Clayton Eshleman and the Spirits of the Head
by James Pate
The theater of cruelty is not a representation. It is life itself, in the extent to which life is unrepresentable. Life is the nonrepresentable origin of representation.
- Jacques Derrida
"The Theater of Cruelty and the Closure of Representation"
Or, to put it in yet another way: if the main problem of idealism is how we are to pass from the ever-changing "false" material phenomenal reality to the true reality of Ideas (from the cave in which we can perceive only shadows to the daylight in which we can glimpse the sun), the problem of materialism from Lucretius through Schelling's Weltalter and the Marxist notion of commodity fetishism to Deleuze's "logic of sense" is the exact opposite, namely the genesis of the semblance itself: how does the reality of bodies generate out of itself the fantasmatic surface, the "incorporeal" sense event?
- Slavoj Zizek
The Abyss of Freedom
I have, right to this day, a photographically clear memory of standing on the concourse looking at my stained sleeve, at the grease - this messy, irksome matter that had no respect for millions, didn't know its place. My undoing: matter.
- Tom McCarthy
In a previous essay I wrote for Action, Yes, I discussed three poets - Ariana Reines, Lara Glenum, and Daniel Borzutzky - who, I argued, had recently brought a renewed sense of matter, of the body, into their work, and who are writing experimental poetry that is in a radically different vein than those poets who work in the Language writing mode. The work of Reines, Glenum, and Borzutzky, as diverse as it is, attempts to probe the gap between materiality and symbolic integration; it is a poetry of leftovers and remainders, of that which can never be worked through into a totalizing system (whether that system be a utopian dialectics or certain notions of "everything is text/language"). And such a project is fundamentally and decisively different from the projects of the majority of Language writers (though there are some exceptions - for example, the work of Leslie Scalapino.)
In this essay, I would like to connect the work of Reines, Glenum, and Borzutzky to a broader aesthetic/philosophical context - specifically, to the work of Clayton Eshleman. But I also want to emphasize that the three poets discussed in the previous essay are part of a larger cultural sensibility. First, I should mention that there are other recent books of poetry that share an aesthetic similar to that of the works by the three poets I wrote about in the essay. Max Winter's wonderful The Pictures comes to mind, a book that attempts to do in poetry what Robbe-Grillet had been trying to do in his many "objective" novels - namely, to foreground the inexplicable, uncanny world of things. Secondly, the obsession with "material" and the "body" has a long history in contemporary art and writing. In terms of the visual arts, such a sensibility clearly relates to Anselm Kiefer's leaden books and the material "heaviness" of his canvases, to Joseph Beuys' aesthetic of deliberate crudeness, and, in its politicized grotesquesness, to Kara Walker's silhouettes; in terms of film, the philosophical fascination with the material can be found in Tarkovski's Stalker and Solaris (where God, or the Mind, has become the meaningless weight of objects themselves) and in the fetishtic narratives of Kenneth Anger and Guy Maddin. In terms of writing: Rimbaud, Huysmans, Artaud, Vallejo, Sartre's Nausea, Beckett, Ballard, Christensen, Burroughs, Shelley Jackson, Tom McCarthy's Remainder, and the general orientation of the semi-fictitious International Necronautical Society. (Of course, I'm not arguing that Reines, Glenum, and Borzutzky are consciously or even unconsciously using these influences; I'm simply trying to bring out certain resembling factors between them and other artists.) Interestingly, the one place where it is difficult to find forerunners of writers such as Reines, Glenum, and Borzutzky (along with Winter, etc.) is in the American poetry scene of roughly the past fifty years. Some of Borzutzky's humor echoes Russell Edson's pitch-black sense of farce; Reines' use of jump-cut narrative sequences resembles aspects of Carla Harryman's work; Glenum's theatricality is related to Plath at her most extravagantly surreal - but, for the most part, these writers are working in a manner that lies outside the boundaries of recent American poetry. In fact, one of the most fascinating aspects about the work of the three poets I discussed is how adventurous it is thematically and formally, often blurring the lines between what is considered "raw" and "cooked." Also, these are poets who do not readily follow the orthodoxy, established by Language poets back in the 1970's, that experimental poets are expected to believe in. (For example, the notion of the "death of the Subject" has become a commandment for many Language writers (with Michael Palmer's work being an important exception). But Reines in particular has shown in The Cow the intriguing possibilities of a non-humanist Subject - a Subject related directly to the Hegelian notion of the human eye as the "night of the world.") After several decades in which "experimental American poetry" has become almost synonymous with "language writing," it is refreshing to see a new sensibility begin to appear on the scene.
