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Attention Span 2011 | Andrew Schelling

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Ian Hamilton Finlay | A Model of Order: Selected Letters on Poetry and Making | WAX366 | 2009

A tiny volume, edited by Thomas A. Clark with astounding restraint—the introduction checks in at about 100 words. Creeley, Zukofsky, Gael Turnbull, Ronald Johnson, and eight or so others are Finlay’s correspondents here. Readers get to witness Finlay’s struggles to describe “thingpoems” (his early term for concrete poetry), specifications for one-word poems (it all depends on the title), and ruminations on how to live and how he edited his magazine Poor. Old. Tired. Horse. Of concrete poetry he writes that “by its very limitations [it] offers a tangible image of goodness and sanity; it is very far from the now-fashionable poetry of anguish and self” (1963).

Aleister Johnson | Zephyrus Image: A Bibliography | Poltroon | 2003

This book should be read by every practicing American poet, before the unbridled political interventions & nutty humor of the 1970s drift off into history. Yes, Johnson’s volume is a bibliography—the third in his San Francisco trilogy that includes Auerhahn and White Rabbit Presses—but first you get 170 pages of freewheeling accounts of a vital poetry scene, portraits of poets, printers, political activists, and their friends, all in the San Francisco epoch of the Diggers, Watergate, eco-activism, psychedelic drugs, and of course old-fashioned letter-press printing the likes of which never been seen elsewhere. The heroes are Michael Myers and Holbrook Teter, who operated Zephyrus Image as a guerilla interventionist platform, producing exquisitely made press-objects, often in the form of disarmingly comical comments on the day’s political events. How they got their material out so fast is probably a storybook lesson in energy & optimism. Their collaborators were Ed Dorn, Tom Raworth, Joanne Kyger, Gary Snyder, Diane di Prima, Beverly Dahlen—and the book is written grippingly well, leaking humor and spirit juice everywhere.

James Thomas Stevens | A Bridge Dead in the Water | Salt | 2007

The bridge of the title is the land bridge of the Bering Strait, which anthropologists hypothesize North America’s Indians used to migrate from Asia. Many Indians don’t believe the story-line though, and this book is part of that counter-tradition. Hence a bridge (theory) dead in the water. Stevens is a fine poet, mixing political outrage, Projective tendencies, tneder poems of love, with a wellspring of humor. After demolishing the “bridge” in the book’s first section, he travels to China and those poems are sly but also reverential.

Carolyne Wright, trans. | Majestic Nights: Love Poems of Bengali Women | White Pine | 2008

If you’ve been put off by the modern poetry you see from India, then give this book a try. Carolyne Wright, a fine translator, has traveled Bengal & Bangladesh, and her selection is superb. Bengal has always been noted for its poets, but rarely have the women been visible. Bitingly contemporary, yet the poetry echoes and reechoes with the images and emotional responses of vast traditions and counter-traditions. Excellent notes on the poems, and biographies of the poets.

Robert Bringhurst | The Solid Form of Language: An Essay on Writing & Meaning | Gaspereau | 2004

Bringhurst, who lives in British Columbia, is not well known to Americans—unless you happen to be a printer. In that case his The Elements of Typographic Style sits in your print shop at arm’s reach. A fine essay writer, author of about the best book ever written on oral literature (A Story as Sharp as a Knife), Bringhurst is also a poet and book designer. This little volume is his tribute to writing systems. I’ve read it three times and need to go through it again. Funny how we writers can know so little about writing—not only our own specific system, but about the way writing systems around the world are organized. Arabic, Chinese, Algonquian languages: what are the glyphs or symbols they use, and what relationship do the symbols hold to speech? Tiny in dimension, but full of superb illustrations—Bringhurst designed the book himself of course.

Rabindranath Tagore, trans. Chase Twichell & Tony K. Stewart | The Lover of God | Copper Canyon | 2003

Unlike traditions from China or Greece, India’s fine poetry has rarely attracted good translators. Put this volume, translated by Chase Twichell and the Bengali scholar Tony Stewart, on that small shelf, alongside Ezra Pound’s Kabir, Denise Levertov’s medieval Bengali lyrics, and a few other volumes. If you’ve wondered how a Nobel Prize winner like Tagore can look so execrable in English, this is the place to get an alternative. Until now I thought the only Tagore worth an American paying attention to were the films of Satyajit Ray. While the poems of this volume are grand in the old erotic-devotional tradition—love affair of Krishna and Radha—they turn out to have been composed by Tagore under a pseudonym when he was a teenager—and he foisted them on the Bengali literati of his day. It was a great Modernist literary hoax, worthy of a Dada saint. Or could it have been more than that? Tagore was still working on these stanzas at his death nearly seven decades later. If any book might propel India’s archaic traditions of spirit & eroticism into the new millennium of skepticism & passion, this is it.

