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John Olson reviews

Everwhat, poems by Clayton Eshleman

Zasterle, 2003. 58 pages.

This piece is 850 words or about two printed pages long

Everwhat is a flip-flop of the word ‘whatever.’ ‘Giorgio Agamben focused my attention on the word ‘whatever,’’ writes Eshleman in the note section in the back of this collection, ‘in the opening essay in his The Coming Community. (University of Minnesota Press, 1993).’ Agamben’s use of the word ‘whatever’ is itself a reversal; he inverts the popular meaning of ‘whatever’ as a token of indifference — ‘it does not matter which’ — to its opposite: ‘being such that it always matters.’

Taken in this sense, nothing (no thing) ‘is neither a universal nor an individual included in a series,’ but rather a singularity that is fully itself — a whatever individual, a whatever singularity, a whatever being — expressing properties that are both universal (intelligible) and ineffable (its being such as it is, however experienced). In other words, ‘whatever being has an original relation to desire.’ The desire to realize its potential, to evolve toward a fullness of being that precludes being trapped in a single category, but includes the totality of its possibilities. That this rather dizzying upheavel of class and distinction should token the work of a poet like Eshleman, who has had a lifelong interest in the mythical underworld, marks a singlular step into a region of nebulous polarities.

The first poem of Everwhat — ‘Michaux, 1956’ — begins, appropriately, with a theme of potentiality: ‘There is in Michaux an emergent face/non-face always in formation,’ observes Eshleman,

Call it ‘face before birth.’ Call it our thingness making faces. Call it tree bole or toadstool spirit, anima mundi snout, awash in ephemerality, anti-anatomical, the mask of absence, watercolor by a blind child, half-disintegrated faces of souls in Hades pressing about the painter Ulysses-Michaux as, over his blood trench of ink, he converses with his hermaphroditic muse...

‘Michaux, 1956’ separates out into single, discrete lines, emphasizing the multiciplicity of perspectives and dynamic of ineffability germane to Michaux’s art. Each line is an attempt at predication, a surge of definition energized by its own admission of inexpressibility. The last line, ‘Nematodes in round dance on a hyena vagina,’ stirs the sediment at the bottom of the mind into palpable inflammation, the elan of the ineffable. The laughter of the hyena is both ferocious and mad; the nerves teem with its exhilarating fervor. A sound that belongs, and does not belong, to itself.

There are thirteen poems in this collection, almost all of which are devoted to painters and at least one sculptor: Jean-Baptiste Corot, Leon Golub, Henry Darger, Takesada Matsutani, and Isamu Noguchi. There is also a reference to Hieronymus Bosch, whose hybrid monsters and sinister landscapes run very close to Eshleman’s often nightmarish visions. [You can read ‘Darger’ in Jacket 13. — Ed.]

Three poems are devoted to the English painter Francis Bacon, whose luminous brushwork is contrasted with horrific figures, contorted and grotesque. What Bacon seeks are images that, in his own words, ‘unlock the deeper possibilities of sensation.’ This is a project very much akin to Eshleman’s engines of mordant disclosure. His words seethe with brutish revelation, bulge with molten agitation: ‘the true untouchable: lava language.’ Line after line in ‘Bacon Studies (III)’ registers the horror and morbidity of Bacon’s canvases: ‘The inhuman as the exhaust of the grotesque.’ ‘Bacon’s flesh: plaster-tarred, cream-tinted, pink smoke bodies. Black ham snowing through debris-littered skin.’ ‘Muted buggery, naked lunch sur l’herbe.’ ‘Painting as snail trail, a painter’s mental excrement.’

In ‘Bands Of Blackness,’ a prose poem devoted to the work of the Japanese painter Takesada Matsutani, Eshleman explores the ‘whateverness’ of black. Black is the ultimate exterior, the ultimate void, the ultimate space, space that is illimitable and beyond recognition. In Matsutani’s art, black assumes a nascent existence in the shape of the sphere and the circle. ‘Within a black sphere,’ writes Eshleman,

an anatomical purse rests, gleaming a bit, an amputation, a potential. Is this the closed vagina of the black goddess which, when spread, reveals the aged face of blackness, the infant crone, black tongue balled in wizard lips?

The imagery here is gravid with paradox. We associate black with nullity, with the void that is deep space, but here it is given the identity of a black goddess giving birth: simultaneously humanized and exalted. The language combines the imagery of fecundity with the imagery of magic. ‘Amputation’ imputes violence.

All in all, what we have is what Agamben would term an ‘example,’ ‘the antinomy of the individual and the universal drawing its genesis from language.’ The pregnance of the term ‘example’ in Greek is para-deigma, or paradigm: para = ‘to place along side;’ deigma = ‘to show.’ Thus paradigm means to show by placing along side, as in an example, pattern or model. In other words, a paradigm — ‘black tongue balled in wizard lips’ — is an emergent cognition, a mental construct influenced by our socialization, which defines and delimits the way we perceive reality, and is the basis of our worldview. It is a particular way of seeing. It is a whatness given lips, or ellipsis, a potentiality of being, an everwhat.

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