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BOOK REVIEWS

Clayton Eshleman, Anticline, Boston: Black Widow Press, 2010.

Reviewed by Jared Demick

 

         Anticline is Eshleman’s latest book of tra-

verse,

    a map of a nomaddened mind,

  a brain hoboing through

          the white page Sahara.

 

  Eshleman’s anticline

     is thankfully anti-clinical:

 its loam is lushed with ghost blood,

   its faces are scream-serrated

 by history’s klaxonklang,

    bombardmental entrance.

 

   While his phrases pulse with

      a psychopated squall,

Eshleman never deals out narco-lullabies,

  his aesthetics never become anesthetic.

 

There is a sherpa-sure footing in these poems,

     the exact destination’s unknown,

  but Eshleman’s aware of each step he writes into.

 

These poems wanna wrestle,

    not massage your retinas with word-streams.

  They’re Where’s Waldo-densified realms

 swarming with psychic monsters

             stuck midmorph,

  the kind that radio within

       your convolooted brain-folds,

  the ones you pretend don’t exist.

 

         Yet Anticline’s most stimulating sections

—like Reciprocal Distillations before it—

     are when Eshleman is jamming with his favorite painters:

Unica Zurn, Leon Golub, Hieronymus Bosch, Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, Edvard Munch, Lee Bontecou, Dorothea Tanning, Henri Rousseau, Jackson Pollock, Nancy Spero.

           Eshleman’s wordification of their canvasses

                 bridges poetry and painting:

            his words become more textural

while their brushstrokes become more textual.

   The Bosch section, “Tavern of the Scarlet Bagpipe,”

           is more than a feat of image-producing stamina,

     it’s proof that Eshleman is a perceptive art critic:

         tossing out the distracted, bulimic gaze

   so common these days,

        he plays the meticulusting witness 

       to Bosch’s unearthly delights & terrors.

 

           Full of quest-dares,

Anticline is an implicit manifesto

  for an art that refuses to be satisfied

     with anything but the search.

 

 

Curdled Skulls: Poems of Bernard Bador, Trans. by Bernard Bador with Clayton Eshleman, Boston: Black Widow Press, 2010.

Review by Jared Demick

 

“Blood diarrheal

in the bowl of wind,

and in the diary

a child’s agony.”

       - “Destiny,” Bernard Bador

 

After more than a decade of playing peek-a-boo

  in used book stores and university libraries,

French poet and collagist Bernard Bador’s work

     is once again available in English.

 

Black Widow Press’s latest volume is a tasty expansion-pack

of Clayton Eshleman’s 1986 Sea Urchin Harakiri,

a collection of 44 translated poems.

With Curdled Skulls, Bador and Eshleman have Englishified 30 more poems,

        thus creating the ultimate Bador resource in English.

 

   In the midst of 2011’s assassin dawnlight,

     the need for scattering Bador’s unique surreal vision is obvious:

 

  These poems are

       grotesque vivisections,

           titillating tumors,

     catastrophe rumor-shards

  glistening with that ensanguished shine.

 

      They initially hit your eye

        like compact potholes,

    but they yawn into

           abyssalted anuses,

 

                 soniferous

                sulfur-blooms

              that brain-swelter.

 

        They are not confessional boxes

          often per-versed desires though;

      they are the affidavits of the lidless eye,

        the bric-a-Brakhage films

               the witness records,

          brutally neutral as a scream-seismograph.

 

      But these poems

        aren’t about historical terroarings

    (as Eshleman states in the afterward),

    they’re the ancestrawling undertow

           of our raging DNA,

      full of nucleotidal bores,

        the boar-brash atroshitty craving

                tattooed in our genome.

 

   Bador’s poems definitively prove

         that surrealism is more than an exquisite corpse

    to be retrospectivized and museumummified.

 

    No, surrealism is writhing peda-gouge-ical sickle

         that escape-hatches our Alzheimerized asses

            out of the daily diarrhea.

 

                   Amen.

 

   While Curdled Skulls doesn’t have the French originals,

       Eshleman and Bador’s collaborative renderings

            make these poems lava-flare in English.

        Also, Eshleman’s delightful afterward

            from the original Sea Urchin Harakiri

         and Robert Kelly’s pus-intoxicated postface prose-poem tribute

              to Bador and his way-distant ancestor,

     the blood-martini-lovin’ Erzsébet Báthory

            nicely seal off this funeral fiesta

                gone gorily and lovingly awry. 

 

 

 

“ Was I holding your hand or merely an opinion?”: Jennifer Martenson’s Unsound (Providence, RI: Burning Deck, 2010)

 

Reviewed by Jared Demick

 

Unsound continues Burning Deck Press’s delicious tradition of offering poetry that meditates upon language’s role in our lives. Martenson adds her own spices to the mix, tying her deeply philosophical musings with homosexual desire, giving otherwise miasmic abstractions, a real brush-against-your-skin-so-you-get-goosebumps kind of feel. The resulting clumsy and provocative dance between sex, the bodyest of bodily experiences, and the philosophy of language, a discourse filled with slip-through-your-hands ideas, makes the book an excellent addition to the ever expanding archive of writers using words to lament words’ powerlessness.

 

This book presents us with a series of morphing absences, treating reality not as some hulking mass demanding to be memorialized on the page, but as a terrain that changes with each step. Towards the beginning, Martenson taunts us with expression’s problems:

 

“We might begin subtracting

word from word, working our way

down to zero, though it won’t provide

a clear view to the night in progress

any more than silence contradicts

the claim that what is not there can exert

a pressure of the eardrum” (12).

 

In such a world, “only the incomplete is permanent” (17). Here, only the wound endures and healing’s perpetual deferral motivates us to move beyond each moment’s inertia. However, Martenson doesn’t wish to wow us with language’s trippiness; she wants us to see its trip-wired dangers, the way it upholds oppressive politics. For example, “A Priori” offers a shotgun-blast indictment of how lesbian desire is disturbingly pathologized through words: “Her perception (taken over and assigned a different value) of her impulses was forced into alignment with THAT IS, THROUGH a lexicon gleaned from those old standard fantasies (retained in spelling due to conservatism) which had by default passed into public domain to disguise themselves as private longings” (22). Here Martenson captures how the public parades through all our private lives, making us internalize that which does not come from us. 

