January 2004

Dale Smith

marsupial inquirer

Archaic Visions

Clayton Eshleman is a poet whose life work has been exemplary for its diverse pursuits and achievements. Editor of the influential journals Caterpillar (1967-1973) and Sulfur (1981-2000), and National Book Award-winning translator of the Peruvian modernist CÚsar Vallejo, he has widened and supported our understanding of international modernism. His work as a teacher, translator and editor alone qualify him as one of the most dynamic forces of post-war American literature. Add to this an impressive and hefty library of his own writing published by Black Sparrow Press-From Scratch, Under World Arrest and Hotel Cro-Magnon, to name a few. He has been a unifying figure for American poetics since the 1960s. His essay "Novices: A Study of Poetic Apprenticeship," is an extraordinary and vivid document for young poets, a kind of how-to manual. With other essays, translations of Artaud and CÚsaire and his own growing body of work, Eshleman works with tireless devotion. In a visionary dream experienced in Kyoto, Japan, 1962, he received a sign of his own poetic potency. "The red spider pierced my heart as an extraordinary gift," he said of this archaic vision. From it he took the confidence needed to absorb the writing of Blake, Artaud and others. It also helped him continue translating Vallejo in an apprenticeship lasting 16 years.

This early sensitivity to dreams, personal imagery and the transformative nature of the psyche would mature in later writing. Eshleman has an almost alchemical ability to absorb and dissolve the contents of his experience. Despite a Protestant upbringing in Indiana, his religious approach to writing is archaic and polymorphic, taking seriously material others would hardly notice.

Excessive, self-possessed and unflinching in his search for traumatic, visceral content, his ability to treat imagery with absolute care allows him an insight few others would want or dare. But his candor, pleasure in life and volcanic energy give him a prominent place among writers of his generation. With Robert Kelly and Jerome Rothenberg, a widely diverse body of cross-cultural poetics in the tradition of Ezra Pound remain largely ignored by the academy as well as the reading public. Part of the problem is that the range of these writers' concerns attend elements absent now from most scholars' kits. Alchemy, the occult, Hermetic theology, magic, psychotherapy and archaic imagery all figure at times in the work of Eshleman and these other writers. It would take a team of specialists to really unpack the very large body of work left by them. In time it will happen. Presently, we're lucky to have Eshleman's newest work available in a large, fine edition from Wesleyan Press. It should extend in a fairly complete and totally astonishing package of imagery many of the concerns and cultural legacies of this generation for whom the image is central to the work.

Juniper Fuse: Upper Paleolithic Imagination & the Construction of the Underwold is a study of the imagery of Paleothic cave art in Europe. Part survey of archaeological history and theory, part personal meditation and imaginative claim, this book is a compendium of research, personal narrative and critical analysis. It stems directly from his travel for 30 years in the Dordogne and Ariege regions of France.

Steeped in the archaeological literature of Leroi-Gourhan and others, Eshleman approaches this marvelous imagery with poetic vision as well as with a specialist's insight. He considers the psychic origin and animal influences on the cave painters and that imagery's relevance to the present. With great care, he presents a rich and varied interpretation of some of the vast quantities of imagery found deep in these underground limestone cathedrals.

While some caves were discovered earlier, a young man in search of his trapped dog found the famous cave of Lascaux in 1940. Finding the images in these caves pushed modern conceptions of the human imagination back 17,000 years. Discovered painted on the limestone walls are images of bison, horses and other animals with hybrid human forms, a few masked, as if participating in proto-shamanic ceremonies. The complexity and diversity of the imagery has perplexed scholars and cave devotees. Surprisingly, no poet until Eshleman has seriously looked at those forms. Images are like tools that mediate inside and outside worlds. Between the imagination and the brute forces of nature comes an array of formal imagery to translate experience into ritualized expressions of emotional content. Eshleman is best when considering the psychic relation these images have to the people who created them, and by extension, to modern humans' own interpretive needs. By comparing cave imagery Eshleman presents an understanding registered by the crisis of the human "separating itself out" of animals. From a conception of atonement with animal life to a more self-conscious and aware relation based on his need to hunt, primitive man, Eshleman proposes, awoke in the caves to his own being.

"I believe that we make images not simply because we are creatures who seek to loose ourselves within a pattern's mastery," Eshleman writes, "but that the making of images is one of the means by which we become human. In this sense, to be human is to realize that one is a metaphor, and to be a metaphor is to be grotesque (initially of the grotto). While it is understandable to think that we stand on blind Homer's and Shakespeare's shoulders, it is perhaps more accurate to say that we stand on a depth in them that was struck hundreds of generations before them by those Upper Paleolithic men, women, and children who made the truly incredible breakthrough from no image of the world to an image."

This ta'wil of the image, a seeking of its lineage and ultimate source, is striking and remains a persistent concern throughout Eshleman's book. Because he is a poet rather than an archaeologist, he draws on diverse sources to convey this idea of human as metaphor. Bebop musician Bill Evans, poets Garcia Lorca and Rilke, the psychoanalyst James Hillman and others are joined in his own personal narrative to understand the creative energy and will behind cave imagery. This shared activity in the creation of images and their deciphering is processed collectively from individual concerns that are rooted discretely in time. He raises ultimate questions philosophy has struggled with perennially from Plato to the present, of inner nature and its mediation through the world.

