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Clayton Eshleman


Facing Darger 34 floors below
can I reach his station?
Planet Darger, below the subconscious,
in Tartarus, where giants are bound to
little girls? With what are the Titans bound?
Little girl rope, innocence cable,
the anguish of one’s mother as a little girl enslaved.
Darger washed hospital pans, cleaned up mess.
Was he tied up at the Lincoln Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children
when he was 12? What happened to Darger?
Why was Darger Darger? He escaped across a river, 1909.
“The Farm,” I read, was a concentration camp —
masturbators and kickers tied up, trussed on the floor in their own feces.
His mother dead from puerperal septicima when he was 4
died giving birth to Henry’s sister immediately adopted.
Raised by his father, a crippled tailor, until 8.
What Darger made of his empty basin is remarkable,
test of human being unwilling to die,
unwilling to eat all the abuse, a nothing man
who scratched out of trash a something.
Civil War = International War = God vs. Man.
The slavery man is to himself, pitiful man infantile to God.
Man arrested at what? A back wall of loss.
The societal closes over. Why speak to those whose hearts
wear witch hats? Grim 1912 Chicago. Moonflake streets.
Darger is the mathematical exodus of a score card,
a paste-up man. Collections of newspaper cartoons
pasted in bulging volumes, bits of string tied into balls.
Keep the heart away from the cleaver,
keep the cleaver bared to Bad Men, big-hatted guys
he had torture naked girls. In Darger’s dream
the soldiers never touch the girls,
they strangle them, disembowel them,
but do not touch them. The girls do not touch themselves,
they are Christian, they have — some of them — cartoon penises wearing
         ball muffs,
they are immortal, most cannot speak.

“It’s the prank of the whole earth
against whoever has balls in his cunt,” wrote Artaud,
who likewise ejaculated “daughters of the heart, to be born” —
here is an Artaud/Darger daughter-braid:

                        General Vivian
                   Little Anie

At the intersection of Darger and Artaud,
there’s a Frida Kahlo bus accident hourly,
armored spirits ram a daughter-filled vessel
spraying heads and limbs into psychic containers —

                   “Everything must be arranged
        to a hair
         in a fulminating

Poor Darger, the poorest of the 20th Century tribe of imaginal founders;
at mass in strait-rosary 4 times daily,
cleaning up hospital waste for 50 years
(his one friend moved away)
sleeping upright in a chair at 851 Webster Avenue
(his cot looked like Charles Olson’s worktable),
a life of childrens’ books and hymnals
grubbed out of trash cans or bought for pennies.
Caryl and I made a list of his library
when we visited his room in 1997:

  13 Oz volumes          9 Dickens volumes
         Making the Weather       Sources of Volcanic Energy
         Autumn Leaves          Trini the Little Strawberry Girl
         Tisa a Little Alpine Waif          The Best of Friends
         Rinkitink          A Little Maid of Nantucket
         The Little Runaways & Mother          Heidi
  Heidi Grows Up          The Lost Princess
         The Patchwork Girl      Meet the Bobbsey Twins
         The Bobbsey Twins Camping Out          The Kittens’ Secret
         Defending his Flag or A Boy in Blue & a Boy in Grey
         Lorraine and the Little People of the Ocean
    The Revolt of the Angels          Kidnapped
         Official Guide Book (World’s Fair, 1934)
         Wheeler’s Graded Readers, 2 Volumes
         Sweethearts Unmet          The Great Chicago Fire
  The Banner Boy Scouts Snowbound          Rare Old Chums
         The Cheery Scarecrow          St. Basil’s Hymnal
         Christian Brothers Hymnbook          Fun with Decals
         Spirit of the Blessed Cure of Arts          Rosemary
         The House if 1000 Candles          Little Red Riding Hood
         Mathematics for Common Schools          Peter Pan
         A Shirley Temple Story Book          The Life of Christ
         Dion Quintuplets “Going on Three”          The Rose Child
         The Atlas “Biology”          Andersen’s Fairy Tales
         Blind Agnesse          The School of Jesus Crucified
         Jo the Little Machinist          The Little Christmas Shoe
         Catechism of Christian Doctrine          Grimm’s Fairy Tales
         My Child Lives (Consoling Thoughts of Bereaved Parents)
         Sick-A-Bed Sally          A Guide to the Franciscan Monastery
         Don Quixote          Condemned to Devil’s Island

Fleas with tyke faces crawl 5’3” Darger’s wrath.
To adopt? That too denied me?
I am Chicago weather, Hendro Darger the volcanologist,
author of a 15,000 page novel, a Pepto-Bismol bottle collector,
a man who rescues crucifixes from trash cans,
maker of 500 balls of knotted string,
my eyeglasses held together by tape,
wallet tied to shoestring attached to belt loop.
Jesus, are you a little girl? Jesus am I in
your body? Nail-wracked Jesus,
         am I you daughter

A man who has no world
makes a world — to share?

Words appear on the page as I read them,
words I spit out of my eyes.

I do this in a dream.
Imagine Darger doing this awake.

Darger is too absolute to tinker with,
he’s a first and last man,

a man without a middle (most artists are
crammed in passage, we periscope and

we retract). I go to Darger to
clear my heart of life’s mid-way.

Darger is pathetic
because he chooses to move at all.

He could have jammed his head into a toilet.
He chose not to, chose

to cosmogonize a burr
he was willing to bear in his heart.

Darger in his child zoo, testing liberation.
Darger as a child zoo, refusing liberation.

