To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Friday, June 25, 2010

Andrew Schelling: From the Arapaho Songbook

Wild animal names
are taboo in our mouths
I am going to look for it
linguists call it taboo replacement
we say racks instead of antlers
I am going to try to kill it
deformation is my form of research
thick fog April moon


A good hunter
never lets anyone touch his tools
his bow his arrows his spear
thus our pens guarded
the notebooks & keyboards with masks
D.D. Kosambi says vagura
trap or snare
can refer to a writer
antler research is one path
her breasts are like birdsongs another


Standing near the origin of things
all creatures rocks trees
the moon the river
speak a common language
here you don’t do things for just
any old reason
you respect things you don’t break off
a branch you don’t crush a leaf
even in dream her breasts
are two songs of one bird


Girls shouldn’t go
kicking around bear shit
jump over it taunt it
that’s crazy behavior way past
the limits hohookee-
a kind of crazy knowledge
lies out there
to find the actual shape of
our lives the far high mountains
origins of poetry


No you don’t just go out & talk
trash to a grizzly
the name ‘bear’ is already a ritual
distortion, the brown one
with a heart like a clear spring
should you go to the edge of the berry patch
should you step over the rim
the perilous weave of double this
double that: (is a poem
for girls who play hand games


September in Shadow Canyon
bear droppings plum pits
choke cherries the trail winds through
pines to Bear Peak young women
ample breasted making the climb
double double this
double double that

squawberry crabapple-seeds plum-pits
something tasting like lemon-grass
double this double that
double double this that


What if you are a writer,
do you jump over the dictionary
insult etymologies
go looking for trouble or
make fun of meanings
here’s a world where knowledge brings trouble
words have a life of their own
each a tiny imagist poem
I blow across etymologies
like girls who jump over bearshit


They convey swift thought
across great distance
they do it with po-o-kan-te
how many friends rise or lumber bear-like
one old friend offers beadwork
he suggests the Western Diamondback
pattern as the rattlesnake shows
great care with boundaries
no, Dale, give me the Poison Path—
film of blindness no boundary

Out there curves a steep
geographic terrain
it links to the spirit world
you can sharpen your
teeth on coffee that’s brewed there
even to whistle there’s
a gesture that intensifies the neseihi
the wildness where the tiny dry
fruit of the squawbush
puckers into a mask


Tells it to him makes
fun of him
I have pretty teeth & large breasts
took half of her tied to him he uncovered him
fractured his head gave him
“In short the undetermined, and to this writer’s mind, fundamental
problem of Arapaho, Fox, and Algonkin in general is whether these
languages say ‘he-enters-looks,’ ‘he-enters-lookingly,’ or ‘enteringly-he-looks’”
night darkness beadwork, grease cover hide


Like wood, stone, ivory, or bone
it is a substance
full, old, rounded
soft as amber, enduring,
the next two songs are so
old we’ve forgotten
the words
inside them the black wing of a crow
no one can see
it but us


Word comes of Dilip
Chitre’s death
who spent his life chiseling objects
from the poets of long-ago
the ones who sang by the riverbank
Muktabai so wild she ate
diamonds & said no, no
we Vakaris we do not hide out from life
at eighteen a flash of purple lightning
she vanished, dear Dilip


These songs without talent
beneath their poisonous fonetiks
may they carry prayer
& good medicine
woxu’ and howoo’oot
our voices
our subtle human rhythms
can we be generous, cook for each other?
were we as the Haida say brought
from the soil for this purpose?
can we speak to animals
it’s true we throw fabulous parties

Dilip your name means—
possibly, protector
question mark, of Delhi
down the page diganta is sky’s end
rim of the horizon
how the eye sees the
comrade go smokes after death
cedar puffs white sage blue beads
perhaps remote once far distant
horizon’s end more will we meet


The poems “from the Arapaho Songbook” began to take shape from studies in Arapaho, an Algonkian tongue (also spelt Algonquian). I saw excursions into the language as a way of going deeper into long-term bioregional studies—I live along the Rocky Mountain Front Range of Colorado—& the concern to get closer to plant, animal, rock, weather, or hydrological cycles, by way of the Native words that held them. Language being where mind & environment meet; and Arapaho a familiar to these ecosystems long before Spanish, French, or English got in.

It turns out that Andrew Cowell, a linguist at University of Colorado, and Alfonso Moss, Senior, a native speaker from the Wind River Reservation, had just issued a technical, very serviceable Arapaho grammar. Cowell I have gotten to know, and with him have walked the high country to the Continental Divide talking linguistics & plant lore. This, plus the re-workings he & Moss have done of songs originally collected by James Moody (1888) and Frances Densmore (1936) got me into the poetry.

hohoot niiboot

The cottonwood song
I am singing it

Arapaho Ghost Dance, song #13

Arapahoe is, moreover, the major east-west running avenue I both live & work along, named for the two peaks (once called ‘Pawnee fort’) that appear to pitch skywards from its west end. The peaks are spelt Arapaho, without the e. Much of our water comes from the glacier—also Arapaho—lying in a cirque formed by the ridgeline. So the songbook has these referents. It draws vocabulary from Spanish, Sanskrit, Chinese, & Ute. Arapaho remains central though, even though the complicated grammar rebuffs me.

Edward Sapir: “Single Algonkian words are like tiny Imagist poems.”


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