 

Martenson’s gift as a writer has little to do with her actual words. Instead, she is a layout-master. After the early twentieth-century’s twin explosions of consumerist advertising and avant-gardism, you would think that poets would be obsessed about typography. But, no, they still largely view the page as a transparent brain-window, not understanding that readers negotiate with the page’s physical reality. Martenson does not make the same mistake. Her work’s meaning leaps out from chunks of texts colliding together. These poems would probably plop if presented to people prevented from perusing the page. For example, in “Precarious to balance,” the opener for the “Unsound” section, she straps a sentence to the operating table, dissects and rearranges its features like a Cubist hurricane, and gives it the Stalin’s-pounding-fist trappings of a scientific formula. The result is an illustration of language’s excess of meaning, an example more approachable and gratifying than the brain-knotting piles of poststructuralist soapbox grandstanding. In Martenson’s poems, we are meant to feel these philosophical concepts, how the shuffled words still lighthouse-signal their meanings over the page’s white amnesiac waves.

 

Yet these poems don’t always fight the wolves-nipping-at-your-feet encroachment of those forgetful waves. The poem “Xq28,” offers extensive, self-referential footnotes, but no main text. Just Sahara-vast white space. Such a technique is a bit tired especially after the mid-twentieth-century blossoming of conceptual art (which was also tired since many conceptual artists offered a more coma and less mischief version of Duchamp’s upside-down urinal). However, while not innovative (besides, why the obsession with “innovation”? Isn’t our thirst for this quality an aesthetic reflection of consumer culture’s need for the new?), these white spaces are philosophical crossword puzzles: Are they a commentary on the silencing of homosexual desires? Do they use absence to prove how words can only reveal so much? Are they a commentary about us always looking for artists’ commentaries in their work? Martenson lets the reader drift away with their thought-flotsam. The footnotes do little to alleviate the ambiguities. If anything, they increase the reader’s distrust in language since their bureaucratic-report style show how words are often reduced to authority’s instruments, slicing and sewing a portrait of reality that doesn’t match what the body knows.                        

 

Martenson’s book is a sobering reminder that identity is grafted onto us by the words we are given to speak. As we try to create a world where everyone’s warped lives are allowed space, we would do well to keep Martenson’s reminder in mind.

 

 

Knickknacks of Shrieking People: Novica Tadić’s Assembly

Trans. Steven and Maja Teref (Austin, TX: Host Publications, 2009).

Review by Jared Demick

 

          Serbia’s Novica Tadić is one widely translated poet. While not as omnipresent on a Barnes & Noble shelf as Pablo Neruda, Tadić is probably the most widely translated Serbian poet after Vasko Popa. In fact, he has become one of those word-smiths who represent their regions’ poetics in the publishing ghetto of world literature anthologies. Maybe it’s because his dark and cryptic poems fit into Americans’ impressions of Eastern Europe being a bombed-out, shambolic landscape filled with ancient apartments and dictators in tight uniforms set to a soundtrack of sobbing, solitary violins. It could also be that his poetry faintly echoes that of his first English translator, Charles Simic, who specializes in half-hearted attempts at surrealist vaudeville comedy. Actually, I take that back. I won’t do Tadić the injustice of comparing him to Simic. His poems are so strange and provocative that they not only defy comparison to much of contemporary American poetry, but they also escape the world literature ghetto they are often corralled into.

          Assembly, the third English collection of Tadić’s poetry, is a lovingly-crafted compilation. The translators Steven and Mafa Teref have done much to illuminate and contextualize  the poetry, offering everything from characterizations of the poet himself and his references to the Balkan heretical cult of Bogomilism in the introductory essay “The Birdman of Belgrade” to exploring the difficulties of translating these poems in “Chasing the Mockerator and Other Monsters.” Due to the Teref duo’s excellent work, the reader feels that the alien experience of Tadić’s poetry doesn’t become overly alienating.  

The poetry itself constantly alternates between simple and baffling. Witness little shotgun wounds like “Fear”:

 

Stiff as a doll, I’m not sure any more

from where evil will come.

Look, on my elbow an eye has opened.

 

Here is poetry made raw, left without ornament, the quick kidnapping of a sensation and its internment until it can be wrangled onto the page.  Sometimes though this loaded-silence brevity comes off as contrived. Like many poets, Tadić seems to suffer from a conviction that cryptic-ness automatically equals profundity, not realizing that being complex doesn’t necessarily acquit you of being a douche to your readers. “As I Watch” is a particular example of this:

 

                   through smoke rings

                   I see a yellow tongue

 

                   a crested sparrow hawk

                   swoops down

 

 Is this a half-formed symbol or a weak attempt at haiku?

The masterpiece of the volume though by far is “Masks,” a writhing, multi-sectioned vivisection of imagery. Here’s Part 1 of the piece:

 

The man-frog jumped into the water. A black car

drives the big Corpse around. A plaster leg juts

from a dumpster. The pale servants. Frost, the people’s

blanket. No one can sing the anthem. A cloud hangs

in the sky. Red wire lightning. The lava has cooled

and hardened. No one can hurt you. Place a crystal

under your head and begin singing. Hawk, sharpen

your talons. Cherish your  blades. Over every face

a tragedy mask mourns. The sun hides its head.

Nothingness, keep emanating.

 

In moments like these, Tadić almost sounds like Georg Trakl waking up in his own vomit one morning to find that he had been transformed into a parable-spouting punk rocker.  In other words, a voice that contemporary poetry could desperately use.  

          The decision to pursue a bilingual edition is quite interesting in itself considering that, unlike Spanish or French poetry in translation, most readers of this volume won’t be able to read the original. To stick with the bilingual in spite of this fact and to keep the original Serbian poems before the English translations, is admirable because it fights English’s miasmic thrust to become the world’s ill-fitting lingua franca (even as the book ironically assists in letting the English language devour all other tongues).

          Assembly is a book that sticks with you, one filled with poems that actually stick in your brain for hours, a true compliment in our information-soaked era.

 

 

  

“Disappearance is within us”: Jean Daive’s Under the Dome: Walks with Paul Celan (Trans. Rosmarie Waldrop, Providence: Burning Deck, 2009)

Reviewed by Jared Demick

 

In this lyrical memoir, the French poet Daive traces his turbulent and taut interactions with Celan, a haunting presence in 20th century poetry.

 

It is a book that you can start anywhere and end anywhere. Because it resides nowhere.

 

Celan was dark. His words are well-bottom deep. Leaving you with nothing but nothing. A silence that swallows. A reader left not knowing what the poem was, only knowing how it feels.

 

Daive’s words are the broken mirror shards of Celan’s broken life.

 

All too often, Celan is made into a tragic figure, a bone-and-flesh monument of Holocaust guilt. One man’s interior labyrinths congealed into monolithic pain. Instead, Daive mirrors pieces of a Celan who is baffling presence, a linguistic prankster full of Zen-koan replies.

 

Daive’s book is fragile, full of fleeting moments that leave before the brain grasps that they are occurring.