No matter how many carnivores he releases,
little girls are trillion on the hill.

I went to the Darger Circus, watched Henry
geld himself as the Vivian Girls scampered out.

Darger is in shreds, but his scrambled
virgin lice exceed others’ plenums.

Northrop Frye, reading Blake’s Thel:

“nothing achieves reality without going through physical existence, the descent must be made. The failure to make it is the theme of The Book of Thel. Thel is an imaginative seed: she could be any form of embryonic life, and her tragedy could be anything from a miscarriage to a lost vision... being an embryo in the world of the unborn, Thel longs to be of Ôuse,’ that is, to develop her potential life into an actual one and hence come into our world of generation... But, hearing the groans of a fallen world tormented in its prison, she becomes terrified and escapes back to the unborn world... a world of dissolving and arbitrary fantasy, a looking-glass world of talking flowers... The Book of Thel thus represents the failure to take the state of innocence into the state of experience... in Thel’s infertile world everything is exquisitely harmless... Thel’s canvas is decorated with lambs and lilies.”  

So, Darger’s girls are frozen seeds, cut-outs, stripped of garments to show their seed nature. Shadowed by menacing soldiers of experience, they don’t move imaginatively, but pout, pose, or flee these head-charged Glandelinian female-less males. The girls repopulate endlessly, each a mirror of the other (they often pop up as exact duplicates or in series). Where they should be concave, they are un-enterable, which means that they are unable to enter experience. By giving them penises, Darger makes invasion impossible (which he probably intuits is only rape). The girls’ unborn boy-friends are the saintly Blengiglomenean Serpents, with long wavy tails. While they do shoot fluid into the girls (which they appear to like, and which makes them immortal), this only cofirms that the two mix on a sperm and egg level, a level in Darger which never produces babies.

The dead little girls appear,
unborn seeds of childhood,
repetitious in a way that could not be made functional in language
— does that seem queer? to put it that way?
Galleries of the defiled, undefiled in Darger’s dream,
millions he could commemorate and save,
bland and blazing paradox, the terrible sandwich of eternity,
he dead behind us, the static here.
Darger was a subconscious visionary —
these commercial images of children, Coppertone lotion sold by a
         child’s panties being
tugged out by a doggy,
images of children used to sell children’s clothes,
or cigarettes, via adults smoking towering over them —
Darger stripped them, then set them forth,
Guanajuato mummies are more immediate.
Darger is more savage, and more blank.
Do his 300 scrolls contain the paradise of the unlived,
or the “early departed” in Rilke’s terms?
It matters immensely that Darger’s mother died
giving birth to a sister he never saw, when he was 4.
In Darger’s case, however, paradise truly opens — truly?
How can I say that? Little girls like cute absences in
repetitional grids — I’m ashamed to identify them:
yellow hair in orange collar, yellow dress, stands beside
brown hair, arms crossed over her tummy, in red play suit, red anklets,
before a brown tan and red ball, next to yellow hair in orange collar,
yellow dress, hands behind her —
are these the forepleasures of childhood
as death manipulates budding energies to stain each into each?
Darger is the remainder of the huge absence I felt as a child,
“staring at a corner for hours,”
my mother told Caryl, “he was such a good boy.”
But oh, my childhood for all its ills was redolent with sap compared
         to Henry’s,
His naked girls make the tinsel landscape cave-in behind them,
they are without pathos, and they are totally pathetic,
the unborn, reflecting neither forward nor backward.
Coppertone cutie is stripped not only of her panties
but of her pseudo-persona — in Darger
“she” is the girl who never is, multiplied
as if through the fly-eyed lens of God.
Darger had no idea — or did he?
that he was creating a pantheon.
We peer at it in the American Museum of Folk Art
— goodness, what is on his mind?
Moral mayhem, amigo, girls tinier than pink flowers,
ram-headed fairies leaping,
fashion ads stripped of their dead frivolity to become
girl negatives, crucified en mass or oddly screaming,
neck-twisted, in a collage margin,
in a gauze of pretense that they are in paradise.
Is paradise the absence of adults?
The absence of experience, its fallow, planted perpendiculars?
Can paradise possibly be — on any level — if we preclude experience?
Darger opens up a worm vista on paradise —
his work is the negation of an active paradise,
one of the imagination, one that other artists push toward,
that state we glimpse as paradise, unobtainable through political or
         anatomical means —
Darger rubs our face in the gleet of the impossibility of paradise.
Good for you, stunted, friendless Henry,
thanks for rubbing our commodity-drugged mugs in these image-
anti-ikons —
but there are so many crossword bunnies in the woods,
so much jigsaw shadow —
did Darger ever know where he was? Possibly, but
in the grand orality of his own weather and
the tourbillions of girl necks whistling through what flavored his life,
natal tornado of trying to figure out — or did he ever get that far? —
why has the femaleness and femininity of life at large been denied
         to him?
Masculinity must be an over-surpassing evil!
Tied up in a barn of screaming tied-up kids — from which he managed
         to escape
— to what? Butterfly-winged absence with minute colorless penis
         between her
pressed thighs, black butterfly-winged
oh my, black dotted yellow dressed
oh dear, floating caul, how dids’t thou escape the womb?
Why dids’t thou not achieve life?
Comic strip valley swarming with cradle-shaped rangers.
Radiant sweetness emptied by shot-gun into dot-eyed zombies.

— Chicago, October, 1997 – Ypsilanti, July, 2000

New American Writing # 19 and Jacket 13   Contents page
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