Juniper Fuse while presenting a concrete investigation of the caves, is also speculative, inquiring, beautiful. It registers across a complex spectrum. Mayan linguist Barbara MacLeod's relation (quoted at length here) of cave sitting is extraordinary for its amplification of the archaeological research. Hiking a couple of miles into a Mayan cave sanctuary, she remained with a friend in total darkness and isolation for two days. Her report provides some insight to other uses of the caves than communal catharsis and depiction. Her private, hallucinatory encounter with the cave gives another option or consideration for the uses of these dark chambers.

With numerous drawings and image representations throughout the book, many now out-of-print and unavailable elsewhere, and with nearly 50 pages of chronologies, notes and commentary, Juniper Fuse is a marvelous introduction to Lascaux, Le Combel and other sites. But Eshleman's own poetry and travel narratives gathered here amplify the factual details with sympathetic energy, becoming a hybrid form much like the hybrid images found in the caves. For occasionally the imagery painted on cave walls relates a psychic violence, representative of the energies of birth, transformation and possible shamanic rituals. There are palimpsests and etchings of sexual intent. "The Sorcerer of Gabillou," represents a man dressed in an animal skin. The link between bone marrow (muelos) and male sexual energy has been documented by anthropologists, and in the context of the caves sex figures prominently. Eshleman theorizes about male sexual imagery, but it's his poetry that approximates the energy of the imagery itself. At first it seemed odd to include poems in a work like this. But as an instrument of approaching the unknown, such hybrid writing reaches sympathetic understanding expository prose cannot.

That unlike our flesh,
this wall-as we hold our fingers to it-
can sustain our marks
and send them back into our bodies,
vibrations of the end beginning anew in us?

This kinetic sympathy with the caves and the physical actions of the early people there on the cave walls is touching. It completes the more distant, scholarly conceptions by imagining and feeling first hand the physical charge of the limestone. For 30 years, Eshleman has visited these sites, walked the landscapes and toured the dark insides. He knows archaeology but he also through poetry enters the caves with a mind closer to those who first entered 40,000 years ago than many other men or women of the 20th century.


Michael Atkinson's article, "Hyperauthor! Hyperauthor!," published in the December issue of the San Francisco-based monthly, The Believer, re-hashes the whole Araki Yasusada affair of publication and exposure, making nostalgic claims for a lost relationship between reader and writer. For those who still don't know about it, his article looks at literary hoaxes, focusing specifically on a book attributed to a survivor of the US nuking of Hiroshima in 1945, Doubled Flowering: From the Notebooks of Araki Yasusada. With apocryphal poems, letters and journal entries, Araki Yasusada entered American consciousness through prestigious literary presses in the 1990s. When the dubious authorship of the pieces was revealed an outcry irrupted throughout literary communities around the world. Ultimately, a community college professor from Illinois was fingered as the man behind this extraordinary collection. Kent Johnson, through his relationship to the Yasusada material (he still denies authorship of the work), remains the only living link to this complex and culturally provoking act of cross cultural poetic exchange. In his article, Atkinson writes:

Kent Johnson & Co.'s purposes, for example, could range from simple opportunism to metaliterary experimentation, and we may never know them for certain. I for one, would like not to care a lick about the the Yasusada scandal, savoring the spin of the dustdevil the culprits have kicked up but feeling mildly disgusted at the meaningless satisfaction I imagine they're enjoying as a result. But, if you're going to bother to read the Yasusada poems, you simply have to care: despite some critics' old college tries at evaluating them as authorial-context-free works of art-as 'just poems'-the Yasusada verses are not literature anymore. Rather, they're the residue of a cultural trump, the MacGuffin in an intellectual cocktail-party story, the gun but not the crime. Their actual substance resides not in the writing itself but beyond it, in both the deceiving purposes of the writer and the subsequent reaction of the outside world. They are Narcissus works, self-relevant only in their reflection, and irrelevant to all others.

I don't know who could really think "Kent Johnson has pulled off a fabulous coup, a litmag Tom Sawyer-ism," for the amplification of the work is much greater than mere market instability it caused. Clearly, though, Atkinson is right to a point. The work is not merely literary, and it is a residue of something that reaches beyond the bounds of literature. The Yasusada poems were written and published within the context of American military and cultural hegemony. Johnson's theorization behind the Yasuada debates of hyperauthorship in essence values the imagination over cultural formalities such as appropriate models of writing and dissemination.

Hyperauthorship is exploratory and expansive rather than static and determined by a number of set forces. The relationship between writer and reader is not as significant as that between the individual and the imagination. The power of language runs according to images that strike us, demanding our complete attention. To be absorbed by strange and unknown forces is to inhabit hyperauthorial space. It doesn't matter if Yasusada is "real;" his existence in language is vitally active within the imagination of many people. There's a thin line between existence and nonexistence anyway, and both stream through us and language is the thread in it all. Yasuada is image, and is a fact as such. You may not find his corpse, but you'll find 65,000-200,000 others from Hiroshima who were minding their business that August. Yasuda doesn't speak for them. He doesn't represent their "interests" or "claims" or their "voices." Yasusada is an American image created to navigate the consequences of its actions. Yasusada is sympathetic to lives evaporated in Japan but he's playful and contradictory to American literati queasy with their own insincerity. More than anything, actually, Yasusada is a sincere reaction to our world now. Again, there's precious little between existence and nonexistence. Yasusada is a medium, an angel, of these distances.

Juniper Fuse: Upper Paleolithic Imagination & the Construction of the Underworld by Clayton Eshleman
Wesleyan University Press
300 pp.

Doubled Flowering: From the Notebooks of Araki Yasusada Roof Books
170 pp.