 

It’s a book tailored to 21st century life. It complements this era’s hectic, disruptive rhythm. Concentrated shots of contemplation that blossom within the cracks of our heavily-regulated, head-wreck lives:

 

          “I pass the night with X. Her arms never relax. We whisper. I do not look at her face. A candle is burning, throws light on her bare back. The bread and the plates, the knives and forks bulge in the dark, and the shadows on the wall tremble. I tremble in her arms. Dawn light. I leave.

 

          Chestnuts bounce, roll at our feet: nature drops out of autumn.

Mild wind.

          – One has to go through life with a rasp, he says.

 

          The falling chestnuts hit the ground with a dry sound. Detonations. Nature massed in the air turns over and bursts like a meteor.

          – So it is possible that the earth delimits the infinite of language. . .

 

          After a long silence punctured with noise, he continues:

          – The world is of glass.

          – And disappearance is within us.” (44-5)

 

Why is this book necessary? The answer lies in a list Daive includes:

 

“Paul’s stages (“I have to pitch my tent”) or stanzas (“I hold my breath”):

          The Bukovina– the work camp– Bucarest– Vienna– Paris.

 

          Rue de Longchamp and variants– Rue d’Ulm and variants– Hospitalization and variants– Seine.” (89).

 

Celan’s life performed as an administrative record. Daive’s book admirably fights this kind of erasure. He reminds us of memory’s lingering hurt in an era that pathologizes and medicates it away.   

 

 

 

ToxiCity: Poems of the Coconut Vulva

Heller Levinson

 

           This electrokinetic volume of poems is not your standard release, but it'll sure start some trench-warfare. These poems are forged lightning tied into double knots. Surely, Levinson's work-table must resemble a blacksmith's shop. Under his close eye, writhing words are warped until they capture his thought's cataracts. With dense lines such as, "forensic malfeasance rarely typifies/unsubordinated documentation," Levinson refuses to become bedtime-reading. Your brain better be be on full alert. Otherwise, the poems will blare by like a freeway full of trucks. However, with close enough attention, the poems begin to conduct a music, a throbbing music that makes you dance sitting down (like ole' Charlie Olson would say). Levinson's music is almost machine-like, the pumping of pistons, but pistons hammering out a Max Roach solo.

         While exciting, Levinson tends to shy away from lyricism's often dripping emotion. This is echoed by his love of long, gnarled words and technical jargon, all of them strung together into a chicken-wired web entrancing the reader. However, this doesn't mean that he lacks compassion, rage, or desire. Rather, he has the mechanical world of glittering billboards cannabalize itself. Call this a hunch, but I think his experience in the garment industry has sharpened his criticism of our obsession with the material universe.

      HoweverToxiCity's strongest point is Levinson's love of words. Carefully chosen and arranged, his poems resound with a cavernous mystery, like a blacksmith hammering a forge. The words are chosen for their sound as much as for their meaning. Read these poems out loud, feel them seduce your tongue!

      While some of the longer pieces do test the patience, a lot of the short pieces create mushroom clouds of astonishment. Check this out from the poem, "Ripening the Cantaloupe Files":

 

PSALM

 

         (as nocture

 

The loss that grooms the paste flowers

the canvases themselves decoding pilot teeth

 

- - unbottling batwings

 

FerocitySilence!

 

night bends

arguing for a slower filtration

 

         So for those up for the challenge, ready to ride the lightning roller coaster, go out and find this book. And for those who'd pass up the experience, remember, it's a lot more fun to ride than to watch.

 

 

 

Reciprocal Distillations

Clayton Eshleman

 

         This slim, but far from slight volume is a great read for anyone interested how art sears the brain. What starts out as uber-perceptive fan notes about Eshleman's favorite painters metamorphizes into thought-cyclones in a flash-flood instant. Eshleman's inquisitive eye dives into a whole buffet of renegade artists: his friend, the woodcut-artist Bill Paden; the reclusive janitor-painter Henry Darger; Caravaggio; surrealist scrawler Unica Zurn; the bust-out-of-the-alphabet poetry of Henri Michaux. While this might be a motley crew,  to Eshleman, they all have the stamina to wrangle our baffling, ferocious lives onto the canvas or the page. 

         These poems remarkably converse with the artists and their artwork. As each painter creates a new aesthetic to express elusive impressions, Eshleman matches their feats. Images and words are contorted, balloons in his magician's hands, making wonderful, seemily impossible designs. Prepare to go woah! Check this: Unica Zurn's mysterious, but suggestive sketches are rendered into,

 

"To travel within Unica's tear, to view the celestial

viper-vibrational

xylophone of her mind, the cartwheel

cocoliths of her insectile-thronging dark."

 

        Matching this word skill is Eshleman's monster appetite for accurate research (check out the Complete Poetry of César Vallejo review below). Besides copious book reading, Eshleman went as far as studying Caravaggio paintings inches from his face. While this specialized knowledge threatens to storm the poems with obscurity, Eshleman remains true to his proposition that writers and readers must meet halfway. The detailed research actually opens a gate into the artwork, driving those unfamiliar to learn more.

         Highlights for me included "Darger," a truly frightening piece about an artist's motives. Delving into this Chicago painter's disturbed world of naked girls with penises and giant serpents, Eshleman does not judge as much as try to understand what deep desires and pains would propel someone to create such a universe. "A Shade of Paden," is also wonderful. It's Eshleman at his most candid. A humorous, gut-wrenching portrait of a dear friend, it is in this poem that Reciprocal Distillations becomes incandescent, where the research, language-play, and quest for our origins collide, the explosion's heat fusing with our minds, ejaculating a mirror in which we see ourselves.  

        In this dazzling volume, Eshleman reciprocates the energy the artists' emit, revealing that after all, art is less a monument than an endless, never-tiring balltoss of ideas.

 

 

An Alchemist with One Eye on Fire

Clayton Eshleman

 

        After reading Eshleman's latest collection of poems, I am convinced that it is an ode to the mind's reach. Containing some of his best work in at least a decade, An Alchemist with One Eye on Fire is brimming with ricocheting thoughts. While each poem is widely different, they are not neatly constructed imaginary universes. Eshleman never did write in that Aesop's fable, MFA confession-box sort of style. Byte-sized answers and morals are not dispensed to the lackadaisical reader. Instead, these poems are seismographs of a mind quaking to intimately know the writhing turbulence of being alive. Questions lead to perceptions which only lead to more questions, the process spiraling out endlessly, with the arcs magnificently expanding. In fact, I myself haven't seen a poet overloading his work like this since the Rilke of the Duino Elegies or early Aime Cesaire. In the hands of both Eshleman and these poets, the poem becomes a wrecked archipalago of thought floating on the void, maybe even sanding against it, exploring the dark stains left from such frictive contact.

