This review is 2,300 words
or about 6 printed pages long
The way one comes to know Clayton Eshleman is through his massive arcade of images. The images are not “impressionistic” as Eliot Weinberger has noted; rather they betray a kind of pictorial logic much as the Upper Paleolithic cave art, which has been Eshleman’s lifelong scholarly project, can be interpreted to signify narrative, history, intention, etc. (yet certainly the art is a claim for a certain kind of world view). Weinberger’s contention is that Eshleman’s imagery is fashioned “in service of a passionately argued line of reason, a line in which an idea, before completion, turns into another idea, and then another.” I am not so sure I can always dare to tread where Eshleman has sought to reason via his imagination, but there is no doubting that the imagistic verbal pyrotechnics Eshleman employs have their effect, even if it is, for some readers, dizzying, befuddling and ultimately exhausting. The barrage of imagery one encounters in the typical Eshleman poem attempts to burrow into that place where imagination festers, and it assaults any previously received sensibility the way one is assaulted by food at a smorgasbord.
All this aside, My Devotion is in many ways not the typical Eshleman book. For sure, it comments and derives some of its impulse from the Upper Paleolithic, visual artists and their art, the relationship with writing mentors Blake, Olson, Pound, Césaire, Vallejo, etc. These are the usual shafts that Eshleman mines in his poems. However, a much more sentimental Eshleman appears in his poems that deal with his wife, Caryl. In the third section of the book where Eshleman deals primarily with his wife’s difficulties with fibromyalgia and his reflections on their life together over the course of many years, the impulse to escape into dreamscapes is mostly suspended. The language becomes more exact and, dare I say, touching. Those familiar with Eshleman’s work over his career, might have to do a double take on that word. Perhaps, then, the descriptor “sweetly sentimental” might be an abomination. Yet, in the third section (and even in the second section of the book in the longer poem “Blue Zone,” dedicated to the memory of friend and visual artist, Ann Mikolowski) Eshleman’s lines exude a tenderness that indicates a softening of the high octane imagination and argument. In “Sweetheart,” the grand finale to this section, Eshleman reveals the strata of his relationship to his wife through a myriad of vignettes that mark the passage of years. The piece was complied over the course of twenty years. He depicts putting MSM cream on her back, her dreams, an adventure in a rented Volkswagen, her stopping to talk to a “poor soul masturbating under the Coney Island Boardwalk.” Eshleman continues to rhapsodize his wife, recounting how she conjures the image of the granite rose of Trégastel for him, the image of Faye Dunaway. Eshleman even reveals that he ate a small live spider to calm his wife’s nerves after she believed there was a giant spider tapping on the linoleum. “Sweetheart” borders on the confessional, in a mode that is direct and convincing, contrary to the manner of plumbing the depths of the subconscious Clayton that is Eshleman’s regular mode of exploration.
It might, however, be a bit misleading that “Sweetheart” reveals only polite goodness. There are many details documented from their life together that express the characteristic raw bodily truth which often appears in Eshleman’s work. In an earlier piece, “The Yonic Shrine” where the you in the poem is clearly female (as suggested by the title), Eshleman writes:
When I piss into your blood (paper decomposing, pink furls, red under-risings), I feel an aimless goodness, a fascination with deconstruction—then a new spurt, making a new pattern, sinks me back, joyfully, into the childhood sandbox.
Arriving at that childhood sandbox is an Eshleman specialty. It is a place where the messy and dirty is privileged. Clearly, many primitive cultures which prohibit male knowledge of menses would stand aghast at Eshleman’s near-revelry in the presence of the same. “Sweetheart” has its “sandbox” moments as well: ruminations on having his “billygoat extension encased,” hard truths shared about orgasm, a stone lady holding up a building whose live “cunt was there for lonely men to fuck.” The light and the dark details make for an interesting mudpie, a heartfelt one, that should serve as a meaningful tribute as well as a model for how to meld the specifically surreal image to the high confessional.