One important forerunner to the new writers of the Grotesque - and the focus of the current essay - is the vast oeuvre of Clayton Eshleman. I recently picked up a copy of The Grindstone of Rapport: A Clayton Eshleman Reader, and once again was amazed by the scope, fervor, and complexity of Eshleman's writings. His work in translation alone would make him one of the most significant figures on the contemporary American poetry scene - a scene that at times seems to be suffocating from its lack of outside, non-American influences. Yet his poetry, starting with the 1962 book Mexico & North, has continually been one of risk, invention, and "legitimate strangeness" (to use a phrase of Rene Char's). In "The Book of Yorunomado," a poem from early in his career, he writes, "My language is full of dirt and shit," and for more than forty years he had been true to his word. Yet Eshleman is not a scatological poet - nothing is as banal as writers, or artists, who hope to shock the reader or viewer with references to excrement, semen, blood, etc. (One only has to think back on some of the performance art pieces of the seventies and eighties to recollect how unshocking such an aesthetic can be.) Rather, Eshleman is a poet of the Subject in the most violent sense of that word - a poet of the Subject as disruption, of the Lacanian split: like Vallejo and Artaud, a poet of the Subject as "a night that becomes awful" (to use Hegel's definition of the human). And this Subject is not simply part of "dirt and shit." Its language, its very engine, is generated from such material.
In the following essay, I will describe what I see as being three of the most crucial thematic obsessions in Eshleman's work: his focus on how the pre-conscious, animal mind developed into the self-reflective human one (without ever fully shedding the previous mind), his fascination with the visual arts (some of his best work, I will argue, being his free-associative interpretations - or re-mappings - of certain paintings), and his commitment to a poetics of political urgency (a poetics which, under the influence of Artaud, Vallejo, and Cesaire, is not narrowed by the simplistic self-righteousness that limits so much political poetry : a poetics, in fact, that has led Eshleman to write some of the most striking political American poetry in the past few decades).
1. "From no image of the world to an image"
I believe that we make images not simply because we are creatures who seek to loose ourselves within a pattern's mastery, 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).
In short, the ontological necessity of "madness" resides in the fact that it is not possible to pass directly from the purely "animal soul" immersed in its natural life-world to "normal" subjectivity dwelling in its symbolic universe - the vanishing mediator between the two is the "mad" gesture of radical withdraw from reality that opens the space for its symbolic (re)constitution. It was already Hegel who emphasized the radical ambiguity of the statement "What I think, the product of my thought, is objectively true."
- Slavoj Zizek
The Abyss of Freedom
For Eshleman, the animal state, the world of the pre-conscious mind, is never far from the human mind - in fact, for Eshleman the conscious mind is really, to use one of his poem's titles, a spirit of the head, and any aesthetic that attempts to repress the sign of the "head," to take away the materialist ground of spirit, is immediately suspect. (The very phrase "spirits of the head" uncannily echoes Hegel's famous phrase "the Spirit is bone": and it would be hard to over-emphasize the importance of the word "head" instead of "mind" for Eshleman. "Head" clearly implies the material of the brain, but also the skull, face, scalp, hair, teeth, and tongue. There is an oddly decapitated element in the phrase that reveals something of the very ground of Eshleman's form of materialism; this "head" does not have the pathos of Yorick's skull, or the ethereal cleanliness of "brain waves." Instead, the "spirit" in Eshleman moves forth from an object denser, more inexpressible, almost a Kantian thing-in-itself.) As Eshleman has said in one of the interviews collected in Companion Spider, there is a popular lyrical form in the U.S. these days that "maintains that the poet is a kind of hyper-sensitive being who is constantly registering a sensitivity to life which shows that he is a fine upstanding, moral citizen. It becomes PR for a poet as good guy." Such a construction of the poetic persona is divorced from any material life: the "head" is erased so that the "citizen" might thrive.
