Clayton Eshleman’s Poetic Art

Arshile Gorky, Water of the Flowery Mill

The American poet Clayton Eshleman’s work, spanning forty-five years and including major works of translation (Cesaire, Vallejo) as well as editing, is much less well-known than it deserves to be. Rather than try to give some kind of an overview of his substantial achievement, which makes him in my opinion one of the most important living poets in the English-speaking world, I have decided to focus on Eshleman’s writing about painting, not only because of its unusual range and depth, but also in the hope that this will encourage some readers to explore his work further.

Writing about paintings in such a way as to do them poetic justice, to do more than just make a descriptive inventory of a work or bounce associations off its subject, is hard. It involves a difficult level of creative reception, and the ability to articulate this, and at the same time to allow the writing to take off in its own directions while still remaining faithful to the spirit of the work one is writing about.

“Poetic justice” means more than attending to the outward appearance of a painting: it means attending at the same time to its inward resonances, in much the same way that poetry ought to do with other forms of experience. A painting doesn’t come alive until it is met by the spectator’s imaginative response. Some of this is of course a matter of fairly conscious reflection, figuring out what is going on, locating what is responsible for certain effects, situating the work in relation to one’s previous experience of art, and so on—but a substantial portion is subliminal, flickering at the edge of our attention.

Aesthetic experience is far from being as detached as much of its theory would prescribe: it evokes profound and sometimes disturbing imaginative reactions. At first these seem like almost purely subjective feelings, so deeply do they push their roots into a realm which could be called, to borrow Anton Ehrenzweig’s term, inarticulate. This means, first of all, that engaging with the material texture and handling of a painting involves coming to grips with relations between forms that are often shifting and slippery, things that language cannot easily grasp. With the painters whose works Eshleman writes about, a description is already loaded even where there are identifiable “things” in the painting. Take this passage, about a Soutine still-life:

It is very murky here, fleeced of sunlight.
The potted flowers grapple with the chair back.
The lilacs in their jug look like spoiled meat,
like scrapings turning scarlet with desire?
jug acrawl with roses, looking Argus-eyed,
face swarming with eyes, roses as blowflies,
release these ravens, peacock entail them!

(from “Soutine’s Lapis”; in From Scratch 1998)

It’s not that these images and metaphors are somehow bolted onto what could otherwise be a supposedly more objective account: it’s that they are fundamental to Eshleman’s take on the painting. At the same time they bring into focus a glimpse of something like Soutine’s world which is at once the source of his paintings and also something that could only have come into being through them.

These images that build up, collide and collude refer to the inside of the painting, to its feel; and this is where another sense of “inarticulate” comes into play. The idea that looking at a painting involves much more than the eyes is not a new one—it is to be found in Merleau-Ponty for example—but few writers dare to take the full implications of this to heart. There are precedents: Rilke on Cezanne’s portrait of his wife, Artaud on Van Gogh, John Berger on Bonnard are some well-known examples; but writers who are prepared to take such risks or go to the lengths or depths entailed are the exception.

There is surely an added weight when it comes to poems. For the poem doesn’t seek merely to evoke, but in its own texture and verbal facture to create a kind of parallel object to the painting it deals with. Where a painting is more or less figurative it’s always possible to envelop its objects in fantasy or to spin narrative elaborations about its apparent themes; but where it is non-figurative, this risks seeming like an imposition. I don’t know if there is such a things as an abstract imagination, but much of our response to such painting is inevitably couched in figurative terms. And poetry can blow these up—both magnify and explode them.

This is only partly because we tend to “see” things in terms of figures (so-called “physiognomic perception” is only the tip of this iceberg); it is also because, in using words we have to bend and stretch language to reach after what we are trying to articulate. In a sense, poetry is the logical accomplishment of this attempt to say what we feel and feel what we say. Much is suggested or invented by language itself. For example:

In the art of Unica Zurn, the known is rederranged,
the red-eared angel is crushed into a thousand eyes,
as if in Tantrik diffraction, cranial shapes
break into heads in telescopic profiles, with eye lozenge
clusters of hanging pods. Abyss weevils
percolate with seed energies.

(from “Unica Zurn” in Reciprocal Distillations 2007)

While the poem can be read in its own right, it also takes on another dimension when read alongside the image (reproduced or remembered) of the work that inspired it.

Willem de Kooning, February

In his poem about De Kooning’s February, Eshleman writes,

The observational,
vanished, figures emerge,
as if by chance through
a meeting of my projections and stroke
Configurations. A Luba jaw
curve juts stops spurts up as if along a crossed-out
upper face. Khakis, sages,
swank with white. Flotsam from Soutine’s Ceret
assembled on a beach.
Only some “rope” and “ain’t” are left from
European Painting.

(from “De Kooning’s February” in From Scratch 1998)

To get the full measure of this you have to have an image of the painting alongside (see above).

