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‘Please enjoy a cup of tea.’:

Tyler Doherty reviews

Tea Shack Interior: New & Selected Poems, by Andrew Schelling

(Talisman, 2002)
This piece is 1200 words or about three printed pages long

It’s fitting Andrew Schelling’s most recent book, Tea Shack Interior: New & Selected Poems, is dedicated to ‘Althea Rose Schelling/her friends & generation/ ‘Please enjoy a cup of tea.’ Hard to think of a poet working these days whose passions and concerns embrace both the local exigencies of home, heart and hearth and the long view of geologic and mythic time with such compassion and care.
      Tea Shack Interior collects work from six of Schelling’s previous books with almost fifty pages of new poems and prose. Included here are selections from two of his award-winning translations of ancient Indian poetry: Dropping the Bow: Poems from Ancient India and The Cane Groves of Narmada River: Erotic Poems From Old India. By turns mournful and wryly bawdy, these translations document and preserve a little known poetic tradition dating back to the 2nd century c.e. that’s slipped under the radar of most modern Western scholars.
      The rest of the collection demonstrates, or better, embodies, a writing life where the casual happenings of the everyday — bits of a dream, rare bird sightings, sudden shifts in the weather — find their equal place alongside the political upheaval and environmental degradation that characterize the current ‘global dichotomy.’ Like the journal form so much of the work emerges from (Thoreau, Kyger, Snyder, Niedecker and the improvisational doodle/sketches of Whalen’s notebooks are all in here), these poems track the various phenomena of daily living and loving while simultaneously engaging in the act of resistance and critique. Digging up a forgotten local history, dusting off craggy chunks of bottom-of-the-barrel lore and tracking down faded dirt track origins for quirky place names, Schelling’s poetics offers the kind of depth and bedrock sanity you need to safely make your way around these days. Perhaps that’s what most enthuses me about these works — their spirited engagement with the worlds of the everyday, ecology, local history and politics, translation, and Sanskrit-savvy scholarly quips from the Heart Sutra — a world so diverse it begins to resemble life itself, and more, something like what it means to be a citizen (a word Schelling prefers to ‘writer’ or worse, ‘poet’) in these topsy-turvy times.
      For the initiated reader, Tea Shack Interior offers for the first time in one place a substantial selection of Schelling’s haibun — a form he’s been exploring for the last few years. A traditional Japanese poetic form combining telegraphic prose narrative with haiku pioneered by Basho in his classic Narrow Road to the Interior with precedents in Sei Shonagon’s pocket-lint lists and records of daily minutiae, haibun here takes a decidedly new/old wild west American turn, incorporating everything from the controversial (to some) reintroduction of the wolf into Yellowstone National Park and Dr. Edwin James botanizing atop Pike’s Peak in 1820, to watching the Yankees at the Rocky Flats Lounge across the road from the nation’s largest stockpile of 50’s plutonium now making its way to the salt caverns of New Mexico on an interstate near you:

I stopt in to watch the Yankees at Rocky Flats, a wind-scraped roadhouse on State Ninety-three. At the bar a few couples sat talking quiet, or gazed at the ballgame. Cold out? ask’d the bartender. I ordered beer and a whiskey. A t-shirt back of the bottles said

I Got Nuclear Wasted
At Rocky Flats

It’s a form perfectly suited to the supremely odd and culturally destructive juxtapositions of life in twenty-first century America like this one from ‘The Roadhouse at Colma’:

            The Conoco station
sells ice cream —
             an acre of retreads covers the Indian village.

And lest the post-everything hipster thinks the poems lack the kind of jazzy music and verbal density we’ve come to admire in poets like Clark Coolidge, let her/him tangle with the crabbed and torqued sentences of ‘Tundra Poetics’ written on one of Schelling’s annual hikes up to the Continental Divide with his students during Naropa’s Summer Writing Programme in ’99:

After lunch they went into rock, entrance haphazards of rock. Six stripping down slipped into Dorothy Lake. Nerve ends alert. Oz sandwich vistas to Wichita, to breach the as if. The lake mostly iced under cliffs of cathedral. At one open edge it had flow rots and breakings, stuttered sheets, and small whitened dinosaur ends.

As with Christopher Dewdney’s work, it’s writing that shows Schelling to be one of those few ‘nature writers’ willing to go where the words take him. A true ecology of mind, foot and letter always on the move.
      In a slightly different vein, the poems also propose an invisibly humble layperson’s version of an engaged Zen Buddhist life. Like Vimalakirti, the lay Buddha hero of ‘Haibun (Ursus americanus)’ or the lives of the legendary Pang family, this is work very much with both feet firmly planted in the world:

Or can we picture a future monasticism — half the year given to mountain retreat, raven and rattlesnake comrades, twisting along pine forest cliffsides — half the year inside cities, like Catholic Workers on 34th St. lading soup?

Schelling’s engaged Buddhist spirituality is a vision that breaks down distinctions between monastic and lay practitioners where the locus of transformation — both personal and social — is set squarely, almost stubbornly, in the midst of everyday life. There are no religious pronouncements down from on high here — ‘No divine edicts,  no one to issue them.’; these poems have heard all that claptrap and seen past its dead ends. If there’s any ‘Zen’ at all it’s not in the form of made-to-order tenets — more like a fact of writing, a part of the life. No biggee, like growing your hair or itching a scratch. It’s a pithy vision that lays the groundwork for a thoroughly secularized interreligious cooperation, working for a sane world while appreciative of, and fostering, differences. Indeed, that curious appreciation of the off-key and out-of-the-way is a hallmark of Schelling’s work — something between a crackpot Sanskrit scholar’s glee at the discovery of an arcane turn of phrase and a kid’s wide-eyed amazement at a Golden Eagle seen for the first time.
      In a time when a New Age ‘vague pastiche mysticism’ (Schelling’s phrase) seems the order of the day, and the old wisdom saying ‘Chop wood, carry water’ is co-opted as a brand name for tea on sale at Barnes & Noble (where you will probably not find this book), these grounded, careful, scholarly poems bristle with intelligence and humour, displaying the kind of natural world literacy that just might see us through the next century:

          Bateson revealed the antidote
to human pride —
             natural history.

Like the Japanese tea ceremony from which the collection takes its title, this is a poetics of the plain and ordinary, but with a singular difference — it’s attended to, as if everything depended on it — which it does.

A transplanted Canadian, Tyler Doherty is a graduate of McGill University and Naropa University’s Writing and Poetics M.F.A programme where he was poetry editor of Bombay Gin 27 and wrote the critical portion of his thesis on the work of Clark Coolidge. He is currently pursuing high-school teacher certification and helps administer writing centres in two urban Philadelphia public schools.

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