But how is it possible to bring "the head" into writing? How can a materialist and non-humanist aesthetic be carried out without reverting to an easy nihilism (in which case humanism would come through the back door, clothed in the robes of a romanticized despair)? An excellent example of Eshleman's writing method can be found in his 2005 poem "Unbuckled Tongue." In it, Eshleman writes, "Dionysus is near / but so is Ashcroft, while Mother Teresa / cuddles a gigantic gangrenous ear." The first impression is the political implication of the lines. There is the polarity of Dionysus and Ashcroft, of wildness/nature versus oppressive authoritarianism, with the figure Mother Teresa hovering around them as a symbol of care for suffering that goes beyond any understandable scale (hence the "gigantic" ear). But the ear, given an almost infant-like status due to being cuddled, is, upon closer examination, like a foreign element thrown into the mix. Why an ear instead of a nose, or mouth? Why is it "gangrenous"? Why is it being cuddled? Is it an implied reference to the famous gangrenous ear in Blue Velvet? Such questions might seem out of place when dealing with an image so clearly meant to be surreal - after all, there are hundreds of images in Breton and Desnos and O'Hara and Ashberry that have no clear symbolic function, no cohesive "meaning." However, the very word "surrealism" is so incredibly elastic - especially when we consider how different Breton's mode of surrealism is from Tate's, for example - that simply calling this grotesque ear surreal does not get us very far.
To attempt an answer through a different route: Lacan at times wrote about the "materiality" of words in their relation to the unconscious, and how there is a "material" and "flesh" to words that has nothing to do with their meaning. He argued:
If you open a book by Freud, and particularly those books which are properly about the unconscious, you can be absolutely sure - it is not a probability but a certitude - to fall on a page where it is not only a question of words - naturally in a book there are always words, many printed words - but words which are the object through which one seeks for a way to handle the unconscious. Not even the meaning of the words, but words in their flesh, in their material aspect.
The phrase "words which are the object through which one seeks for a way to handle the unconscious" is crucial for understanding Eshleman's "gigantic gangrenous ear." Eshleman himself in an interview with Duane Davis once placed the difference between himself and a poet such as Marvin Bell around this very question of the unconscious. Eshleman explained that if the phrase "I want to kiss Hitler's tits" suddenly flashed through Bell's mind, he would never bring it into the dynamic of his poem. It would instantly be suppressed. Eshleman, though, said he would have no problem bringing in such a line, attempting to work out, through the poem, where it had come from. In Eshleman's poetry, and in his work process, transparency is not a virtue: often what goes by the name of the transparent is the most censored of all, suggesting, as it does, a seamlessness between Self and Subject, between writing and meaning, the sayable and the unsayable, while also presenting to the reader a vision of words with their "flesh" and "material" scooped out. The "gigantic gangrenous ear" is like a form of dark matter: it is not meant to invoke wonder, or to create a recognizable aesthetic effect; it is also not willfully arbitrary; instead, it is similar to "Hitler's tits." Both are unexpected images/words that re-order and re-calibrate a poem, bringing it closer to the unrepresentable trauma of the split within the Subject itself. (Eshleman's use of surrealism reminds me of Bacon's, who said, "I think great art is deeply ordered. Even if within the order there may be enormously instinctive and accidental things, nevertheless I think they come out of a desire for ordering and for returning fact unto the nervous system in a more violent way." It should be noted, of course, that ordering and controlling are two different - even contrary - methods of expression.)