      However, trying to invent his own epic doesn't mean Eshleman harbors a giant ego. The voice in these poems is not the kind of noxious my-shit-is-roses voice that can be found in Howl, for example. Eshleman never pretends to have the answers. In fact, the speakers constantly flip both positions and perceptions faster than fingers through a Rolodex. Take the wonderful "Noctural Veils" for example. This poem starts out with Eshleman being unable to sleep then it goes into visions of a bear and a crocodile copulating into a visitation from the ghost of his dead friend Nora Jaffe to veiled Muslim women on a Kabul bridge to albino babies floating like balloons. All of this in a three page poem! It's the work of a brave poet seeking out the mysterious connections in this world.

        It's this crackling energy that makes Alchemist such a searing read. Tenderness, humor, anger, and inquisition jostle together inside the same poem.  Sometimes, they exist in the same line:

 

"Anal epoch, millions with their heads up their asses,

patriotizing the shit they see

spread by our junta's appetite.

 

Tonight the color of the sky is infested, radiant with stealth."

 

 

        Eshleman says it best in the preface: "Treat boundaries like stage scenery." In this book, he rips that scenery off the stage, opening our eyes to whole new vistas.

 

 

The Complete Poems of César Vallejo

Translated by Clayton Eshleman

 

        After devouring this volume (in small, savoring bites), one thing strikes me: the unforgivable inadequecy of book reviews. This mountainous book represents the lifework of two souls, both César Vallejo, Latin America's most writhing poet, and his unstoppable English translator, Clayton Eshleman. The title is a little misleading for it's two bodies of poetry merging, Vallejo's  tornado record of our most fleeting desires and Eshleman's recasting of that tornado into the English language. So how can a review do justice to such an effort? Maybe by simply saying this: READ THIS NOW.

       César Vallejo's work stands as the Stonehedge of Spanish-language poetry. Infinitely fascinating, but no one knows what to make of it. He is a mystery with lines denser in implication than those ancient slabs of rock. However, Vallejo's poems never indulge in obscurity for its own sake. On the contrary, he desperately screams for the reader's empathy and understanding. The poems are difficult because they contain our most intense fears and desires, the exact places where language falls apart, words shredding in a blinding blizzard.  Determined to understand the soul's invisible, but potent resevoirs, Vallejo bent the Spanish lanaguage like no one before. Vallejo speaks in an alien language, a warped and idiosyncratic mirror of his soul.

       Given this short, completely inept case study of Vallejo, one can see the immense problems facing a translator. Vallejo presents translators with what I call the Russian Poets Issue, where the poem is kidnapped on the ride from one language to another. However, Eshleman never lets Vallejo's poems out of his sight on such a ride. When you open this bilingual edition, two voices jump at you. On the book's left side, the Spanish voice courses with a bloody tornado howl, jarring you with its power. When you move your head to the book's right side, your shock grows. After decades stacked upon decades, Eshleman has managed what has eluded other Vallejo translators: a successful language transplant. Under Eshleman's shawl of research, Vallejo's living howl remains intact in English. While this howl's English version undoubtably has a different flavor, its mysterious core bouyantly floats into the reader's mind.

        Maybe the reason for this is Eshleman's dedication. Since the 1960s, he has continually revised and republished his translations. No, it's not a ploy to get more book sales. It's a devotion to Vallejo and a desire to preserve the poems' integrity in their new language. While before we had to settle for bits and pieces of Vallejo's oeuvre in English, we now get all his poetry in one book, a most happy moment for those of us who stumble in Spanish. It's now possible to trace the shifting currents in these poems, to observe how this compelling voice established itself. 

         One could say that Vallejo never wrote a light-hearted poem. The most striking aspect of the work is it's utter (maybe deadly is a better word) seriousness. While in his second book, Trilce, Vallejo would join in the Modernist obsession with wordplay, there is a lack of play in these lanaguage contortions, an absence of the giddiness one would find in, say, Max Jacob's prose poems or James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake. However,Vallejo never becomes that depressing friend with the annoying apocalyptic predictions. I think it has something to do with the nature of his seriousness. Antonin Artaud once theorized that there was a force in culture almost identical to hunger. Vallejo's poems exist in this hungry space, they savagely try to bust out of a spiritual bankruptcy. A great example of this would in the title poem from his first book, Los heraldos negros. At first, it seems like the classic poor-me poem, something akin to the Symbolist drivel dominating world poetry for a good couple decades. However, Vallejo mutates this emotion into something raw and frightening. The result is not a sob, it's a scream. In fact, it's the child of the very first scream to puncture the sky. 

        While many poets would have beeen happy with being able to capture such a scream, Vallejo starts to spiral into it, to find the scream within the scream. In his second volume, Trilce, Vallejo's poetic identity shatters like a beer bottle and the poems become a mosaic of the shards. The result is what many consider to be the most difficult poetry in the Spanish language, a body of work that seems to be born from brain regions besides the trusty frontal lobe. It's the inside of our skins showing us their tattoos. In one of the most striking poems of that series, Vallejo exclaims, "Make way for the new odd number/potent with orphanhood!" Rarely has our homelessness within ourselves been so articulated. 

        If Los heraldos negros discovered that God was an arbitrary, weak creature and Trilce found that the self is a desert, then what is left? In his last poems, Vallejo decided to bark at the void by seeking companionship with other people, finding that all of us are bonded in misery. These last poems, unpublished in Vallejo's lifetime, are the pinnacle of his work, the poems where he does something strangely unique. When writing about solidarity, most poets would try to transcend the ego, but Vallejo does the opposite. Not only does he hold onto his own pain, but he discovers humanity's mutual ego. It's a poetry that simultaneously personal and communal. By stabbing himself on the thorns of his own despair, Vallejo accomplished what Thomas Merton has said: "César Vallejo is the greatest Catholic poet since Dante- and by Catholic I mean universal."  

       Now a great poet partnered with a great translator is the core of this book's accomplishment. However, the readers get some more great goodies in this volume. The Peruvian novelist, Mario Vargas Llosa, writes a nice, tone-setting forward. Efraín Kristal gives a great introduction for the uninitiated (like this reviewer) on the different stages in Vallejo's development, providing an easier entry point into interpreting these difficult poems. Stephen Hart provides a thorough chronology of Vallejo's life, not only giving us the key moments in his life, but also telling strange and interesting anecdotes (the one about Vallejo having sex with a stranger in the dark was particularly weird). However, the best part of the extras has to be Eshleman's own translation memoir, a fascinating look at the process of translation and a engrossing account of how two minds from two different worlds entwined.

