Clayton Eshleman’s Experience

The Price of Experience coverClayton Eshleman has been one of this country’s most serious, engaged & productive poets, translators & thinkers on the matter of poetry for more than half a century now. As Adrienne Rich wrote about the volume Companion Spider: “As a poet and translator, Clayton Eshleman has gone more deeply into his art, its processes and demands, than any modern American poet since Robert Duncan or Muriel Rukeyser… Eshleman has written on the self-making and apprenticeship of the poet, and of the poet as translator, as no one else in North America in the later twentieth century.”

A new volume of his  writings on poetry and art — collecting reviews and essays he wrote throughout his career and especially the years during which he edited Sulfur magazine (with forays back into Caterpillar days), as well as a series of interviews, and several gatherings of prose notations and meanderings — came out late last year from Black Widow Press under the title The Price of Experience. I’ve been making the pleasure last, i.e. slowly savoring the writing in small late evening doses — & have, I’m nearly sad to say, now come to the end. What a ride through US culture & beyond over these past 40 plus years! From what I think may easily be the best writing on & about LSD, to an early 70s travel journal in prose & poetry (reminding me of the great Arab genre of the riḥla), and on to discussing the core poets & artists that Eshleman’s investigation of & immersion in the most imaginative arts of his century have made central to him (Blackburn, Golub, Vallejo, Soutine, Michaux, Césaire, Kelly etc.).

This is a trove of thoughtful, critical & meditative investigative writing, as Eshleman lets the reader into that soot-stained forge where man & poet reflect on, melt, shape & hammer away at & with imagination’s tools — ploughshares & swords, the one into the other, as both are needed, though the sword used most often to pry open the recesses in his own mid-20C American heartland psyche, to enable that transformative move from undergraduate business major & frat pledge in Indiana to one of the widest (and deepest) ranging poets & translators writing today.

I would make this book (as well his previous book of essays, Companion Spider) compulsory reading for any would be poet in a creative writing program, as Eshleman lays out exactly what it takes to become (& continue over the long haul to work as) a serious poet: it’s a full-time life-long engagement with and commitment to one’s own life & imagination — a mental, spiritual & physical alchemical transformative journey —, with that of one’s own community of poets and artists and, as a major & necessary check against self-satisfied local (i.e. United-Stat-ish) egocentric belly-button staring, with the major poets of another language and latitude.

At roughly the same time that he published this large (480 pages) collection, BlazeVox also brought out a 40-page poem called The Jointure. A perfect entry point into the poetry work after reading through The Price of Experience, this 2011/2012 poem returns to & transforms core materials in Eshleman’s psychic realms. Kenneth Warren accurately sees The Jointure as “a brilliant ‘I-beam’ that illuminates the stack of androcentric figures through which his opus is staked to man’s collective psychic force. Eshleman’s primordial intention in The Jointure is contact with the ancestral realm. Among totems honored are Yorunomado, the daemon of Eshleman’s first breakthrough poem written in Kyoto, and Xochipilli, the Aztec prince of hallucinogenic plants. Painstakingly refined in The Jointure are the precise pivot points through which these perpetrators of soul must come and go in order to realize the fate, form, and integrity of a lifetime given to the imagination.”

Here is  the opening poem:

Imagination is the keelson of paradise.
The Maya, the Aztec and the Asmat entwine my I-beam.

Step up onto the serpent throne. God K’awil is present:
his left foot is a fer-de-lance whose jaw-sprung head wears
a gorgeous myth-scrambled headdress, birth cord tucked inside.
My mother’s vagina is a simulacrum of K’awil’s open maw.
Emergence to this world infused with Glady’s veins
braided with those of her three sisters, Georgia, Ruth, and Mary,
a quartet of visionary anacondas, each in dread-holy robes.
When I signal them they turn into beavers,
barking and flashing their gate-like tails.

The essence of imagination: access to one’s own penetralia,
one’s inner wilderness, its atavistic hosts.
Looking through the vehicular cinders of night’s telescope
I am a 12 year old Asmat sucking off a 16 year old,
caught up in the pistins of a drive
to wear semen bone through my nose,
to be vermilion in a cloud of gnats,
to kill to amass the soul strength of others,
to dine on brain marrow for masculine strength.


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