But we should be careful not to confuse Eshleman's attitude toward the instincts and the unconscious with those of, for example, the Surrealists, or some of the Beatniks. Like Artaud, who so distrusted the Surrealists, Eshleman does not view the unconscious as a wonderland from which we have been exiled (though to be fair, neither did all of the Surrealists); nor is he, like Allen Ginsberg, a celebrant of the human potential waiting to emerge once the old causes of repression have been wiped away. In Eshleman, the price of "unbuckled" writing and thinking is frequently horrific ("I crack open to find my / life," he writes in "Cemeteries of Paradise"). The unconscious is not the home of the true self for Eshleman - it is the most extimate Other.
And Eshleman's fascination with unconscious operations relates to his fascination with Upper Paleolithic cave art; Eshleman is not a primitivist, after all, nor is he interested in Edenic notions of the human as a fall from nature. Rather, Eshleman's work on cave art - of those initial images revealing our entry into the realm of the Symbolic - is primarily philosophical, examining how the human separated itself from the animal/mineral, or, to put it in Schellingian terms, how the phenomenal came forth from the Grund of the noumenal. (Schelling considered Kant's silence on the emergence of the phenomenal from the noumenal to be one of that philosopher's primary weaknesses; similarly, for Eshleman there can be no Subject without looking at the mass of seething materiality that precedes it, generates it.) Zizek argues that the first appearance of the Symbolic must have taken place due to "radical withdraw," a move away from the All-One; the Subject separates itself from Substance in an act of "madness" prior to the establishment of the phenomenal. And Eshleman could, in a sense, be said to be the poet - the explorer - of this initial radical withdraw. As he writes in "Notes on a Visit to Le Tuc d'Audoubert" when speaking of "two bison sculptured out of clay":
...it is the spot where the leap should occur that Le Tuc d'Audoubert says
is VOID, and that unfilled space between two fertile poles here feels like the
origin of the abyss, as if in the minds of those who shaped and placed these two bison, fertilization was pulled free, and that freedom from connection
is the demon of creation haunting man and woman ever since -
In this poem Eshleman suggests that "the origin of the abyss" appeared simultaneously with the appearance of representation - in this case, the sculptures of the bison. Interestingly, Lacan also saw a link between the emergence of the Subject, Representation, and the void. In his essay "Homo Sapiens or Homo Desiderans?" Henry Sullivan discusses Lacan's approach to the cave paintings of the Upper Paleolithic, which Lacan wrote about in L'Ethique de la psychanalyse. Sullivan reminds us that the effort of culture, according to Lacan, is premised on the desire to express what can never be integrated into the Symbolic form, and Lacan saw the cave art of the Upper Paleolithic as already taking part in that effort. As Lacan argues, "These images cannot not seize us as being at the same time profoundly linked to the closest tie in the world - I mean the very subsistence of populations which seem to be composed essentially of hunters - but also to that something which, in its subsistence, assumes for itself the charater of a Beyond the Sacred; which is exactly what we are attempting to determine in its most general form by the term 'the Thing.' This is primitive subsistence, I would say, seen from the angle of the Thing." Such a notion of the Thing and its relation to cave art explicitly brings into play Eshleman's interest in the becoming-human. If the human brings itself into being through the Symbolic order from which the Thing is necessarily absent, then the human must by definition bring the Thing into existence at same time. The void does not exist without the Subject. Lacan continues:
Just as the exercise on the wall consists of situating the invisible inhabitant of the cave firmly in place, we can see a chain forming itself from the temple, viewed as an organization around this void which exactly designates the locus of the Thing, to representation of the void on the walls of this void itself, in so far as painting progressively learns to master this void, to hug it so close that it becomes dedicated to anchoring the void in the form of spatial illusion.
