Anticline, poetry by Clayton Eshleman
Black Widow Press, 2010
Scholars often identify Achille’s shield, as it is described in Homer’s The Illiad, as the first ekphrastic work in western culture. I do not dispute this. But the appearance of art in western culture is far older, and invites speculation about literary engagement. The Upper Paleolithic art of the caverns and grottos of the French Dordogne have been estimated to be as much as 32,000 years old. Clayton Eshleman, who has devoted decades of his writing to the Paleolithic renditions of bison, rhinoceros, mammoths, deer, horses and stags of Cougnac, Lascaux, Abri du Cro-Magnon and other underworld galleries of primordial art, has so completely incorporated it into his work as to make it new. It ceases to be historic. It becomes immediate and real. Juniper Fuse, named after the hand-held lamp wicks used to illumine the cavern walls, stands as a monumental piece of scholarship and imagination devoted to Ice Age cave art. He surmises its meaning, its shamanic vein, and renews the pulse of its being in his poetry. In Anticline, his most recent collection of poetry, he revisits ice age art and expands his verbal palette still further with artwork ranging from different times and continents.
Ekphrasis comes from the Greek: ‘ek,’ meaning out, and ‘phrasis,’ meaning to speak. It means to speak out of another work of art; to base one’s own creative vision on an engagement with another work of art. Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess,“ William Carlos William’s Breughel poems, John Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” and John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” are all examples of ekphrastic poetry.
For decades, Eshleman’s poetry as engaged the work of a huge variety of artists, notably Willem de Kooning, Frida Kahlo, Caravaggio, Nora Jaffe, Chaim Soutine, Leon Golub, Matsutani Takesada, Francis Bacon, Jackson Pollock, and quite recently, Hieronymus Bosch.
Charles Olson called it a “saturation job:” “… by the techniques of total research, to crack down any events or person so completely that you can, in the minutiae of the facts, find the elements of which the event or person are made and which make them significant to other men.”
Eshleman is a man of deep immersion. He adopts a work, treats it as his own, draws essence from stone and paint and recrafts it in words. He reinvents. Part of his task is scholarly, interpretive and probing. But the energy at the core of his poetry is inventive and photosynthetic: he absorbs the light of a painting and converts it to words. His writing is not strictly interpretive. It explains a work in words that mirror the work stylistically, and often going beyond style, to incarnate the spirit of the work in the flesh of his poetry.
There is an inevitable friction at the heart of this. As James A.W. Heffernan remarks in his book Museum Of Words, “To represent the technique as well as the content of a work of graphic art, the poet must reckon with representational friction, with the conflict between signifier or material medium of representation and the signified -- the objects or figures represented.” How, for example, take the daubs and swoops and energetic splashes of color on a canvas by Pollock, and recreate that in a poem? There is going to be resistance. One is primarily a visual medium and the other is a medium of sound and image, a representation of experience tethered to a clutter of consonants and vowels. One is a process that is intensely physical, the other a process that is primarily cerebral. One is a process that breaks from figural representation to concentrate on the medium alone. The paint. And the man doing his odd dance with a paintbrush around the canvas on the floor. Flinging, flicking, smearing, rubbing, scraping, pummeling, thumping, spattering, splattering, sprinkling paint. The other is a fabric of cadence and contemplation, an abstraction drawn from the spinnerets of deep rumination.
In “Pollock Pouring,” a poem in Eshleman’s recent collection of poetry, Eshleman pulls the stoppers and lets fly with a tumult of metaphor:
To cage you blizzard, to purify
your gizzard while disemboweling
the lizard in its bower. To make these millipedal
feelers mill, to pedal eels, white elvers,
or are they elves? If so, turn piranhas on them
to exacerbate any penetralia
which may have coagulated in my rage.
It is a telling figure to begin with the idea of a cage and a blizzard. One cannot, obviously, cage a blizzard. The bars could not hold it. A blizzard is neither an object nor an animal. It is a phenomenon of wind and snow and temperature and isobars. You cannot cage weather in an isobar.
Eshleman spins dizzyingly on an array of entomological and fabulous creatures, feelers milling, eels and elves, piranhas, a stranger menagerie which ends, interestingly, with rage, rhyming with cage. And not just rage, but rage as a coagulation, a scab of dried blood forming from an initial cut or injury. Which is the effect of rage; it brings us into collision with the world. The wiser coarse is to seek redemption by other means: in the transmutations of vision and art, for instance. In order to recreate in the poem the energy of Pollock’s creation means the poet will have to break free from the malignant energies of rage, which contract and enmesh, and sublimate into a being of regenerated vitality.
The last line of the poem, “In the Cunt of the Celestial Crocodile I solarize as a Hadal sum,” Eshleman merges so completely with his aesthetic experience as to have intercourse with a Celestial Crocodile. The crocodile, in Egyptian mythology, was deified. They repaired evils that had been done, and were sometimes adorned in jewels. The evil done to modern humans is the separation from our bodies brought about by industrialization and technology. Pollock has so renewed the primordial in Eshleman’s experience that he is having sex with it. He emerges solarized, as a Hadal sum. Hadal refers to ultra-abyssal fauna: Porcellanasteridae, Brisingidae, and Umbellula. You can’t get more primordial than that.
