Eshleman and surrealism

by on Jun.22, 2011

In the wake of the interesting debate about surrealism on Montevidayo the past few days, and Kent Johnson’s remarks about Eshleman’s importance in the transmission of surrealism to the American poetry scene, I’m reposting a review I wrote on Eshleman’s Anticline on Exoskeleton about a year ago.
In his new book of poems entitled Anticline, Clayton Eshleman takes on many of the themes that he has been dealing with through his prolific career–the underlying violence of the American empire, the border between the animal and human, the ways in which the visual arts and poetry attempt to express the “the human” in all of its often inhuman complexity, with Francis Bacon and Bosch being especially relevant to his more recent poems, and also how the imagination can both trap and liberate us. I have to admit, I think Eshleman has become a better and better poet over the years, and Anticline is one of my favorite books of his yet. His images have become both clearer and stranger, and his political instincts, while always being critical of those in power, have sharpened even further during the Bush years–and yet he has continually kept away from the self-congratulatory moralizing that has bogged down so much of the political poetry written since 9/11. His more political poems tend to be too messy, too riddled with conflict, and, frankly, too horrific, to be self-congratulatory. If the image of war we find in some American poetry can seem as sanitized as the images we see on CNN, the imagery in Eshleman’s political poems are like the more uncensored pictures of conflict we find on Al Jazeera. As Simon Critchley points out in his book Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance, modern politics is now more than ever about “the control of the image.”

The political framework in Eshleman’s poetry begins with ugliness, with disgust, yet he always foregrounds the person actually being harmed. In many ways, his political sensibility reflects a line from Godard’s Notre musique: “To kill a human being in order to defend an idea is not to defend an idea, it is to kill a human being.” “In “Consternation II” he writes about the “burnt black arm of an Iraqi 12 year old,” a line that ends with the image of the boy instead of the burnt arms (in other words, not “a 12 year old Iraqi boy with burnt arms,” the way it might be written in a news account). Such a move therefore emphasizes the boy, and not simply the destroyed arms. In “Torture II” he describes the “American Abyss” as “a white 13 by 13 foot room with bash board / on one side / so bodies can be smashed but the damage remain unobservable.” Eshleman is determined to recoup those damaged bodies, to remove them from the context of the small, hidden white room, from the “American abyss.”

His political poetry also manages to be personal without being confessional or narcissistic. He doesn’t feel “anxiety” about the rise of free-market capitalism and the reach of the American empire (as if the poor worry if those of us in the first-world middle class feel “anxiety” about them); instead, Eshleman, much like Ariana Reines in The Cow, moves from terror to almost incoherent rage to nightmarish vision. “I acknowledge the American government’s infiltration of my psyche,” he writes in “Consternation I.” “My mental atmosphere has become grainy, hyphenated, / cabbage-odored with seized distractions.” Eshleman’sAnticline suggests that beautiful, elegant poetry is not only a “sham”–it’s a form of political amnesia.


Though I’ve never seen any criticism comparing Alice Notley and Eshleman, I often think of them as having a surprising amount of things in common, with their work reflecting, for me, the best of the adventurous spirit of the 60’s–both are invested in experimenting radically with form (without ever becoming dry formalists), both have a strong inclination toward excess (Eshleman and Notley have been extremely prolific, and their poems themselves have tended to be very elastic, bringing in wide range of material), and both are attracted to the more turbulent, unsettling branches of unconscious (and sometimes even mystic) experience. Hegel famously wrote that to look in an individual’s eyes is to look into “the night of the world”–a place not of humanist plentitude but of dizzying absence and obscurity–and Eshleman, like his two major influences Artaud and Vallejo, has spent his career exploring this night. In his poem “Abyssand”–one of the early poems in Anticline–Eshleman writes, “Without ugliness and horror at the base of a poetics, form and beauty / are a sham,” and again and again in the collection he returns to the fundamental ontological theme of being and non-being, exploring the echo chamber between sex and death, consciousness and the unconscious. No wonder that in the same poem he calls upon Kali, wondering “But am I up to Kali? Will she deign to show me / life’s full complement– / the worm strumming in my palm / Stigmata Sutra?” As that last line also demonstrates, Eshleman’s spirituality is intensely physical, not so much a breath in the lungs as a worm in the stigmata.

This visceral quality in Eshleman’s work is one reason why he has been able to explore the self in such a bold and original manner. A few years ago, I wrote an essay for Action, Yes about Eshleman where I stressed the importance of the “head” in Eshleman’s work, and how the head is different from the face. If lyrical poetry tends to focus on the face as the area where the person is most humanly expressive, where the person is their most “true self,” then the head is more generic, more about the sheer material thingness of the person. In Deleuzian terms, the face is the “individual,” whereas the head is the “Figure,” the term Deleuze uses to describe the non-humanist representations of humans in Bacon’s work. Anticline continues this examination of a kind of non-humanist notion of what it means to be human, with the series of poems inspired by Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights being particularly focused on this issue. The “Tavern of the Scarlet Bagpipe,” like Eshlemn’s highly original work on cave paintings, tries to locate the human within a world that is in a state of perpetual mutability. At one point Eshleman writes, “Might not the swarm of ‘human’ wraiths percolating Paradise / be the progeny of an exfoliating vision by which ‘holy ghosts’ / are brought into physical conversation– / conversion with birds, beasts, flowers, fruit?”

Of course, the question of self and subjectivity has been a contentious one in American poetry since the late 60’s. Some of the debates have been stunningly reductive, with one side arguing for a lyrical, coherent “I,” and the other for a poetry devoid of the self, believing that to rid poetry (and thought in general) of the “I” would be a move toward permanently disabling the chief means of exploitation and domination. Yet many of the best poets in the past thirty or forty years have had a much more nuanced take on subjectivity. Notley and Michael Palmer have both found ways of thinking about the first person that thoroughly complicates the above opposition. And Eshleman has too. In “A Transmigralation,” Eshleman writes “There’s a pouch of menstrual blood & semen / attached to the back wall of imagination.” The image could be said to be a kind of origin for the self: a self that is curiously impersonal (the “wall of imagination” seems to simply exist, unattached to any manifestation of personhood, while also echoing cave imagery) and yet absolutely material, visceral (the “pouch of menstrual blood & semen”). Like Artaud and Vallejo, Eshleman is fascinated by the elemental (blood, semen, rock, dust, shit, bones), by that aspect of life we try to fit into knowable categories–whether they be linguistic, aesthetic, political, or philosophical–in order to control. And also like Artaud and Vallejo, he sees the “self” has made up of shifting elemental compounds. In “Tavern of the Scarlet Bagpipe,” he writes, “Better to drag a big speckled bug around by the tail than seek / redemption,” suggesting that any type of conceptual thought that means to cover up or erase the elemental–any type of thought that seeks to “redeem” the elemental–is doomed by its own idealism.

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