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Clayton Eshleman

Two poems

An Arsenal In Seattle

                                                                  [for John and Roberta Olson]

In the Seattle Art Museum, I stood before
“Good Morning, Mrs. Lincoln,”
Gorky testicles wiggling out of crab traps,
octopus pods dissolving into albino eels,
a vulva grail held forth by fingerless hands
to whom a penis-headed man, palm on hip,
displays his giant gully-raker (shades of
“The Artist and His Mother,”
of an emptied out Japanese Eros,
all is to be emptied out,
all is Easter razor, abstract libretto —
let the viewer restore the muscle tile,
“what am I doing in this menstrual hut in
the savannahs of Ivory Coast!”
he must cry out, “let me meet the holy fire
at the far edge of its scythe!”).

Standing before Gorky that Lincoln afternoon,
I began to feel that wigwams lacked anaconda tiaras,
that in fetal gears there was no birch sugar,
that I was being served Aphrodite’s pudenda
on an orchid by a blind man
on a lightless moor. I felt inspected by
pot-headed and deathless hybrids
or was it the four faces of Eve
making up the control panel of Cro-Magnon alarm?
Just then I felt the spider queen’s beacon
sweep across man’s gravid disasters of war!
Farewell, Mrs. Lincoln! — dear Gorky
just handed me a ticket for the Ivory Coast,
only a floor away, where the mask is the supreme court
and god festers forth from a swollen red
humanoid core.
                                Standing before this We mask,
I revisited Leon Golub’s 1948 dilemma:
how grind Auschwitz simulacra
into a statement about power? Golub
transferred to the primitive, urging
what man had become to surface as the horror blender of
the extent to which the irrational dresses
mercs as presidents which too many accept
as the singing masters of their souls.
This nameless mask from We
milked and repumped my Orestial maidens,
I found in one long feeler a Bashō straw, and,
sucking in a compote of cicada-absorbed rock
re-entered the earth of the Shah-nameh
where all is alive, pink ground quilted with
tufts of violet grass, clouds like entangled
cork-screwing silver snakes, miniver rose formations
alive as coral reefs. The horrendous is just
one polecat in the anagrams of the molework
we attempt to unscramble in dreams.
Yet the force in the face of god
as a beltway of circulating thrashers
in the bandsaw of a shark’s eye
stayed with me. It said:
imaginal density is greater than you have conceived.
What most take poetry to be
is at best an ortolan hors-d’oeuvre.
On the far side of the muse
there are cometary knots
in which a Tarantula Nebula is volatilizing
with all its tarentella power
spit like fire through facial
groin-horned snake-pouched feelers.

Then Caryl and I left,
drank a Washington State Chinook Cabernet
and thanked Dionysus for a glacial day.


“A bootful of brain
set out in the rain”
— that is Paul Celan, Paris, 1969.
Could have been a GI snapshot, Vietnam.

Leon Golub rounded up four boots,
grew military torturer legs in them,
shiny brown pedestals on which
outside my bedroom door
a naked man hanging upside down is being whacked.

The avant-garde: the first upon the scene,
while the crime is still blazing, in Laverdant’s 1848 definition:
“those who lay bare, with a brutal brush,
all the brutalities, all the filth, which are at the base of society.”
The core of Golub’s career is in its complex response to annihilation.
His comrades-in-arm are Goya at the Judas peephole
refusing to avert his gaze; Callot with his lynch tree, become
Billie Holiday’s “strange fruit;” Dix’s Trench; Picasso’s Guernica;
Heartfield’s angels in gas masks intoning:
“O du fröhliche, o du selige, gnadenbringende Zeit!”

1946: to transform the water-filled, wreckage-laden basement of
Western culture into a primordial bath,
a deep rolling masked blackness in milling assembly,
fangs studding the abstract with wilderness eyes.
Burnt, bird-legged Hamlet paws the air.
Golub sphinxes: half-swallowed, half-born, from sphincter,
orifice of the contracting angel, the nightmare choker.
How much degradation can an image take
and still, scraped into and from the canvas itself, manifest
this world’s lethal embrace? The age
demanded an image, right? ok? here it is:
man as ruined monumentality. Reclining Youth:
his surface spatter mimicked by wound-trailed ground,
the limb-ghosted ground mimicked by white bone-like finality.
Gigantomachies: gods fighting in accelerated grimace,
syncopation of drunken, flayed cargo sloshing in an undestructable hold.

The Golub archetypal question:
if abstract color fields are peeled away,
what terrors will show through?

Golub’s torturers know we accept their actions
as they accept our passive regard.
For most of us watch them from behind the great religious systems of compensatory evasion.

Golub asks: “Is it possible to export destruction, to burn and drive peasants from their homes, and maintain the dream of the perfectibility of art? Well, it is possible if art concerns itself with itself and does not dare to presume political meaning.” (1969)

This is mental war, intellectual, determined
that art be somehow commensurate with international event.
Golub’s South African blacks,
the chorus of a lifework, watch him and occasionally break into threnody.
They watch you, viewer, as do the Salvadoran white squads
stuffing car trunks with the corpse you will never escape.
The power principle behind evil,
so deeply a matter of the unconscious now
as to not know its own name, “down there,”
in close combat blood galaxies,
where one plus one is always one, a zero rack
encrusted with victimized rage.

A Golubian vision of the American flag:
napalm-blistered stripes so star-mangled they resonate burnt blue .

Oh fatality of expectation and freedom!
(Where other Americans saw angels beaming at Reagan,
Golub saw Contras destroying Nicaraguan grain silos, health centers, cutting off women’s breasts)

In old age,
touched by death, the hand of the master sets free the fractured landscape,
the goal dims, a shredder abyss moves in,
dissociation tears apart time.
Skeletons wear the pants in the house of being.
Night street nodes of slicks, glare and wash out
mesh in crystalline smear.
Has any other artist ever depicted the zone of closure more trenchantly?
Golub in the underworld at 80,
still facing America’s will to administer absolutely,
but now the prey of dogs, eagles, and lions,
as if man the predator had once again become prey.
Slogans honk, lit tableaux in a tunnel of horror.
“Another joker out of business” “Raptor sanction”
Foresight become gore right. A sparagmos of the torn and the tearer.
Pink dog tongue fused dick diddling a female spectre.
In the new armpit showcase, skeletons toast hounds.
“Transmission garbled.”
                                                 Leon Golub exits.
                                            Now in my mind indelible,
               the corrosive flicker from his unstanchable wound.

                                                             [March-April, 2005]

‘Monumental’ was written for the memorial for the U.S. painter Leon Golub in New York in April 2005.

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