An artist’s name often acts as shorthand for a particular perspective, a beacon whose roving beam lights up an entire world (eg Kakfaesque, Beckmannesque). Eshleman conjures up the daemonic realms of many artists: Soutine, Bacon, De Kooning, Bellmer, Michaux and Artaud, as well as some so-called Outsiders such as Nedjar, Darger and Judith Scott. These evocations are extensive: like a terrier worrying after a trail, Eshleman casts about, seeking to penetrate the artist’s lair, to get at its specifics, using every twist and turn that language can afford.

Henri Michaux, Mescaline Drawing (1956)

Take these extracts from a text on Michaux, almost certainly referring to his mescaline drawings:

A line encounters a line, evades a line.
A line waits, hopes, a line rethinks a face.
Ant-high lines. Ant-visibles streaming through lines.
A melodic line crosses twenty stratigraphic fractures.
A line germinates. Martyr-laughable lines.
Lines gaslighting lines. Lines budding on a dune.
A dream of paradise: lines in conversation with their liminal selves.

(from “Michaux 1956” in Reciprocal Distillations 2007)

There is a correspondence here between the restless succession of metaphors and personifications and the endlessly suggestive texture of Michaux’s drawing: the scatter of images conveys the sense of elements hovering on the brink of dissolution, of radiant structures rearing up only to evaporate again.

However, Eshleman’s work is far more than a kind of poetic mimesis: it also involves a process that begins with incorporating these artists’ work into his own world. Here I can see artworks functioning as what the psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas calls transformational objects: they enter into our inner worlds in a talismanic fashion, they act as nuclei around which an imaginative crystallization can take place. But one can’t just swallow the work whole. You have to get your teeth into it before it can be imaginatively digested. Hence what might sometimes look like a piecemeal regurgitation in Eshleman’s poems is more a multifaceted re-presentation. What he serves up to us may look messy or chaotic, but it has been subject to a complex psychic and linguistic recombination. The risk is always that parts of this spread may be unrecognizable, or seem too subjective and therefore belong to the poet’s inner world.

But this inner world is not exclusively internal, nor is it simply personal. Like anyone’s, Eshleman’s imagination feeds off its own autobiographical midden-heap. But this is woven into his poetic mythology so that it becomes more than just his story. Some elements of this have an archetypal dimension, drawing on a global range of gods, daemons and spirits. But the primal deposit of his (and our) imagination is the Upper Paleolithic. Here is where human beings first began to define themselves through their art and it is psychologically as well as geologically archaic, and this is the ground or underworld in which painting is often rooted, the inner cave wall where we all start from scratch. Eshleman has published an extraordinary book about this, Juniper Fuse (2003), that combines twenty years of hands-on research with the most daring poetic testimony.

In between these extremes lies a polymorphous and subversive realm: that of the hybrid and the grotesque. Images that have been repressed or banished often assume distorted forms, become carnivalesque or caricatural disguises of themselves, and they inhabit the no-man’s-land at the edge of consciousness. This is also the domain that many of the artists Eshleman writes about dabble in: Soutine or Arshile Gorky, for example. Here he is writing about the latter’s “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…

(from “An Arsenal in Seattle” in Reciprocal Distillations 2007)

It’s important to realize that these are successive takes on passages of Gorky’s imagery, rather than definitive interpretations. They function as a spray of images, each of which lights up a feature of the painting in its own way, building up into a fountain of poetic imagination that plays over the whole.

There is an extravagant generosity at work here, and Eshleman is prepared to give free rein to his fantasy in ways that sometimes push the reader’s tolerance to the limit: like a bull in the china shop of conventional aesthetics, he can sound wild or vulgar. A later passage from the poem on De Kooning’s “February” quoted above reads:

The Luba jaw is also the front half of a grand piano,
the rear half of a peacock-blue bison.
This jaw-keyboard-rump is being played or
buggered by a sketchy ape with a feline face.
How curb a dog that’s slowly exploding?
Spurting up jaw standing swab
tattered cloak swipe of grey-green mist
topped by white helmet-shaped woman’s hair.
Is ”she” holding out a mangled gold foetus?

The lens through which De Kooning is seen is no different from that employed in the rest of Eshleman’s poetry. Its aperture is wide enough to include images that are usually ruled out by the umpire of conscious control, and in subsequent working over even typographical slips can throw up new amalgams.

In the end how far you are prepared to go with Eshleman—and indeed with the art he is responding to—depends on what taking them seriously entails. Like Artaud, his vision is one with no holds barred, and of course it often feels uncomfortable or disturbing. I leave you with a passage towards the end of “An Arsenal in Seattle” quoted earlier:

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 tarantella power
spit like fire through facial
groin-horned snake-pouched feelers.

P7030004_1David Maclagan is a writer, artist, lecturer and retired art therapist, living in W Yorks. He has published numerous articles on Outsider Art, art and imagination and psychological aesthetics (the title of a book published in 2001 by Jessica Kingsley). His latest book Outsider Art: from the margins to the marketplace has just been published by Reaktion Books.

  • Cj8800

    Wonderful piece! So accurate.

    Jim Lourie

  • Great to hear that feedback, Jim!