“Goya Black” is inspired by a group of fourteen paintings executed by Fracisco Goya in the later years of his life (1819-1823). He was 72 and had moved into a two-story house outside of Madrid called Quinta del Sordo, or “Deaf Man’s Villa.” Goya had been rendered deaf since age 46 as the result of an illness. He had witnessed mayhem and massacre during the Napoleonic war and rebellions that flamed and thundered across Spain, conflicts of spectacular cruelty and barbarism, and had grown embittered against humankind. His black paintings reflect his negativity with visions of horrific power. Among these is Saturn Devouring His Son in which a maniacal, demonic giant eats a significantly smaller man, whose head has already been bitten off. The painting is inspired by the Greek myth of the Titan Cronus who, fearing that his children would overthrow him, at each one upon their birth. In Goya’s painting, however the child is a mature man. This painting has had significant influence on myself. I refer to it whenever I try to describe what capitalism is doing to humanity, or corporate America is doing to its citizens.
Eshleman’s language is generally quite colorful, richly metaphorical, full of bizarre images, neologisms, conflicting passions, and twists and turns. Here he uses that language to recreate the horror and macabre flavor of Goya’s paintings. “Text of shadow gore,” it begins, “Cowherds/ with leg stumps sunk in mud, cudgels flailing. Roving colon of mankind.” The disfigurement, disembowelment, and muck Eshleman conveys in these three lines compasses a range of brutality which comes alive in the abbreviated, telegraphic syntax used to convey the images. ‘Colon’ is a pun on column, as in a column of soldiers, and brings home the sense of disembowelment even more graphically. It’s as if Eshleman himself were daubing reds and blacks on a canvas, depicting horrors in the silence of a room full of shadows and flickering candlelight, not unlike the shamans in the caverns of the Dordogne 32,000 years previous. Significantly, Goya did not paint this series on canvas, but upon the walls of his room.
“Earliest Cinema,” written for the Vanitas issue on Cinema, is a twofold ekphrastic approach. Its subject is the outlined animals and paintings at Cougnac, a cavern full of ice age artwork in the French department of Lot. Included among the paintings is the depiction of a big megaloceros deer with its huge antler, ingeniously represented by taking advantage of the natural relief of the wall. Above it is painted a small ibex, in red, and to the right a black human figure with darts in his backside. Eshleman also references cinema, and the dramatic parallel between the paintings rendered in the subterranean chambers of Cougnac and the dark, otherworldly charm of the movie theater. There is also a parallel between the flickering light of the shaman’s handheld lamp and the beam of light issuing from the film projector, splashing movement and drama on a large white screen. “A group can gather,” Eshleman remarks, “as in a theater, and gaze!”
Eshleman extends his metaphor further than a lamp/projector configuration, and references the mind of the shaman as the source of images:
Wall contours and flutings evoked a megaloceros chest and neck,
thick ibex belly hair, animals partially
submerged, encased imago,
a pupa Cro-Magnon eyes released, in the depths of limestone
there were different kinds of beasts --
wall as screen over which their mental projectors played.
The centerpiece of Anticline is the series of poems that comprise Tavern Of The Scarlet Bagpipe. In 1979, Eshleman states in his introduction,
I visited the Prado Museum in Madrid and spent half an hour before Hieronymous Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. For the past fifteen years, I have had framed reproductions of that painting and the Lisbon Temptation of Saint Anthony on my workroom wall. They have hung there, steely challenges, over the years. I have collected books and articles on Bosch, waiting for the right moment to engage at least one of these masterpieces.
In 2003 I proposed a one-month “Bosch project” for a residency at Rockefeller Study Center at Bellagio on Lake Como in Italy. My idea was to spend two months going through my materials and then, while at the Study Center, write into the Garden of Earthly Delights. My residency was accepted in May 2004, and my wife Caryl and I left for the Center on October 18.
The scope of this project is immense. There are thirteen separate poems in the main section, followed by a collection of notes, less formal treatments which read very much like poems themselves, in the appendices. Also helpfully included are some footnotes.
Ehsleman breaks his study down into sections. To the right of each poem is a directional, such as (for “MONKEY CROUCHED ON A WHITE ELEPHANT), “Eden. Left Wing, Middle & Lower Sections.”
The first line of each poem functions as its title, and is written in majuscules. BOSCH’S EDEN POOL OF SPONTANEOUS GENERATION
is a kind of Cenoté with scarlet-rust cisternal limestone walls.
A pheasant exposes her anus as she sticks her head into the
pool’s cypress-black sheen.
A male pheasant stares at the female’s anus.
A stump-legged otter drags its fish-end up on the bank.
A black crayfish-headed bird prepares to spit a supine black frog on its
scissor-beak (while a shore bird with skeletal peacock tail prepares to gut the frog).
A cat walks away from the pool, eyes glazed, mouse nape in teeth.
A clack-billed ghoul-bird grips twitching frog legs between its fever-
The pool tunnels out of Eden and leads to pools in Paradise, Apocalypse:
these are the subterranean waterworks of the triptych.
As can been seen, Eshleman revels in the graphic details of Bosch’s exquisite lens. The vision, transferred from the paint of Bosch’s canvas, and framed in words, acquires a fresh palpability. It goes directly to the mind. The water of its “cisternal limestone walls” sloshes around in our heads. Reflects a primordial realm. What is it that so fascinated Bosch, that so motivated him to depict animals as they truly are, truly behave, sniffing one another’s anus, eating one another, in what is supposed to be an Eden, a place of innocence? Perhaps it is our notion of innocence that is limited. Eshleman’s drive toward the primordial has found a rich vein in Bosch. It allows him to push his language further, to dilate its capacity for capturing life’s weird burlesque. Strange “creature constructions” and “image rhythms” “between Paradise and the foundations of being.”
I have not touched on everything in this book. Eshleman’s work grows with the years rather than wanes, and this is one of his fullest achievements. One could spend a huge amount of time in his galleries and feel as though one has not come near to penetrating its deeper chambers. One sees its animals, feels its words, and each time comes a little nearer to understanding our own Font de Gaume.