 

 

 

Commentaries I-IX on Ulf Stolterfoht’s Lingos I-IX

 

 Ulf Stolterfoht, Lingos I-IX, Rosmarie Waldrop, trans. (Providence, RI: Burning Deck, 2007)

 

 I.

 

The problem: the writer as mystery-monger. All too often, writers present themselves as the keepers of language’s most kinetically transforming secrets, as architects of a utopia without place. Whenever asked to elaborate, these writers adopt a code of silence more severe the face of the Old Testament God after a case of the runs, a silence that becomes authoritarian in its smug persistence, a cryptic smile held even as their bodies rot in crypts. This silence is usually accompanied and harmonized by rapturous gushes over how life is a transient butterfly, a shtick pastiched from the Romantics, from drafts of poems even their masturbatory, organic poetics couldn’t stand. These evasive responses, strangely satisfied even though they often do not answer the questions, leave me with the impression that writers often try to establish an esoteric cult of aestheticism. Their propaganda presents language as a secret that can only be unscrambled through a mediator (who suspiciously looks like a priest/shaman/drug dealer/used-car salesman/and thanks to the Surrealists, garbageman). These writers tell their audiences: worship the divine lightning of my scribbles! It’s job preservation for the prophets.

 

 II.

 

 However, some writers deny this attitude and preserve the questioning that keeps language alive, the alternate bodies our conversations are giving birth to. These writers seek to become intimate with these bodies. For them, silence only comes when the questions no longer seek answers from an Other, but when they begin to demand questions from an Other: a dialogue that needs a dialogue beyond dialogue, a strange space inhabited by those such as Edmond Jabčs, Paul Celan, Maurice Blanchot, etc. . .etc. . .etc. Writing for them is not only the creation of intimate bodies through questions, but exposing the rifts inside ourselves that refract those questions. These are the rifts that the poetry of Ulf Stolterfoht is seeking to inhabit, habitations in which many writers feel obligated to say they wished they lived (which would explain the copious love-declarations to Kafka, a writer rarely followed), but find they do not have the strength, or maybe it’s more a sort of patient delight, to sustain a presence (even if that presence is an absence) inside of them. Stolterfoht's poems perform a most spectacular task: they destruct their creation through detours, an outreach to multiplicities that annihilates the desire for unity that summoned the need for the poems' existences. They also exist as monuments of that dismantling. No need for esotericism: Stolterfoht's poems are too good to be kept from others.

 

 III.

 

Lingos I-IX. Not Lingo I-IX. The plural imports that the book will present nine parallel systems that will be foreign to the reader. I-IX: do these numbers in the title give the poems a promise of infinity? Secrets hidden by the flaps of a book, infinite abysses falsely given a beginning and an end, a front cover and a back cover. The title contains a premonition of grief: the book will incite conversations with us, ones that are condemned and blessed to be infinite, uncauterizable wounds on silence, but will prematurely cut off these engagements with us at page 115.  It’s a title that doubts the ability of the writer and the reader to connect through the text. Echoes of Wittgenstein, Derrida, Lévinas, appear with this title, intoning about the end to carry the other and yet keep them outside ourselves.

 

 Then there is the fact that I am discussing a translation with you: Stolterfoht poems given to us by Rosmarie Waldrop (more on her stunning translation work later). The book becomes a conversation about a conversation we might have had, Waldrop playing at being Stolterfoht, or rather, being Stolterfoht’s poems, interpreting the script for us, so we can glimpse the absent voice that nonetheless commands us. But what I have just told you is not accurate. How can reader and translator locate a poet whose seeks to make his poems the location of language’s dislocations? At the beginning of the author’s notes in the back, there is an epigraph (the book’s epitaph?):

 

 You may hear unidentified voices at various moments.

This is a mistake-please take no notice of them.

                   - Skeleton Crew

 

What should we make of this? How can a writer who obsessively quotes others present a quote that asks us not to pay attention to quotes? Is it a smartass practical joke? A nihilistic desire for self-destruction, reminiscent of Kafka’s appeal that his friend Max Brod burn all his work?  Or is Stolterfoht telling us that unidentified voices do not exist, that our voice contains some trace of others’ voices? Maybe what we speak is the photographic negative of what others do not speak. So then, conversely, is our silence imprinted with their voices? Through my increasing confusion, I can hear Stolterfoht smiling and the smile is the greatest invitation to engagement.

 

 IV.

 

Stolterfoht’s poems become fables of our relations through language: an intersection where voices do not intersect, but come within close proximity to one another, emphasizing the distance between each other by denying each other’s existence. Each voice whispers to itself, condemned to the monologue while longing for conjugal interaction. Still, hope arrives in the echo, the voice’s rapidly disintegrating trace that it projects outside of itself, the phenomenon when the world verifies the voice’s presence by repeating it’s existence to itself. In this capacity, echoes seem to condemn each voice to a dialogue between two of its monologues, the one it currently speaks and one which it has just spoken (although the ability to converse with our echoes must mean we contain multiple selves). However, what happens when two echoes from two different voices touch? Since they’re echoes, they can never respond to each other, but there is no denying that a puncture has taken place in the endless cycles of monologues. The collision of echoes creates a third voice, alien to the two other voices that birthed the echoes. While this third voice cannot grow and/or progress, it still possesses an autonomy, no matter how static it may be. Through the welding together of two different echoes, it contains (I wanted to use the verb speak, but being static, it cannot speak) a lingo, a language that is equally alien to the two originators. This third voice is the poem.  

 

V.

 

My concentration in the previous section on voices is apt for the tools of Stolterfoht’s poetic assault are the voice and the ears:

 

 “all ears especially as they of course

 never came from outside but still were

definitely heard as can be checked.”[2]

 

Speech as a ghost: disappearing as quickly as it appears. It becomes the embodiment of flux, denying this damaging potential: “poetic/hurrah! language is allowed to obey vision.”[3] Stolterfoht targets our adherence language’s systematic uses, recognizing that this is the silent eyes’ attempts to manipulate the tongue. The eyes want to speak so we become our eyes. The dangers here are obvious it would seem. Vision maintains that it is the depository of truth, a claim that it uses to sanctify its authority. The jump from authority to authoritarian is not that far. Stolterfoht understands these dangers, which is maybe why his poems often self-destruct. . .

 

 VI.

