Monday, December 10, 2007

Clayton Eshleman: Juniper Fuse

Clayton Eshleman
Juniper Fuse: Upper Paleolithic imagination & the construction of the underworld
Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2003
xxvi + 300 pp.

This is a poet's poet's book—but it's also plain fun to read. It's an Everything Book, an immersive study in a topic that matters to poets, or should, if they haven't yet explored it. It's an in-depth look into the roots of art, a poetic response to archaeology, and an essay response to the history of science as it applies to the Upper Paleolithic cave paintings found in the limestone and dolomite caves of mountainous southern France.'' I for one would be pleased if more poets took it upon themselves to dig this deeply into their own sources, their own passions, their own materials. In such a large work, though, I find it impossible to summarize without feeling like I've left out many important points; or that any description of the book that I can give would be tainted by oversimplification.

It's the sort of book that's going to irritate some specialists in the field—poets will ask, Why so much science? while scientists will ask, What's a poet doing, to be interested in this material?—but it's a book that specialists and generalists alike ought to know about. It's the sort of deep meditation one would like to see more of, on any topic relevant to art, and art history, or poetry in its essential connection to life.

The title, Juniper Fuse, is explained in the opening of Eshleman's Introduction:

Wicks made of quarter-inch juniper branches were used in many of the 130 hand lamps found in Lascaux. . . . Since the Upper Paleolithic, wick has become fuse as the conveyor of ignition for electrical purposes, as well as for shells and bombs.

Eshleman describes the format and purpose of his Everything Book better than I can summarize; also from the Introduction:

Thus in the writing of Juniper Fuse I sought to be open to what I thought about and fantasized while in the caves or while meditating on their image environments—to create my own truth as to what they mean, respecting imagination as one of a plurality of conflicting powers. I also sought to be a careful observer, and to reflect on what others have written, photographed, and drawn. Sometimes a section is all poetry, sometimes all prose—at other times it is a shifting cauldron like a Calder mobile, with poetry turning into prose, prose turning into poetry.

This fluid style of the book moves easily back and forth between poetic sections and essay; this fluidity of regard and format is what I like most about the book. Prose and poetry interfinger and interpenetrate, here. More and more, books like this fascinate me: why, after all, should poetry and prose be so separated from each other, so ghettoized, so Other? There are prose-poems in here, and "pure" poems, and "pure" essays. You can dip in anywhere, and the tone remains consistent, the authorial voice is clear, even as the style and subject change shape. I find the writing to be always lucid and evocative, never deliberately hermetic, and more importantly, retaining humility in the face of the vast scope of the book's project. This is laudable, and appropriate.

Clayton Eshleman is known as a post-modern poet, an influential editor who founded not one but two important journals of post-modern poetry, Sulfur and Caterpillar. His output includes voluminous, occasionally definitive, translations of contemporary poets in French and Spanish, including works of Vallejo, Neruda, and Cesaire among others. So, his credentials are well in place for undertaking a book of this magnitude.

If one were to run across some of the poems within Juniper Fuse in, say, a poetry journal, devoid of illustration, note and context, the poems might not impress one. They might seem guilty of the worst kinds of self-referentiality and hermeticism that one finds in the trendiest poetry journals—the fashion of the difficult, meaningless poem. But here, in this compilation, the threads of meaning in the poems are never lost, and everything makes sense in context. This is quite an achievement, in an age when poetry (especially those poetries most often labeled "post-modern") veers further and further away from relevance to daily life, to meaning, to personal symbol and archetype, even to non-specialist comprehension—or veers towards banal populism, a form of Lowest Common Denominator "communication."

I praise Eshleman for keeping his feet on the ground, and not giving in to poetic fashion, even as he explores ways of making poems that are far outside the mainstream. Some of the poems in Juniper Fuse strike one as outside experimentation, but not as incomprehensible. This is because they are all rooted in the book's subject matter. They can stray far off into odd corners, but still make sense, because they are tethered to the book's overall goal and manner. In other words: in the context of this book, there isn't a poem that doesn't work. Even the ones that I find less moving are still tied to meaning, even though they might use some radical poetic style or heavily experiment with language. They never lose their footing. (Their footings are deep underground, in the caves themselves.)

Juniper Fuse is a magnum opus, a summation. In it, Eshleman talks about the concerns about poetry he has had his entire career. A poet's life is of a whole; you can pick and choose, as a reader, but in a book like this, the pieces are integrated into a global overview. I find that to be one of the best aspects of this book.