Eshleman has a similarly paradoxical notion of human development, with "the human" or the realm of the phenomenal being related to both image and void. As he writers in Juniper Fuse, "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)." In other words, the human is not pure, nor is it the seat of the "I"; it does not have a "single, individuated body"; and it is also empty, since in every metaphor there is a disruption, a space, between the two contrasting elements. The "human" has little to do with the humanist scaffolding we have built around its image.
Another factor to consider in Eshleman's approach to the cave art of the Upper Paleolithic is how continually kinetic he finds the caves; there is nothing here of the hushed awe we find in certain poets of the lyrical mode who, upon entering a renowned or problematic cultural space, seem to want to impress us with their seriousness. Eshleman is too busy and imaginative for such glib sanctimony. At one point in "Notes on a Visit to le Tuc D'Audourbert," he writes "to be alive as a poet is to be / in conversation with one's eyes" (italics his), and in this poem (as with so many of his poems) we flash back and forth between image and thought, and between intellectual analysis (Bataille, Bakhtin, Picasso, and Michealangelo all make an appearance here) with moments that are free-associative, like sparks from the unconscious (as when he writes "I swear I sensed the disintegration of the backbone of my mother now / buried 12 years"). And instead of taking us solemnly underground, Eshleman offers this funny and oddly uncanny image of himself traveling through the caves: "If one were to film one's postures through this entire process, it might look like a St. Vitus dance of the stages in the life of man birth channel expulsion to old age, but without chronological order."
In "Notes on a Visit to le Tuc D'Audoubert," Eshleman defines the grotesque as "movement," saying that "life is grotesque when we catch / it in quick perceptions - / at full vent - history / shaping itself," and the history being examined here is that "vortex in which the emergent / human and withdrawing animal / are spun" - that is, those cave paintings where the human and animal are kinetically together ("spun") and yet also separating (the "withdrawing animal"). For Eshleman, these pre-historical works approach us with history "at full vent."
2. Eshleman's Bacon
It's also always hopeless talking about painting - one never does anything but talk around it - because, if you could explain your painting, you would be explaining your instincts.
- Francis Bacon
If by "the human" we mean actual lives
kicking up dust as they speed toward us
shattering idealistic frames,
then Caravaggio, like Vallejo's Human Poems,
produced human paintings.
- Clayton Eshleman
It would be a mistake to see Eshleman's many poems on modern art (and I mean "modern" here in a very broad sense, a modern that includes Caravaggio) as poems meant to register the feelings and thoughts a viewer might have in front of a painting - a type of poetry that almost always seems to place the poem on a secondary position, with the art work itself as the central, grounding engine the words in the poem can never fully reveal. Instead, he approaches the works of Kahlo, Bacon, Darger, Caravaggio, among many others, in much the same way as he approaches the images from the Upper-Paleolithic era: as examples of how certain artists have wrestled with the issue of representing that which is too excessive, and too evasive, for any representation. These are all artists who, in Vallejo's famous words, "Refuse...to set foot / on the double security of Harmony," and who, "truly refuse symmetry" ("XXXVI"). Eshleman in these poems also continues his examination of how semblance emerges from sheer materiality. In his poem "Michaux, 1956," he writes, "There is in Michaux an emergent face/non-face always in formation. Call it 'face before birth.' Call it our thingness making faces." The last beautiful phrase, with its echoes of both psychoanalytic philosophy and the Hebrew Testament, shows Eshleman at his most subtle. Our "thingness" is neither a materialistic blob, nor an incorporeal floating signifier - in fact, it is "making faces," a phrase suggesting both playful childishness (a child making faces at passing cars, for example) as well as a Borgesian sense of the emptiness of the persona (if our "thingness" is making faces, then none of those faces can be authentic). The phrase, I would argue, reveals the fundamental materialism of Eshleman's sensibility. As Zizek has noted, a truly materialist orientation does not lead to simplistic empiricism, or to a flat, deterministic universe, but rather to an ontology that must relate to both Grund (the realm of matter in all of its overwhelming mass as well as the realm of warring "inhuman" drives) and Urgrund (the void created retroactively with the emergence of the symbolic). For Eshleman, our "thingness" is there ("thing" implies just that: the most empty noun), and not-there ("thingness" is a quality, a movement).
