The visionary is the most difficult approach to poetry, which accounts for how few poets sustain this effort over a lifetime of work. Clayton Eshleman’s “The Name Encanyoned River” reveals a poet who has persisted in searching for the essence of consciousness. The slightly more than six dozen poems which he has chosen to represent his accomplishment are drawn primarily from four books: “Fracture,” “Hades in Manganese,” “What She Means” and “The Gull Wall.”
Eshleman’s poems give glimpses of a boy growing up in a provincial part of the United States who rebels against the repressive values and psychological restrictions of his upbringing. Emotional turmoil is not an unusual beginning for a poet; nor is his youthful restlessness surprising--Eshleman has lived in Mexico, Japan, Peru, France and New York City as well as Los Angeles, where he currently resides.
His search for artistic companionship, which would provide a spiritual sustenance that his Midwestern mother and father could not, finally yielded a father figure in the extraordinary poetry of Peruvian Cesar Vallejo, whose writing Eshleman translated and retranslated over 15 years. The title, “The Name Encanyoned River,” is a translation of a line of poetry that Vallejo rejected in his work sheets.
Vallejo’s poetry is often convoluted in terms of its syntax and imagistic associations. Eshleman creates the same effect in English, using an existential prosody to add more psychological texture to the verbal labyrinth. Sometimes he achieves a lyrical density, as in “The Aurignacians Have the Floor,” an elegy for a vanishing species as well as for the death of Western culture:
It is now possible to chip at the target’s
dead center, that bison outline
by whose manganese side I am painting
the clawless Cameroon otter
with the disappearing silver of a Dracula
But the lyrical touch, which soars in a poem such as the powerful “Coproatavism,” often falters and produces proselike statements in many other poems: “The death of Bill Evans/makes me ask: what tortured him so?” (“The Death of Bill Evans”) or “Poets in Czechoslovakia are deprived of expressing/their pain, are made to lie to publish.” (“Master Hanus to His Blindness”).
Eshleman’s major strength in this book is his visionary scholarship, with its emphasis on the importance of the Paleolithic period as the source of humanity’s consciousness and imagination. Using cave paintings as proof for his argument and inspiration for his own poetry, Eshleman wants to alter our perception of history in a radical manner. His inspiration for this task is a man such as Wilhelm Reich, whom he regards as a hero for his attempt to liberate human beings from sexual limitations.
Whether the primacy of cave drawings in human chronology can accomplish this any more than an orgone box is debatable, but Eshleman’s theses about the fundamental importance of the Paleolithic deserves much more study. Like Mendel’s genetic experiments, completely overlooked when first presented, Eshleman’s suggestions may not be followed up this century, but some day people will probably look back and say, “How obvious!”
One of Eshleman’s recurring images is the mystical aftermath of lovemaking, first explored in “Scorpion Hopscotch” and much more fully developed in “Maithuna.” As verse, these poems are much more memorable than rhetorical narratives on theoretical rituals in a poem such as “The Fathers of Lascaux.” In that poem, he sets up the impossible task of making dramatically believable amorphous figures whose ceremonies require a woman “staked out” like “a kind of windmill in the cave’s recesses.”
Eshleman’s forays into the thoughts of modern visionaries use other artists--Frida Kahlo, Van Gogh, Francis Bacon--as personae, and these monologues, uttered from their point of view, achieve the level of intense homage. I think these are the kinds of artists Eshleman especially has in mind in “The Color Rake of Time":
I dreamed that all artists were friends,
that we told everything we knew to each other
and that our knowledge was physical,
that we worked in the skull rooms of each other’s
genital enclosures . . .
The most successful of these poems about other artists is the long, ambitious tribute to Max Beckmann, “Tuxedoed Groom on Canvas Bride,” which is a recent poem in the context of this selection. Two other new poems, “The Crone” and “Deeds Done and Suffered by Light,” explore with tender passion his relationship with his dead parents.
Many poets at Eshleman’s stage of artistic growth are content to work with the materials and techniques they feel they have mastered. Eshleman’s most recent work indicates a potential for profundity and shows that he has laid the groundwork for creating a memorable body of work.