 

In this era of increasingly passive consumption, these poems run a terrible risk: they demand interaction. As the pages upon pages of notes in the back attest, Stolterfoht demands his readers’ full attention for allusions and clichés continually collide, often in surprisingly ways:

 

 “in the half-left field

you cross your heart over hide’s enticement

and all that cohabits genetically unknot

which in heat and under oath endorse”[4] 

 

 “In heat and under oath,” formulaic phrases are married, producing Frankensteinian offspring revealing our culture’s secret connections. While readers who like their poetry to mimic instant commercial gratification will falter against his multidirectional assault, the fact remains that Stolterfoht’s poems are more public and inviting than the “corpse in(tro)section”[5] offered by many poets involved in the depths of confessional self-absorption. His poems investigate our relationship with language. They are eternally preoccupied with Wittgenstein’s taunt, “the limits of my language are the limits of my world,” eternally trying to break out of that trap.

 

 Also, the reader needs to actively engage these poems because, like the Dadaists before him, Stolterfoht is trying to dispose of language’s claim to meaning. The result is that the poetic voice is not compelling; it does not directly try to engage. What are compelling are the kinetic shifts and subversions taking place in almost every phrase. With their constantly destructing landscapes, these poems offer a kaleidoscopic pleasure and they teach us to stop reading the words themselves and to begin to read how Stolterfoht changes these words. 

 

 VII.

 

 One cannot forget that this book remains a gift of Ulf Stolterfoht given by Rosmarie Waldrop. It’s a much her book as his, her name deserving to be equal to his in font size on the front cover, which would be a just acknowledgment of what is truly a collaboration or a process of transformation, making Stolterfoht’s voice speak in words not originally imprinted on its cords. One begins to pay to the particular hazards of translation when reading Waldrop’s notes in the back: “Of the main targets, literary theory, contemporary philosophy, the German poetic tradition, the latter suffers most in translation. For the German reader, er verb es genau [he verb it just right] invokes Goethe’s “Erklonig:” ich weiss es genau. . .” This passage attests to the hazards facing the translator of a poet who is forever in dialogue with his own language. From Waldrop’s comments, it seems Stolterfoht possesses an elusive voice. No matter how confrontational and subversive the poems are, they are eternally vulnerable. So, it would seem these poems carry a paradox: they can only dismantle our ideas as long as we don’t dismantle them.  

 

In many ways, translation remains the most underappreciated art. Most people mask their intimidation of it by either declaring it to be impossible or by omnipotence to ferry across all languages. In a world often oscillating between Robert Frost’s isolationism of the tongue and Robert Bly’s demolition job on a slew of poets he has almost no knowledge of, Waldrop’s skill and most of all, patience (the greatest skill of all), reminds me of translation’s power: the introduction of new elements into a language so as to enrich it. Her transfer of Stolterfoht into English performs, in my brain, a dialogue between languages, a thrilling albeit static-filled telephone conversation (although the static, the incompleteness of the transfer, adds a unique presence, a sharp reminder of language’s perennial escape from us).

 

There is one downside: the volume is not bilingual which might be frustrating to those with knowledge of German (this reviewer is no such person, unfortunately), who reading experience might have been deepened by having the dialogue between Stolterfoht’s German and Waldrop’s English right in front of them. However, this is not a terrible fault for one understands that a bilingual edition is much too expensive for many small presses and those interested in the original German should have no problem finding Stolterfoht's books in this era of instant internet access.

 

With this volume, Waldrop continues her tradition of excellent translations. Stolterfoht is the latest in the long, lucky line of her elect,which includesluminaries such as Edmond Jabčs, Friederike Mayrocker, Oskar Pastior, and Paul Celan. This books reaffirms her place as one of the greatest translators of her generation.

 

 

 

VIII.

 

    

 

To witness Stolterfoht in full operation, allow me to quote his poem “Dust Culture” in full:

 

 

 

“saussure meets sesame street. hacken-

sack. grew up there and in certain places.

where the task was. drawing information

charts. 603rd battalion. refinement of

 

camouflage technique. live ammo-

ha ha ha! takes two to integrate. duck

and cover. last week’s tribute: I saw

the figure five in snow. entered it

 

 under ‘torso count.’ soldier in short

pants. maybe he got sick. could never

not forget euphorbias. let no one

listen in: then why not sneeze?

 

 the little rock incident. arkansas. so many

love hours. moonlighting. kulchur

meets free-use beauty. died much too

young a well-paid baseball-player’s son.”

 

 The sentences are presented only as fragments.  While reading, one almost can visualize the lines,

 

“grew up there and certain places.

where the task was. drawing information

charts. 603rd battalion.”

 

 reading as,

 

 “grew up there and certain places

where the task was drawing information

charts for the 603rd battalion.”

 

 With these strange decisions in punctuation, does Stolterfoht become a voluntary stutterer, lingering within the pauses between words, investigating the nothingness that threatens to swallow each word as it tries to embrace the next one? The poem becomes a representation of language’s secular (but no less profound) shevirah[8], the vessels of syntax are broken, the shards scattered by the shadows residing in silence, the shapes of the possibilities that language never assumed.

 

 Does this shevirah bring anything besides destruction to the poem? I think it does. I hear the ghost of Walter Benjamin here: “redemption depends on the tiny fissure in the continuous catastrophe.”[9] The shevirah of language allows Stolterfoht to attempt investigations of language’s possibilities. Stolterfoht seems to be using the period much like a camera shutter, skillfully separating phrases so they become photographs. However, these are strange photographs for they don’t always capture images. Sure, the phrase, “little rock incident.”, while not directly imagistic, still appeals to the reader’s sense of sight. As they are reading this sentence, each reader becomes involved in visualizing history. However, “where the task was.” and other phrases like it, deny the eye access to the poem. They are photographs for the ear. As a result, Stolterfoht escapes the tyranny of the eye. The listener hears and in the process of listening, acknowledges the importance of the other’s presence. 

 

 If this poem becomes a series of sightless images, it remains just that: a series, never a sequence. Don’t look for a narrative in this poem or others like it. Actually, I take that back: look how the poem develops a narrative despite Stolterfoht’s efforts to dismantle language. The phrases clipped by periods do not follow from one another (Waldrop’s notes tells us: “the poem refers to biographies and paintings of American painters like Marcel Duchamp, Mike Kelley, Ellsworth Kelly, Roy Lichtenstein, Ed Kienholz, Charles Demuth, Cy Twombly.”[10]), but language’s inborn structure makes it seem like they do, giving rise to an illogical logic, an argument that brings us less and less knowledge as it builds, a parody of logic’s reliance on the authoritarian anti-interactive nature of its structure. Stolterfoht shows how logic can exist and progress without maintaining a relation with others. Logic as the lover talking to himself in the mirror.

 

 IX.

 

 Does he always succeed? I don’t think so. However, if Stolterfoht did succeed, he would have ultimately failed for success would have undermined his investigative project. Stolterfoht’s poems are striving to be a language of possibility, a paradox that makes it fail. It’s a brave project and that is why his book is required reading.