Shin Yu Pai | Adamantine | La Alameda | 2010

Another excellent collection of poems by Shin Yu Pai. Her use of line break, and the clarity of her image, are breathtaking. Many poems draw on tales lifted out of the news, others respond to contemporary visual artists, and most have a photographic precision. Maybe less humor than in the earlier La Alameda volume, Equivalences, but the depth and intensity have gathered more fully here. Subtle underpinnings include wry response to media portraits of Asian and Asian American individuals. Shin Yu Pai likes to work in sequences, but many of the poems stand alone, creating distant echoes off one another, and resounding into her other books.

Pekka Hamalainen | The Comanche Empire | Yale | 2008

An eye opening revision of the history of North American’s western plains & mountain regions. It documents the rise of an indigenous empire—on the Southern Great Plains, through the Southwest, and along the Front Range of the Rockies—which turned the Spanish imperial dream of a northern New Spain into a defensive rear-guard action, and which thwarted Anglo-American expansion for a century or more. This is the story of Comanchería, with a deep analysis of how the Comanche, mastering the horse & the use of metal for weapons and tools, became exceptional fighters, politicians, & traders, and eclipsed 18th century European efforts at Empire.


Andrew Schelling, poet & translator, is author or editor of twenty titles, most recently From the Arapaho Songbook (poetry) and The Oxford Anthology of Bhakti Literature. He has published six books of translation from India’s classical or medieval poetry, a volume of essays, Wild Form, Savage Grammar, and has recently taken up study of the Arapaho language. He teaches at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado.

Schelling’s Attention Span for 2010. Back to 2011 directory.

Attention Span 2010 – Andrew Schelling

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Sherwin Bitsui | Flood Song | Copper Canyon | 2010

For anyone who identifies with the land of the American West—all that good Western dust lightly held on our altoplano—this book will sit in your hands as a familiar. Yet buried in all that familiarity coil the edges of violence, abrupt encounters with spirit-world, wild-life, thunder, flash floods. Something close to surrealist imagery occurs here—but not the surrealism of old Europe’s super-charge dream-state. Here it erupts in fragmented visions of deserts, buttes, asphalt baked cities, ravens, long sun-blistered highways. If I read the book rightly, this is the account of an archaic singer’s vision of present day Navajo life. Bitsui’s ear is terrific, and just enough Navajo words occur to send the conscientious reader to a Diné lexicon.

Leslie Scalapino | Day Ocean State of Stars’ Night | Green Integer | 2007

Sometimes I feel alone in my generation, in how much I read Leslie Scalapino’s poetry. Maybe I can’t separate out her writing from the generosity she showed so many of us younger writers and friends over the decades, publishing work in O Books, meticulously responding to letters—hers a dark shy generosity. We will miss her. Of the many titles of Leslie’s on my shelf, I’ll select this as it contains “It’s go in quiet illumined grassland,” one of her most incantatory Buddhist-inflected poems, and the haunting Gulf War Noh play “Can’t is Night.” In fact this fall I will use “Can’t is Night” alongside some Fenellosa-Pound Noh plays with my Naropa kids—we’ll act them out at the local Buddha hall Zen center yurt.

Joanne Kyger | About Now: Collected Poems | NPF | 2007

This is how books used to be made. Bring together a fine poet, pair her with one of the subtlest book designers out there, and construct a book that weighs in your hands like an artifact meant to serve you a whole lifetime. Joanne Kyger’s work: humor, concision, ecological savvy, political alertness, the tempered eye of the naturalist. So many small press titles that run through the years, helping us all ‘live lightly on the earth’; finally collected here, each poem laid with a comparable lightness on the page by JB Bryan.