In section four Eshleman focuses largely again on the Upper Paleolithic cave paintings’ influence on the birth of the imagination. Of particular interest to this reviewer were two pieces [“The Hybrid is the Engine of Anima Display” and “ Hybridity”] that dealt with the notion of the hybrid nature of some of the creatures rendered on the cave walls. The argument through image that Eshleman advances is put straightforwardly in the first two lines of “The Hybrid is the Engine of Anima Display” when Eshleman writes:
The earliest image of the soul appears to be
seated or resting, within a bison-headed man.
The poem proceeds to depict a tripartite chimera of man/woman/bison with sexual organs in full view. The figure suggests to the speaker that of kundalini rising. The speaker extends some wildly speculative interpretations but ultimately suggests the image is unreadable. It is “an unfolding matrix, envisioned at a moment of initial pleats.” To this, the speaker adds that the sorcerer who might have rendered it “is a tub in which dead mom is bathing,” but the speaker qualifies this by saying that this label can be applied only via our somewhat inadequate contemporary perspective.
My long-held fascination with the mongrel was assuaged further in “Hybridity.” Eshleman’s subject here is the “roily commingling of natures,” as he puts it in the poem. He uses metaphors for this process, such as bilharzia, a parasitic worm that infects certain snails and swimmers in waters where these snails are found. He also compares the commingling of natures to an invasion of kudzu, to the primal creative urge of the salmon. He projects this state of commingling to Caryl when he asks whether he is roving (read: “connected to” as in the cave image) in her thigh, whether she is roving in his.
In describing the process of the self’s becoming, Eshleman hits on a particularly strong image as metaphor:
I is so loose it can attach to a leaf like scale
However, as Eshleman ventures to compare this process to a litany of other objects: “Odin nailed and flavored,” “a welt developing on a branch,” “a wounded skunk,” “charcoal lichen,” “ a tongue in lizard trance,” the combined power of these images acts to disorient what this process of the self’s becoming is. It is described as everything; therefore, it becomes nothing. Perhaps Eshleman intends the paradox.
The word play continues in the poem with “I mage collapsings” and then the Vallejo-esque neologism of scalpels “proturding.” Initially, I thought that this might have been a typo, but I suspect this is Eshleman typically at play in the sandbox again. The neologism serves as a distraction to this reviewer in a piece that has so many other novelties to pursue. The ascending subconscious is compared to a small group of early Homo sapiens that are moving out of Africa (presumably to occupy the Upper Paleolithic caves? according to Spencer Wells’s and Jared Diamond’s accounts, the movement was probably East-West—Wells’s genetic evidence suggests India as the next stop for early hominids out of Africa— not North-South to occupy caves). The comparison holds only so long as one buys into the notion of the sub-conscious’s limited rise to the conscious level and subsequent spread. Eshleman ends the poem by questioning what the early Upper Paleolithic image-makers were dreaming as he longingly wonders aloud:
Ah, the early imaginal chewing, breaking
down worlds, extracting their fusional juices!
The bringing together of beasts, even in its biblical form, signals a procreative moment. It is this moment which Eshleman habitually tries to inhabit and impulsively seeks to explore, qualify, and document. This urge overrides most of his other impulses in section four as it serves as the undercurrent in all the poems in the section.
Section five of My Devotion is comprised of one long piece entitled “Erratics” composed over a 14-year period from 1986-2000. The poem is a series of modules that range from surrealist catalogs to prose indictments of Wallace Stevens’s anti-primitivism. Between these are “sightings on literature and politics, short poems without titles, prose fragments, dreams and statements—only a few of which directly relate to one another.” The genesis of this piece came from a great number of worksheets written in the late 80s and early 90s. Eshleman tried winnowing and arranging, but found that a random assemblage was the most satisfying arrangement. Enter the lettuce spinner. The first line of each module was placed therein and drawn out by Caryl. After a bit more editing, “Erratics” was born.
The term erratics comes, as Eshleman explains in the endnotes, from an essay by Andrew Schelling on Philip Whalen. It is a geological term that refers to a boulder which has been moved by a glacier to a distant location. When the glacier melts, it is deposited in a location where the transported boulder is of a different composition than that of the surrounding rocks. Because each module was deposited from its original worksheet source, Eshleman adopted this metaphor. The result is much more disintegrated array than autocatalytic set. Occasionally, a nugget can be discerned among the Duncan-like field of strewn boulders, but too often this reviewer found himself trying to prevent a sprained ankle and wishing for more supportive shoes. However, the mind catches on a few bits of verbiage:
a concreteness blown through by theory pellets
The death of god sure takes a long time to fail.