The fact that Eshleman has been so drawn toward Francis Bacon's work in particular is not surprising. Both Eshleman and Bacon work against humanist frames, and they are intrigued by the way living things, and materiality in general, has both a blood-element and a ghost-element (with Bacon's screaming Popes maybe the best example of this doubleness - those figures that are both screaming creatures in apparent pain and also translucent specters from an unfinished nightmare). In fact, some of Eshleman's greatest work, I would argue, has come from his attempt to approach Bacon, and to study and reformulate Bacon's piercing sense the real.
In his 1999 poem about Bacon entitled "Spirits of the Head," Eshleman begins with the question: "You want to recover the original wholeness?" His answer appears to be that we should plunge, so to speak, into the unruliness of the material world. He tells us we must "re-enter chaos," kill our "own profane existence," and "become a chocolate skull wrapped in white silk." Of course, as so often in Eshleman, what appears at first to be a lucid thought - the urge to re-enter an original chaos and to violently split from our "profane" selves - becomes, with a surprising, additional line, incredibly paradoxical. The full line reads: "Become a chocolate skull, wrapped in white silk, teeth sewn shut, sockets / shell-stoppered." We have an image of the skull closed off ("wrapped" and "sewn shut" and "shell-stoppered") from any intercourse with the world around it. A skull that has lost its human attributes, that has become a thing. How does such a closed-off image of the human relate to the lines of Romantic liberation that immediately precedes it? On one level, Eshleman seems to be trying to evoke a fundamental polarity in the noumenal realm: the split between bodiless and unmoored chaos and the mute self-contained thing (with Eshleman choice of a skull here bringing the human in direct relationship with this thingness). On other level, though, the image of the "chocolate skull" operates in this poem similarly to the way the "giant gangrenous ear" operates in the poem discussed earlier. It is an image that can not be interpreted symbolically or theoretically. It seems to stand in contradiction to the opening question of the possible ways we can recover "original wholeness." How could such a skull-as-thing be related to any notion of wholeness (except in the sense that such a skull, like a stone, is utterly self-contained)? And on yet another level, this skull is once again a sign of Eshleman's materialist philosophy. Eshleman appears to be suggesting that we must bring this image of the skull, with its teeth "sewn shut," and its eyes "shell-stoppered," into our most basic understanding about "the human," and only by aligning ourselves with such an orientation will we be able to "kill" our "profane existence." And I would argue that there are moments such as these in Eshleman’s work when he is close to Beckett’s radical sense of materiality. The philosopher Simon Critchley, in his book entitled Very Little...Almost Nothing: Death, Philosophy, Literature, makes the fascinating argument that Beckett's work deals with the "question of establishing the meaning of meaninglessness" (the author's italics). Eshleman is not Beckettian in his despair, nor is he interested in stripping art to its barest roots - like Vallejo and Whitman, Eshleman strives to immerse himself in the excess of things - but he begins in a similar place as Beckett. His work is premised on the meaninglessness of the material realm, on such indigestible images as the "chocolate skull" and the "gigantic gangrenous ear." And like Bacon, who once said his paintings were an attempt "to remake the violence of reality itself," Eshleman has no interest in a "wholeness" that would do away with the violence of a radical materialism. Which brings me to the last question I will discuss in this essay: How can a politically urgent poetry be written when reality is premised on violence (a violence, Bacon once said, that has "nothing to do with the violence of war")? How can we simultaneously write politically astute work while also keeping in mind Adorno's belief that "Thought has its honor by defending what is condemned as nihilism"?
3. Eshleman and the issue of political poetry
If God is dead, then nothing is permitted.
- Jacques Lacan
The Golub archtypical question:
if abstract color fields are peeled away,
what terrors will show through?