Paul Moss, edited, translated by Andrew Cowell & Alonzo Moss, Sr. | Hinóno’éínoo3ítoono: Arapaho Historical Traditions | U of Manitoba P | 2005

What good tales, of the recent historical past, occurring in the region given the Arapaho by the Treaty of Fort Laramie (1851): between the Platte and the Arkansas Rivers, from the Continental Divide into Kansas. Not old-time myths, but events that happened in somebody’s memory. Captivity tales, visions, coyote helpers, the Medicine Wheel. Bi-lingual, with a good account of Arapaho grammar, and a careful glossary of notable words. The translators’ use of Arapaho narrative devices to discern line-break and stanza makes this a contribution to Ethnopoetic practice.

Robert Bringhurst | A Story Sharp as a Knife: The Classical Haida Mythtellers and Their World | Nebraska | 1999

Most exciting book I read last year. Even my first and second year college students couldn’t put down the volume, which weighs in at 527 pages. The fullest account of the Boasian project in “salvage ethnography,” with a cast of characters a novelist couldn’t invent. Also a detailed, and not at all abstract look at oral literature. Accounts of how the singers proceed, how they reshape tradition to deal with smallpox, rip-offs, hunger, even anthropologists with pencils. Bringhurst knows his languages, knows natural history, the twists & turns of ethnography. Even the footnotes ring with discovery.

Diane Glancy | The Cold and Hunger Dance | Nebraska | 1998

A haunted book. Most of its pieces sit on the edge between essay, poetry, translation, and memoir. It looks easy but I bet it’s not. There’s a whiff of sage and other herbs, bitter, medicinal, sweet, nauseating—between Sun Dance and Bible, Cherokee heritage, Christian faith. Lots and lots of driving by night thunderstorm across the Great Plains.

Thomas A Clark | of Woods & Water | Moschatel | 2008

Good to remember how poetry’s power also comes from the unspectacular, the subtle, the brief rhythms, the filtered sunlight through soft leaves. Green solace in a technology-mad world. Poems so light it seems the poet’s hand scarcely perturbs language at all.

Jerome Rothenberg | Poetics & Polemics 1980-2005 | Alabama | 2008

The talks here—especially those on Ethnopoetics, poetry & the sacred, and so forth—remind me why so many of us set out on this troubled, wonderful path in the first place.

Dale Pendell | Walking with Nobby: Conversations with Norman O. Brown | Mercury House | 2008

Five conversations with Norman O. Brown. Each in the form of a walk—which Pendell took with Nobby in those last years before Brown’s Alzheimer’s silenced him. For those of us who cut our teeth on Love’s Body’s subtle, visionary politics, its aphoristic wildness, and its dance at the edge of poetics, here is the late book he never got around to writing. I knew Brown, and these reconstructed conversations provide the cadences of his speech, plus his greatest trait: never to settle for easy ways out, no matter how painful clear seeing might be. Pendell wrote these talks up afterwards from memory, they are not the result of tape recording. How did he do it?

Salim Ali | Indian Hill Birds | Oxford | 1949

Tiny volume, maybe the best writing I’ve encountered in a field guide. Salim Ali (1896-1987) was the doyen of ornithology in India. A terrifically literary man, an exemplar of the India that emerged after Independence under the guidance of Nehru: resolutely secular, democratic, confident in both art and science, proud of its culture, far away from North America. Of Salim Ali’s many field guides for birds, his natural history essays, and the autobiographical writings, I choose this title because of its concision, its sumptuous illustrations by G.M. Henry, and the precise use of terminology. Of the common myna he writes: “The nest is a collection of twigs, roots, paper and miscellaneous rubbish placed in holes in trees. Large nesting colonies occupy weep-holes in revetments alongside the hill roads in the Himalaya….”

Ron Silliman | The Alphabet | Alabama | 2008

Rather daunting to have this enormous TOME, but all those separate books on the shelf don’t get you the full poem. It’s the architecture of the sections that intrigues me at present, a lot like the attention to architecture you find through Pound’s CANTOS. And the cumulative emotion that develops within each section, sentence heaped on sentence. Many of the individual volumes have such independent spirit—Paradise, What, ABC, and so on. Now you can see how the various sections fit into the larger whole (itself part of a yet larger whole)…. I hope I finish reading this before UNIVERSE appears.

More Andrew Schelling here. Back to directory.