 

 

 

Heller Levinson, Smelling Mary (  )

 

          Levinson's previous book, ToxiCity, is one of the most intricate and downright blood-throbbingly exciting books to emerge from the giant deluge of American poetry within recent years. With Smelling Mary he has moved into a far denser and more sophisticated direction. If words in ToxiCity are arranged with the careful chaos of a jazz musician, in Smelling Mary these arrangements have been overlaid with all kinds of harmonics, so that poetic composition no longer takes the straight line of the sentence, but achieves the simultaneity of multiple planes of consciousness crashing together, the very kind of simultaneity that suspends our usual awareness of time and brings the onrush of the sublime.

Upon first reading, Smelling Mary proves to be an elusive volume as meanings appear and disappear almost more quickly than they can be processed in our consciousness. This perpetual state of almost-knowing makes the poems' elusiveness absolutely addicting. One keeps returning to a certain poem, desiring to gain a more permanent foothold in its world, only to be rebuked and reminded that it is a ghostly mental construction. Also, with each reading, the poems' images and ideas seem to change. In fact, the tome is so chameleon-like that one begins to have the eerie feeling that the poems contain some sense of life.

Levinson can be said to possess a deft touch that belongs more to the wrists of Japanese silkscreen artists than to those of most poets. He sketches with words so quickly that all sorts of associations begin to emerge with one cluster of words. For example, witness such a cluster from the poem, "the road to clear road":

 

well-watered, homeopathic & convinced,

lymphatic Interpol, hygiene with

its attendant intercessionals,

the tv interview

 

Clusters such as these do not so much tell stories as they present the faded negatives of stories. On top of this, Levinson makes these physical absences begin to interact with each other, so that a chorus of ghosts begins to blare from each poem. However, let's not mistake the instability of representation in these poems as different from any other. Rather, they are an extreme exaggeration of the gaps inherent in the activity of reading. Michel de Certeau characterizes this activity: "He [the reader] insinuates into another person's text the ruses of pleasure and appropriation: he poaches on it, is transported into it, pluralizes himself in it like the internal rumblings of one's body. . .the viewer reads the landscape of his childhood in the evening news. The thin film of writing becomes a movement of strata, a play of spaces. A different world (the reader's) slips into the author's place."

Since Smelling Mary makes us acutely conscious of how are interacting with the text, Levinson's book actually produces two types of readings: not only the reading of the words, but the reading of the ways we read. I don't believe Levinson would find this notion out of place with his Hinge Theory, the complex approach that he used to build the book (a theory that is wonderfully explained by him and expounded upon by a transcript of a conversation between two academics). In this book, language is sourced in the body. Hence, each word we release must contain a trace of that body, a reverse imprint of that physiognomy.

However, with his Hinge Theory, Levinson is not content to just arrange these body-negatives together like knick-knacks on a shelf; he strives to make them have interactions of their own. While this might be an utterly impossible task (how could language act like cellular life?), it is one that illuminates how language operates as an alien system outside of our control. Smelling Mary is nothing less than a preliminary study into the constellations that a language system possesses, a linguistic astronomy that observes how language collides with our brains.

 

 

 

“I believe I’m a creature a creation an invented person”:

Caroline DuBois’s You Are the Business

 

Caroline DuBois, You Are the Business, Trans. Cole Swenson (Providence, RI: Burning Deck/Anyart, 2008).  

 

          I hesitate to dub DuBois’s book as poetry. My hesitation comes not from any deficiency in the text itself, but because the word “poetry” cannot adequately describe DuBois’s project (I’m becoming more and more convinced that “poetry” is one of our culture’s most meaningless words). In You Are the Business, DuBois embarks on a gleeful linguistic experiment. Or is it a script for a play about language acquisition? It’s a demanding book to be sure, one that refuses to dole out easily digestible, commodified aesthetic nuggets (for my entertainment, I am imagining a delicious fight between DuBois and Garrison Keillor). However, don’t dismay: it is not another example of the artist-knows-best-so-reader-take-your-medicine, a self-indulgent, modernist pose many still adopt (from the fragmented rubric of Pound’s Cantos to Kenneth Goldsmith’s “unboring boring”).

No, DuBois’s book is up to something else entirely: it interrogates what comprises a person: “I wonder what the difference is between what you catch and what you create and what it turns into and where” (7). These are insightful questions—ones that we’ve all asked at odd times in the day, but often try to forget. DuBois thankfully chooses not to chase away such questions. In doing so, she is reviving a critique of one of Western civilization’s most embedded concepts: the free, self-sufficient individual. Writing over 150 years ago, Marx has this to say to such a notion: “The production of the isolated individual outside society. . .is as much an impossibility as the development of language without individuals living together and talking to one another.” DuBois not only revives this concept, she also indicates the sources that a person internalizes and demonstrates how they are internalized.

          The book presents lives eerily familiar to our own: the poems’ speakers do not narrate their lives as much as recount their experiences with media, in this case, cult films such as Blade Runner and Cat People. Having listened to many people talk about TV show characters as if they’re old friends, I must commend DuBois for reminding us about the media’s frightening penetration into our lives. For example, in the first poem “talala,” the speaker develops an intense relationship with android Rachel from Blade Runner. The bond is so intense that speaker thinks Rachel is staring out from the film at him or her: “Sometimes I wonder if Rachel’s looking at me when she says I’d take him to the doctor and if she’s looking at me from how far away.” The film’s defective android, one who has trouble locating the sources of her words, makes a perfect figure for a human’s experiences with learning language.  

          DuBois remains tuned to the awkward fear of acquiring language, a fear many adult Americans have forgotten. For many adults, childhood speech impediments and embarrassing experiences of reading aloud in class seem distant; Americans have increased this distance by fencing themselves in a monolithic English (How many times does one hear “You’re in America so speak English!” obnoxiously yelled in the street?). DuBois’s book ventures beyond such fences. For her, those awkward moments during language acquisition show the sutures in our seemingly seamless globalized existences. Language is not a neutral vessel for thought; it is ideologically saturated and it is during moments of its acquisition that we can see usually imperceptible ideologies being transmitted. Such transmissions bring about irreparable changes. In the poem “ask me a difficult question ” DuBois muses about the nature of these changes:

 

I wonder when you take on someone else’s symptom if the other loses the symptom or if the other keeps the symptom anyway and in that case if the symptom gets doubled why. Why the symptom gets doubled if apart from it we decide—between us to divide it or trade it or lend it or confide it or give it or borrow it or steal it or it it.

 

Here DuBois offers the drama of a mind trying to grasp a concept. Despite individuals’ desire for autonomy, language remains a symptom reminding them that they are continually contaminated by their communities. Merely by speaking, they carry something other than themselves.      