- Clayton Eshleman
A great deal of American political poetry (though by no means all) has a puritanical, self-congratulatory streak - and this holds true for both straightforward protest poetry as well as for poetry written under the influence of Language writing. In both groups, the poets believe they are on the side of right, of history, and both groups believe they truly have the keys to liberation. But as Lacan frequently noted, the idea that by killing the Father (whether that Father be a precise political mindset, as in the case of protest poetry, or the Master signifier) we suddenly come into a new realm of freedom is fundamentally naive. Instead, new Masters suddenly appear who are all the more insidious for being invisible, transparent. (The Language movement is especially authoritarian in this Lacanian sense: a certain highly questionable reading of Wittgenstein, the death-of-the-Subject, and the romantic 60's belief that by "freeing" language we can liberate ourselves from oppressive ideological constructs are all inscribed firmly as absolutes into many of its texts.) But unless we argue that all political art is naive and banal (as the writers of the International Necronautical Society do, claming that such art is futile, part of the Hegelian/de Sadeian desire to control the excess of materiality through a system/dialect), we come to an exceedingly disturbing question: How do you critique the Master without creating a space in which an illusionary freedom masks the fact that "nothing is permitted"?
I will not argue that Eshleman's work holds the answer. (I don’t think there really is an answer.) But Eshleman's political poetry is astute and relentless, and while it might not hold the key, it does demonstrate a poet's ability to write from a remarkably difficult "political" space - specifically, a space in which the political is not divorced from the unconscious, and where any attempt to find some ground of utter innocence is always a manifestation of the death-drive (just as Hegel argues that the Beautiful Soul must by definition fade due its own irrelevance). Eshleman's political poetry, at is best, is gloriously bizarre and unshackled from the usual political pieties.
In his poem "Nocturnal Veils," Eshleman, lying in bed and half-asleep, thinks of his brain with "its reptile stem, its mammal hood," and imagines himself somewhere between "bear and crocodile." Maybe a "bear-headed croco-boy." And such hybridization leads his thoughts directly to the political realm. In his half-sleep, he comes upon the late Nora Jaffe, who tell him "Cheney is full of reptile / blood, / and driven by the mind of an Incan child abandoned on a mountain / 300 years ago." And "Bush's secret is his tiny tail, leathery, about 3 inches...note how he is always heavily guarded from behind, / for if some joker pulls his tail, a long yellow forked tongue will spurt / from his face." The images are horrific (Cheney's tragic inner-Incan child) and funny (Bush's "yellow forked tongue"); through the beautifully grotesque images of Cheney and Bush, Eshleman is attempting to bring the non-Humanist hybrid/animal world into the political sphere. Instead of making the expected liberal argument that Bush and Cheney, at the end of the day, are just like us, with our anxieties and daily struggles (the attempt to de-mythologize them), Eshleman instead is implying that they are just like us, but in a different way: they are created from the noumenal realm, from the animal and the abyss, or, as the figure of Nora Jaffe tells the poet, "very few humans are pure human, most are occupied by / bizarre creature combines, the dead and extinct pack the air / unseen from a senses-five perspective." Eshleman is not trying to humanize Bush and Cheney - nor is he trying to turn them into demonic figures, thereby "humanizing" himself. Rather, in a manner reminiscent of the way the writer Angela Carter continually created animal/vegetable/human hybrids in her fiction in order to undercut the image of the reasonable and noble Human, Eshleman employs these surreal images of Bush and Cheney to ground them in his materialist ontology.