Antonin: Rimbaud stopped writing poetry because he got close enough to paradise to learn that he could not get in.
However, after navigating the maze of masturbation, cunts, scrotums, epic orgasms and other markers of the chthonic as well as an annoying homage to Eshleman’s tradition of a “test of translation” (hearkening back to Caterpillar) where he champions Corman’s Basho over Hamill’s for its “language as enactment” (this means, dear reader, that you have to go figure out what the hell is being said and subsequently benefit from the wisdom derived via the koan-like structure), “Erratics” is the result of a notebook clamoring too shrilly for its metaphor to hold the pieces together. The randomness seems a MacLow-like gimmick that works counter to the purpose of the metaphor of the “erratic” trying to consolidate the piece. The poem, paradoxically, wants to work both ways.
One of Eshleman’s great gifts is his ability to articulate the poetic process (for Eshleman, this is largely the inception of image, imagination). My Devotion (as well as many other books) is littered with Eshleman’s struggles to articulate, through image and metaphor, what poesis is. Often times these articulations are informed by Eshleman’s own experience:
On one level I’m damaged beyond Indiana recognition,
on another, I’m the phoenix a poet must be,
a ruined worker in the hive of irregularity,
of a forge so random it is mad to hammer.
and from “Five Queasy Pieces”
Poetry from the beginning is posited,
based, on resistance, is a work against,
whether with flint or quill
it is to convert one’s boring into a lateral spell,
an ecstatic wandering in which one lives
as if weightless on the hunch of a fingertip—
hunchwork wondrous release of the body
poised on the burin of itself
In both instances the poet, for Eshleman, pushes against a surface to imagine, to become. Even in recollection the poet becomes a negotiation with a past self. The resistance of that surface pushed against is crucial for how the physical body (which does the actual writing) contorts, degrades, opens.
In the interest of full disclosure. As a former employee of the Eshleman company store, he has always struck me as a man whose greatest passion is the process of writing, of image-making. The metaphors for what it “feels” like to write abound. One of my favorites from him was “writing is like driving 100 MPH with the brakes on.” The gist of this metaphor is that one should employ a controlled recklessness. In many of the statements Esheleman derives in My Devotion about poesis, he seems to be advocating that close attention should be paid to moments of utter helplessness and the loss of control, another paradoxical situation. To be of two minds like this speaks to the creative force of hybridity.
Eshleman has always been erudite, and one should always expect to encounter the recondite word in his work, but in My Devotion the erudition is tempered by the sense that one of the greatest chapters of his life is seemingly drawing to a close. The book is a paean to Caryl, whom I remember a half-besotted Eshleman playfully referring to as his “kitschy piece, kitschy piece” during one of his moments of spontaneous linguistic riffing. Even if the Clayton and Caryl Show is about to “go into syndication,” it will be Eshleman’s other devotion, his devotion to the work of the writer that will preface all the respect he has garnered over the years.
Eshleman’s other great value as a writer is his boundless energy and generosity of thoughts and imagery for writers who pick up his work. The poems serve almost as notebooks of images and ideas that, for those who use these kinds of things to explore their own thoughts and meaning-making in their poems, is a wonderful repository of starting points.
Tim Kahl’s work has been published or is forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, American Letters & Commentary, Berkeley Poetry Review, Fourteen Hills, George Washington Review, Illuminations, Indiana Review, Limestone, Nimrod, Ninth Letter, Notre Dame Review, South Dakota Quarterly, The Journal, The Spoon River Poetry Review, The Texas Review, and dozens of other journals in the U.S. He has translated Austrian avant-gardist, Friederike Mayröcker; Brazilian poet, Lêdo Ivo; and the poems of the Portuguese language’s only Nobel Laureate, José Saramago. He also appears as Victor Schnickelfritz at The Great American Pinup http://greatamericanpinup.blogspot.com/
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