'To throw doubt in the poet’s mind'
A review of Andrew Shelling's 'From The Arapho Songbook'
Some years ago when I was a graduate studying poetry I enrolled in a Sanskrit class. I was fascinated by a language that used mythology and poetry as its primary texts: the sky, landscape, gods greater and lesser abounded. It wasn’t long before I realized that I had to make a decision: would I quit the class or would I spend the rest of my life entranced, perhaps enthralled, to this ancient and extraordinary language?
Sanskrit continues to be one of the principal religious languages of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. The word itself means something like “put together” and/or “elaborated.” Although in its Vedic and classical forms, Sanskrit, like ancient Greek and Latin, is no longer practiced, it is listed as the official language of Uttarakhand in northern India. As a written language it is distinguishable, perhaps, by the line that rides over and from which the curling, tendril-like shapes of the letters are suspended. My Sanskrit professor asserted that that horizontal connecting line represented the speaker’s stream of breath, vocalized as the long sound of “ah.” When I told Andrew Schelling her theory of the vowel sound and breath, he said, “I’ve never heard that before!” Then he thought for a moment and added, “Well, you could say that …”
I did drop the class: years of diligent study seemed too great a burden to carry at the time. Schelling, however, has been a disciple of the language since the 1980s, producing translations not only of the Isha Upanishad but also of a panoply of writers, many of which can be found in Dropping the Bow: Poems of Ancient India (1991), which received the Harold Morton Landon Translation Award from the Academy of American Poets.
Schelling’s most recent book, however, strays far in time and space from the world of ancient Sanskrit. In From the Arapaho Songbook, he reveals his latest linguistic journey by lacing this collection's short and decidedly postmondernist poems with the North American language, Arapaho.
Arapaho belongs to a people native to “the Front Range” of the Rockies, which runs from Wyoming south to Colorado. Schelling has lived in Colorado since 1990, and his interest in the language is part of his
belief that North America produced terrific epic singers, fine poets, great storytellers, and that rather than returning to Europe or Asia or wherever to find the bedrock literature for our continent, we should look to the indigenous languages. (Email to the author.)
This search for “bedrock” aligns with his attraction to Sanskrit, which as one of the earliest Indo-European languages comes as close as possible to being a bedrock of English. Further, and perhaps more importantly, Arapaho, coming from a Native American culture that was deeply connected to its environment, was a path along which Schelling could explore a linguistic understanding of the Colorado landscape. As the language of the first inhabitants it would contain a primal natural poetic: “I also knew from many years with Sanskrit, that the language alone would provide images, themes, metabolic pathways, nutrients, for my own writings.”
From the Arapaho Songbook does not consist of translations. Arapaho, which at this moment is a language that belongs to some 350 speakers, has few texts available to native speakers and translators. The hundred or so that exist are mostly Ghost Dance Songs that were collected in the 1930s, and it’s with some irony that Schelling names this collection to echo a Tin Pan Alley collection of songs. But the paucity of Arapaho has little relevance given the intentions of Schelling’s explorations. When he uses the language it’s as nouns scattered throughout the poems, almost like artifacts:
what animals the tools scraped,
teb-iinis broken horn
wox niiinón bear tepee
but those peaks there, no, never,
‘it is never summer there’ (15)
Part of this objectifying effect is created by the language itself, which like Sanskrit defies pronunciation, even though it is written in our familiar Roman alphabet. Our sense of written Arapaho as “language” never quite jells. What, for example, are we to do with those three successive iiis in niiinón? Even worse:
To have hold of some power
a gift of the animal world
that’s not how to say it (43)
Is that a 3? you might ask.
And so, the internal sound provided by words on the page escapes us — leaving an absence in its stead. This not simply a feature of “foreignness.” Schelling uses other words within the text from Sanskrit and Chinese: soma, raga, Huai Shi, all of which strike most readers of poetry as familiar even though their exact meaning may be unknown. Their combination, however, seems to throw doubt in the poet’s mind:
A mounting unease
can you safely use terms from
so many languages
I Ching says stay modest, act with respect
Where is he? In which country? In which era? The poem continues:
the right foot gave out as I stepped
from the cabin
the carton of books strewn in the mud
have I broken my foot
broken trust with the unseen
sources of life (46)
Here is the doubt that plagues most of us who write across cultures and eras, attempting to translate not simply a language but the subtle mentality that forms and is formed by language and the environment: are we misrepresenting something we don’t understand? And in doing so, are we causing harm to the members of that other culture or to the descendants who are the rightful heirs of that culture of another time or place?
These seem unlikely questions about a collection of poems that is formed with the disjunctions and associative logic of post-modern writing. Within these poems are owls, buffalo berries, references to archeological finds, ragas that evoke the monsoon’s rainfall, a dark eyed junco, poets Huai Shi, Ezra Pound and Alec Finlay, Ruth Benedict and California Indian historian and linguist Jaime de Angulo, Orion’s belt and Ursa Major, a lodgepole pine forest, basketmakers, birds, lizards, deer, and North American mythologies about girls marrying bears, to mention a few among a shifting host of people and things — all of which are elements of the surrounding world and its history that evoke wonder and admiration within Schelling.
At times the disjunction seems extreme. A poem that lists the tools that helped settle the west:
Connolly’s Knife edge T-Bar
Devore’s Wire Lock
Edenborn’s Offset Barb (112)
is followed by a poem opening with praise to Indian poet/artist Dilip Chitre (1938–2009), who translated the devotional poetry of the twelfth-century saint Muktabi:
Dilip, your name means —
question mark, of Delhi
down the page diganta is sky’s end
rim of the horizon
The powder of pearls was thrown in the skies (113)
Nonetheless, I believe it is the question of cultural appropriation that lies behind the delicacy of these poems: a delicacy that is stylistically manifest in the careful precision of the lines, the spare use of Arapaho and other languages radically different from English, and the pared-down English. Complexity of approach further transmutes any facile understanding or use of the Arapaho language: it becomes another momentary — and therefore, dear — form of addressing life in the world of the poet’s imagination. The unspeakability of Arapaho rattles around within our mind and resonates as a physical understanding of intense loss, of extinction.
This sense of loss, which is intrinsic to the written form of the language, murmurs like a quiet but insistent contention with the writer’s understanding of Arapaho as an active and vitally expressive language comprised of chains of verbs strung together to create compounds of nouns, adjectives, verbs. A language:
… that allows them to recognize
and subsist in it
along with its other
animals, plants, spirits,
The fact of Arapaho’s loss, its impending and probable extinction, reinforces the collection’s searching melancholy.
Alongside this mysterious mutability of language, three other primary events and themes run through the collection: the suicide of a friend, which returns frequently as a conundrum between the power of rationality and that of deep emotional despair; the unpredictability of life, which Schelling refers to as “luck” and which is manifest in odd ways — in a fall that causes the poet’s foot to break and as an inexplicable motive behind his friend’s death; and finally, the musicality of life, which finds its release and complement in language and which is particular not only in its subject, like the Malhar ragas sung for the monsoons, but its choice of singer/poet:
The Malhars are played
to draw rain
this watershed moves like a raga
flint spear tips came off its glacier
intricate rhythms Mian ki Malhar
I forget how to sing them
Mian Tansen sang and brought fire
but couldn’t remember the rain notes
only his wife
could sing Malhar (57)
A sympathetic collection, From the Arapaho Songbook asks for and merits multiple readings.