (civil disobedience), getting under the surface of events, geographies, art, and mythologies, to find what’s lurking. With the rise of ecological consciousness, every American should now recognize that the huge test site in southern Nevada was not and is not “empty land.” The second half of Solnit’s book takes the Indian wars farther back—to the creation of Yosemite National Park. She’s not afraid to bust the willful ignorance & sentimentality of leftists and environmentalists, just as much as the terror machine of weaponry, plutonium, and government lies. She’s imbued herself with the anarchist politics of recent years, and comes off not as some general but as a dedicated foot soldier.
Ezra Pound & Ernest Fenollosa | Japanese Noh Plays | New Directions | 1959
Each year with a group of Naropa students, I hold an evening at a local Zen temple yurt—performing four of these plays (and usually a Noh by Leslie Scalapino). Rebecca Eland and I just put on “Nishikigi” with an international group in the Himalayan foothills—by torchlight as the power had gone out. This is a fantastic little book, and holds one of the important keys to the Cantos, even if Pound later said he didn’t much care for the Noh. Rexroth called “Nishikigi” the best poem written in English in the twentieth century, and Olson wrote similarly of “Hagoromo” in his essay on projective verse. We all know that Zeami—key figure in Noh—was heir to a trove of Pacific Rim lore. “Hagoromo” is the Swan Maiden, and looking into it this year I’m pretty convinced “Nishikigi” descends from “the girl who married a bear” tales, told up and down the North American Pacific coast, and as far inland at least as the Western Plains. I also bet the figure of Ono no Komachi in these “medicine plays” hovers behind Yeats’s Crazy Jane. I just called the Noh “medicine plays”—that deserves a whole essay.
Leslie Scalapino & E. Tracy Grinnell | Elder Series #1 | Belladonna | 2008
I keep looking for further Noh plays by Leslie Scalapino. They pair well with the Pound-Fenollosa material. Thus far I’ve always used “Can’t is Night” with Naropa students, but here is perhaps a better Noh from her. The Belladonna Elder Series is a compact, good idea: pair an elder poet with a younger, each provides writing, then a conversation between the two. Scalapino’s “A Pear, Actions Are Erased” is subtitled a Noh play, carries some stage directions, three distinct actor voices, and a weave of odd language that clamors to be performed live. Grinnell’s “Helen: A Fugue” revisions the tale of Helen in Egypt—conjuring HD’s longpoem of course—and is full of ghosts, tragedy, history, myth, speculation. So the entire little book is profoundly satisfying, calling up shades of the past just as Zeami did with his Noh drama, or HD with her rooting in Greek antiquity.
Ted Pearson et. al. | The Grand Piano X | Mode A | 2010
The last volume in this series of ten (or X). “X” provides a good bibliography put together by Barrett Watten (far from complete, as he admits, but sharply evocative) of books & little mags of the language poetry SF era 70s & 80s. Particularly I want to point out Lyn Hejinian’s piece, a sort-of day to day account of protests at Berkeley and through the UC system over the corporate takeover of a once-magnificent University system. Her ruminations on Disaster Capitalism are instantly applicable to anyone in a college these days, whether student, faculty, staff, or alumni. Give this Grand Piano project a little bit of time, so things don’t seem too derivative—and I would like to see other poetry scenes written up in this cubist multi-voice manner. Ten writers laying memories alongside one another’s. Every reader will have their own take on who got it right, who writes well, or whose memory has embellished even fabricated events, whose essays seem indulgent. Take its form as seriously as you want, or just browse around in the tight little set of ten books and see what grabs you.
Ian Hamilton Finlay | Selections: Edited, and with an Introduction by Alec Finlay | California | 2012
Ever since I first read something of Finlay’s—then saw art in London National Gallery, heard anecdotes, found a few little catalogues, saw poster art in shops—I’ve wanted a collection like this. Famously most of Finlay’s “poemthings” or concrete work showed up in Wild Hawthorne Press editions—scarce, costly to buy now—or in museums, catalogues of his shows, hewn into rock at his Little Sparta gardens, and so forth. This Selections book has a superb introduction by his son (also an innovative poet artist), a bibliography if you want to dig further, and then of course the work. One-word poems, aphorisms, ruminations, inscriptions, monuments, found poems. My only complaint is that every piece has been regularized into one standard font, so you don’t get that riot of typographic, site-specific words. Often the original “poem” seems as much about type, font size, medium, location, as about “words” themselves. But doubtless U. California Press felt they could not put the money into such a presentation. Someone told me California’s poets of the millennium series (editor, Jerome Rothenberg) is being closed down, so I wrote Jerry: “Yup, Andrew. They got rid of that and their other poetry series, edited if I remember correctly by Bob Hass and Brenda Hillman.” (Go reread that essay by Lyn Hejinian in The Grand Piano X.)
Cedar Sigo | Stranger in Town | City Lights | 2011
Maybe City Lights is renewing its commitment to poetry with its new Spotlight series. Like the old Pocket Poet books, they’ve got a slip-it-in-your-hip-pocket feel, with a distinct design that jumps out & announces itself. Do I also detect a commitment—maybe?—to renewing SF as a poetry vortex? Spotlight has books by Norma Cole, Andrew Joron, and now Cedar Sigo. Cedar’s book feels like it couldn’t have been written in any other city. Not just place names, but the open field form, tributes to earlier poets, mix of history, mystery, and camp that evoke the 1950s Maidens. Villon, John Weiners, Joan Crawford, Chester Hymes, Jack Spicer, alert & well, walk these pages. You feel the SF fog crawl under your collar. At least two of the poems—in prose form—are poetics essays if you slant the page a bit—in the spirit of Spicer & Duncan. Cedar, “born in 1978 on the Suquamish Indian Reservation in Washington State” brings in some good wry Native observations (like the photo I saw of him hugging a cigar store Indian), and a dose of street language, totally refreshing. In that way not at all like the hieratic Duncan.
Andrew Schelling‘s recent titles are From the Arapaho Songbook (2011, poetry) and The Oxford Anthology of Bhakti Literature (2011). Bioregion & ecology studies Southern Rocky Mountains, plus books of translation. Recent study is Arapaho, an Algonkian language. A year’s leave from Naropa University Kerouac School to complete current projects, which include “A Possible Bag” (poetry), a volume of essays, and a new book of Sanskrit material.