Since this is a book about language transmission, I think it’s fitting to commend Cole Swensen on her translations. Swensen is doing exactly the kind of cross-cultural exchange that literature so vitally needs. To end, I offer you a declaration from “we kiss in america”: “I believe I’m a creature a creation an invented person I frighten small animals I vanish I blend into the landscape—I’m a creation slightly parallel to the one I cannot believe that I believe in.” I nominate this passage as the tenuous, but honest manifesto of everyday life.

 

 

“My language is full of dirt and shit”: The Grindstone of Rapport: A Clayton Eshleman Reader

Jared Demick

 

“Today I’d like to clime the difference

between what I think I’ve written and

what I have written. . .”

                   - “Hades in Maganese,” Clayton Eshleman

 

Many poets claim to be adherents of the human animal yet few are willing to explore its grotesque and bewildering dimensions like Clayton Eshleman. The concept of the “human,” our leaden inheritance from the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, conjures sanitized, neoliberal fantasies of smiling families and healthy, self-assertive individuals who are “OK with themselves.” Even when ideas of the “human” aren’t sugared in a cheery rhetoric, they usually gesture toward a vague “dark side,” thus reinforcing a false notion of the human being as a dual creature. What makes Clayton Eshleman so indispensable is his decades-long insistence that when you study the human animal long enough, it becomes something you don’t recognize. Through his poetry, translations, essays, and even conversations, Eshleman spreads the idea that we constantly escape our own self-definitions. In fact, our essence even runs the danger of escaping language, a danger Eshleman silently acknowledges with his rivering images and vigilant concentration.   

With The Grindstone of Rapport: A Clayton Eshleman Reader readers can conveniently navigate through Eshleman’s trajectory and arrive at a sense of his project. In fact, this volume almost operates as a collage: while each work exists in its own right, layers of meaning are added when seen in juxtaposition to others. For example, read Eshleman’s own poetry next to his meticulous and inventive translations of Antonin Artaud. Eshleman and Artaud both present scenes of psychic birth, showing human beings emerging from a fluid, fractured matrix. Eshleman ends his poem “Pause” with “To pull out the last part of myself left inside, to get all of myself born” and states in “Michaux, 1956,” “There is in Michaux an emergent face/non-face always in formation. Call it ‘face before birth.’ Call it our thingness making faces.” Flip a couple hundred pages later and one can read in Artaud’s “The Return of Artaud, the Mômo,” “since you sent me your innate ass/to see if I was going to be born/at last.” Far from showing how Eshleman has channeled Artaud, such a comparison offers insight into how different poetic minds centered on similar themes. In this way, Grindstone of Rapport is more than just a summary of Eshleman’s career; it is an extended manifesto of a certain poetics that has existed for at least a hundred years (although Eshleman would probably argue that it began in the prehistoric era). 

In fact, it is difficult to discuss Eshleman’s work because fewer poets have discussed their own work so much. While launching an individual aesthetic is virtually a requirement for modernist/postmodernist poets, Eshleman has articulated his project in great detail. It is especially helpful to see Eshleman’s essays next to his poems. In both genres, one gets the sense that his ultimate goal is not so much a finished aesthetic object, but a particular process. This can especially be seen in the essays that have been excerpted from Companion Spider, a volume where he espouses the idea of poetic apprenticeship, a process that he defines as long and grueling. Accompanying this idea of apprenticeship is Eshleman’s insistence on the activity of translation. In “Companion Spider,” he writes that “I began to fantasize that I was in a life-and-death struggle with the spectre of Vallejo. I was trying to wrest his language away from him as if it were his food while he ferociously tried to thwart my thievery.” Reading passages like this make one aware that few poets have tried to immerse themselves into the language of another. The results are some excellent translations. As Grindstone of Rapport collects some of them together, one gets to see that these translations also offer a version of an Eshleman canon: Pablo Neruda, Arthur Rimbaud, Aimé Césaire, César Vallejo, etc. There are also some “discoveries” that Eshleman shares such as the French poet and collagist Bernard Bador.      

Reading Eshleman’s own poems again, I was struck by his joyous, almost scatological humor. In “Hades in Maganese,” he relates this image:

 

                             Hell Week, 1953,

a postcard Hades mailed to me,

his kids in demon-suits tied a string

about my penis led up through my white shirt

tied to a “pull” card dangling

from my sport coat pocket.

 

Also, I cannot forget the bestiary images in “Nocturnal Veils”: a “bear-headed croco-boy,” “a croc-headed baby bear,” and a Cheney “full of reptile blood/and driven by the mind of an Incan child abandoned on a mountain/300 years ago.” More than just amusing asides from his complex metaphysics, Eshleman’s humor is what makes him so compelling. Just when his poems are about to collapse from images or symbols stretched too far, humor veers his poems away from a deadening reverence, allowing an erotic acceptance of the world’s savageries to enter into them. Also, our laughter signals a recognition of the experiences his poems address.

          In these poems, there is a tension between expansion and compression, between the unending torrent of images melting into each other and the articulate quiet of a bone-sharp phrase set against the white page. I want to say that Eshleman follows Whitman and Charles Olson and fashions a poetic line mimicking the reader’s own breathing, but that doesn’t quite describe it. Eshleman’s line mimics the pacing of human thought. That is not to say that he is mining the ole’ Modernist stream of consciousness technique; rather, Eshleman takes that stream and shapes it. While he has devoted his poetic career to exploring our psychic depths, he does not return with raw sensory data. What he returns with is a sublime evocation of that which even his savage, yet strangely melodious words cannot contain.

          This book also reminds me of why Eshleman is one of the most controversial figures in American poetry (controversy—the ghost haunting Whitman, the Futurists and their progeny, the Beats, etc., but one that has largely disappeared. “What, poetry as controversial?”). For example, in his poem “Matrix, Blower,” which is about the mind’s psychic journey, the speaker states,

 

“Nor is Jeffrey Dahmer

utterly beside the point:

to not want to be left by anyone we touch

            is amniotic—

 

                                      in imagination

we seek to keep our freezer full of heads,

we bow to heads taken before we existed”  

 

Such a passage is problematic, to say the least. Comparing an internal psychic journey to the actions of a serial killer does not acknowledge the potential difference in motivations between the two activities and it pretends to understand the mind of another. Yet Eshleman astutely points to the frightening link between our imaginative violence and our physical violence. No matter what one ends up deliberating about this passage, the very fact it raises a debate makes it worth reading. In the polite, professionalized realm of contemporary poetry, Eshleman is one of the only poets still making poems worth fighting about.

  
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
      

The Jivin' Ladybug- A Skewered Journal of the Arts
 
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