Eshleman ties together, in the several sections of this book, images from the caves, myths of the underworld, Jungian psychology regarding the collective unconscious and the archetypes, ancient and modern poetry in its reflections of the shadowy parts of human nature, sexuality and sex-magick, archaeology, the symbols and meanings of the labyrinth and labrys, and much more. He develops two or three central themes, returning to them from new directions, and adding on new data. Here's a sample of Eshleman's style, pulling in sources and ideas from many different directions, some literary, some scientific, some mythopoetic:

Garcia Lorca's essay on the "duende" identifies this diablotin of the blood, or bloodmare, which provokes some of the world's great art, as a struggle with a wound that never closes. Is Garcia Lorca therefore caught, whether he knows it or not, in Ariadne's turnstile, responding to blood that for thousands of years has mesmerized and enraged men as it appeared in rhythm with the moon and the tides, and, without violence, ceased, to only reappear again and again?

. . .

The natural spinning mind of the earth weaves itself in personifications throughout our humanity. Biological peril is always central, and sublimated by image-making into "scorpion hopscotch," or the imaginative gambling called poetry. It is possible to formulate a perspective that offers a life continuity, from lower life forms, through human biology and sexuality, to the earliest imagings of our situation, which now seems to be bio-tragically connected with out having separated ourselves out of the animal-hominid world in order to pursue that catastrophic miracle called consciousness. If the labyrinth is a Double Axe, one might see it as humanity's anguished attempt to center a ceaseless duplicity conjured by the evidence that each step forward seems to be a step backward. And the haft? Phallocentricity that fuses the menstrual/ovulatory cycles into an instrument of inner and outer ceremony that injures but does not restore.
(pp. 86-87)

It's interesting to consider that the art-makers of the caves were on that borderline of human technology in which they were still as often prey as predators. There is evidence of Neolithic organized hunting, but there are also gravesites in which a Neanderthal child is mourned as having been killed by a bear or tiger. Are the cave paintings shamanic spells designed to summon prey? or propitiate the spirits of animals killed? There are numerous drawings in which the animal and human morph into each other, changing places, blending selves. Eshleman makes a special study, returning to the theme throughout the book, of asking whether the human-animal hybrid images meant that men were taking on the powers of the animals, or evolving to be separated from them. It is of course an unanswerable question; yet I find Eshleman to be an effective tour guide through the ramifications and speculations that result from the unanswerable.

The book is also profusely illustrated. There is a color insert, but drawings of the cave imagery appears over and over again, side by side with the poem or essay referring to it, inspired by it, and/or discussing it.

Earlier in the book, Eshleman discusses one of his primary themes, the aforementioned separation that led to human consciousness:

I believe that what we call image-making and, consequently, art, was the result of the crisis of the separation of the hominid from the animal to the distinct but related classifications of the human and the animal. Why it resulted in image-making when and where it did probably has much to do with Ice Age conditions—a considerable dependence on animals for survival . . . as well as the effect of severe and prolonged cold on a body that originally evolved under temperate and even tropical conditions. (pp. 29-30)

Another great theme of the book is the artistic response to nature, experience, and time:

Every artist participates in Ariadne. The transformation of the "given" life to a "creative" one not only involves entering a dark or "inner" life, but generating as well a resistance substantial enough to test oneself against and the shape the focus of one's work. (p. 80)

And, poetically:

Line animating stone. Incipient alphabet.
At what point did the sound lark
split open to reveal a letter,
inkfaceting our dreams?

I crack open to find my
life. As if the word

stone were nut,
I must invent the kernel,

there must be life in my shell.

—from Cemeteries of Paradise, p. 102

One might argue with Eshleman's ideas, or poetic fixations, but they are no more strange than some of the earlier interpretations of the cave art, many of which he consider in detail. And his own theories are at least as solid as some others. This is, after all, a poet's response, so the rules of scientific evidence, while attended to in this book, are not, in the end, determinative.

The one lacunae in Juniper Fuse that I don't really understand surrounds a psychological theory that to me seems directly tied to Eshleman's speculations about the separation of human consciousness from animal consciousness—a perhaps necessary separation, the original Fall from grace—that is, Julian Jaynes' narrative of how modern consciousness arose when the compartmentalized mind through which the gods spoke became the single mind of what we know as human consciousness. Jaynes' masterful book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind seems a natural fit to Eshleman's study, and is not mentioned anywhere, although a great deal of other psychological and mythological studies are. It is true that Jaynes' theories are not highly regarded, now, twenty years after he first published them. Still, Jaynes' absence from Eshleman's otherwise encyclopedic survey is curious.

Juniper Fuse is a book for all poets, and probably ought to be read by folklorists and anthropologists as well. It examines the "back wall" of human art-making: further than this, we cannot go, it seems. It's a book that's worth reading again and again, several times; there's too much in it, and too much resonant, speculative imagination, to be able to absorb on just one reading. I have not done the book justice by dipping into it and summarizing as I am forced to do in a short review. I can only say that this is work, both poetry and essay, that I expect to be responding to for some time. It is a major contribution.

This book review was written for and is also posted at Monsters and Critics as Featured Review.

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