Eshleman then begins to examine "the veils" within the phrase "No one has lifted her veil," thinking first about the veil that has been drawn back in order for him to hear Nora Jaffe in his half-dreaming state of mind. While wondering about the relationship between veil and dream and speech (Eshleman calling dream speech a "plaited fiber," a phrase that recalls Freud's belief that words in dreams should be treated as objects), the poet eventually comes to the image of a woman in "'full body veil'" begging on a bridge in Kabul. (And we see here just how exhilaratingly difficult it is to interpret/approach an Eshleman poem: every phrase and image and idea metamorphoses into another, often with little transition. In the stanza I have been discussing, for example, Eshleman also compares the image of the crucified Christ to "the arrested word," and then sees the vulva as "lower mouth issuing red fiber." Clearly he is thematically working out the word-as-thing, and the body as a form of speech, with the vulva as a "lower mouth," but the language is so packed-in, so loaded, that the "meaning" flattens out, much as it does in dreams themselves.) But to return to the woman on the bridge in Kabul: the poet, upon remembering this image (or imagining it, since it is never clear where this image has come from), reconsiders the phrase, "no one has lifted her veil," and turns it into, "At no time have women not been oppressed." The woman in Kabul is no longer a victim simply of the Taliban, but of larger historical forces: her condition is clearly more nightmarish than others, but she is part of a historical continuum (instead of a historical aberration).
Eshleman then sees the woman in a burkha as a being forced into a tragically static condition, one that arrests her so thoroughly that her "menstrual" is "never shed." She becomes a "chrysalis of a monstrous anti-metamorphosis." If the human is based, as Eshleman argues in his poems examining cave paintings, on dynamic metaphor, on "the refusal to respect / the single, individuated body," then the truly non-human is that which oppresses this metaphorical and grotesque ground; and the woman in Kabul, through no fault of her own of course, becomes "sewed up in a hammock, with a small opening so she can breath." For Eshleman the belief in the "individuated body" - whether one clings to it or is forced into becoming it - is the "monstrous" at its most pure.
But Eshleman makes a further - and purposely provocative - move. He returns to the theme of "the world of the five senses," wondering if we are not all like the Kabul woman. He then tells us, "The beggar hissed: 'Your bars, spaced and wall-papered, allow some / comfort and expanse. / Mine, wrapped around me, nearly cover my eyes...'" At first, the line seems to be in extraordinary bad taste. Is the poet really arguing that all of us are enclosed and imprisoned like the woman in Kabul due to our inability to fully see the kinetically metaphorical ground on which the human is based? Isn't this move an example of the basic naiveté of so much American political poetry - a poetry that all-too-often makes the implied argument that the troubles of a First World poet are somehow roughly equal to the suffering of so many persons in the Third World?
But such a reading of the poem misses the originality of Eshleman's political sensibility, and also misses why he is able to think past many of the dead-ends created by a certain type of American liberalism. In the poem, the woman is not to be pitied. The use of the word "hissed" clearly tells us the woman on the bridge is no longer a victim, but rather a figure of anger, telling the poet his condition is not much better than her own. She is striking back at the poet's attempts change her into a symbol of non-human stasis. In Eshleman, pity debases both the person being pitied, along with the one who does the pitying. Also, Eshleman is clearly not interested in "topic" poetry - in a poem that simply chastises the Taliban, or American Imperialist tendencies. Instead, he attempts to examine the philosophical underpinnings of oppression, and how repression is intimately tied into most forms of oppression: hence his interest in how the woman covered in cloth in Kabul is related to the limits of sensation/perception. And lastly, Eshleman sees writing that goes on in the name of "good taste" as being oppressive itself. As he writes in "Unbuckled Tongue," "Stay aware of the 850 million starving - / such may help keep you honest when the self-censor / purrs: shut up." To say what only (supposedly) elevates the moral standing of the poet, to pretend the workings of the unconscious is a private matter and not related to war and imperialism, to sanitize political violence with elegant turns of phrase, to neglect the material realm - such an approach to writing, for Eshleman, only strengthens the hold of ideology.
To conclude with Eshleman's own words, taken from his essay "Wind From All Compass Points": "Blake's 'Without contraries there can be no progression' likewise still holds. Unless poets stave off and admit at the same time, keeping open to the beauty and the horror of the world while remaining available to what their perceptivity and subconscious provide them with, one is pretty much left with an unending 'official verse culture'...Affirmation is only viable when it survives repeated immersions in negation."
read 3 Poems by James Pate