Since his move, a few years ago, into emeritus status at EMU, Clayton Eshleman has been publishing important books that solidify his contribution to literature. Juniper Fuse: Upper Paleolithic Imagination & the Construction of the Underworld brought together three decades of work in and on the caves of southern France, combining poetry, notes, and essays to make the case that the roots of our imagination reach down to and out of the art our anonymous ancestors made in the darkness. His 2008 Grindstone of Rapport: A Clayton Eshleman Reader–including including selected poetry, essays, and translations from his entire writing life–finally fixed Eshleman’s reputation as a visionary writer deeply engaged by the most fundamental questions of his art. But his truly monumental book was his translation of The Complete Poetry of Cesar Vallejo. The result of almost fifty years of work and an immersion in the words of another writer that is unparalleled in our literature, it set a new standard for translation, and firmly placed the Peruvian Vallejo at the center of twentieth-century poetry.
But what is equally impressive is that he has not stopped. Though he is now seventy-five, his most recent collection, Anticline, shows an undiminished imaginative energy. The title is another geologic term that creates an image; an “anticline” is a fold in the earth’s crust where the oldest rock is found at the center. All of Eshleman’s concerns come into play here. In cave art, in the work of other writers, in a deep “reading” of the work of visual artists, Eshleman finds the images that move down to the very center of our being. It is a dark place, but a denial of what is found there leads to the perversions of our political life, perhaps even to the very destruction of our planet. In the long center section of the book, Eshleman studies Bosch’s wonderfully bizarre painting The Garden of Earthly Delights, excavating the images in search of an understanding that is buried deeply below them. We relearn from Eshleman that art, and the exploration of the images in our collective psyche, is of fundamental importance.
When some might say that the turbulence of our souls can be solved by psychotropic drugs, or that the artistic experiments of the avant-garde have been made irrelevant by technology, Eshleman’s work stands as defiant testament to the hope that we are more than this, that we can still participate in a radical imaginative freedom. Near the end of Anticline he writes
The poet can have no system overseer, no
third eye at the peak of a pyramid
like a lighthouse beam onto his psychic sleights–
his stare weight stairway
a Self-assembled sylphwork
Clayton Eshleman reads from his work on April 8 at perhaps our most interesting new venue for readings, Copper Colored Mountain Arts’ Red Barn, out west of town on Liberty.