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Clayton Eshleman, An Alchemist With One Eye on Fire, Boston: Black Widow, 2006
So many volumes of poetry published, so many with the title of a poem becoming the title of the book. It is refreshing then, to see one (not the only one, but the one I happen to be discussing) whose title poem is actually an essay, a manifesto of sorts, a statement of poetics. I say this out not out of a disdain for poetry as nonserious discourse but in response to mainstream poetry’s seemingly tireless ability to render itself irrelevant by claiming the aesthetic as its only territory, by its refusal be anything but a toy of the bourgeoisie. I’m looking at you New Yorker! At least Coleridge claimed the lime-tree bower as his prison—so many contemporary poets claim it for their Xanadu.
So what does Eshleman, with his long and broad ranging career as translator, poet, critic, and anthropologist, have to say in the introductory essay to this volume of poetry? Don’t be fooled by the seeming banality of the first paragraph: “Poetry, then, is about extending of human consciousness, making conscious the unconscious, creating a symbolic consciousness that in its finest moments overcomes all the dualities in which the human world is cruelly and eternally, it seems, enmeshed” (1). What is at stake in this poetics is overcoming the dichotomy of, among other things, poetry and the interpretation of poetry. Who, after all, would submit to PMLA, without the obligatory colon followed by an excrescence of interpretative backtracking, an essay entitled “An Alchemist With One Eye on Fire”? Thus, just as we must read this essay poetically, among other ways, we must also read Eshleman’s poems as complex interpretations of the world. In the volume’s first “poem,” in which Eshleman shamanistically receives communications from the painter Nora Jaffe (1928-1944), the obligatory condemnation of the Bush administration becomes something more, a means of understanding its unconscious logic. Jaffe responds to Eshleman’s query about life “where you are”:
“Busy. Bodies rushing in and out, did you know Cheney is full of reptile blood,
and driven by the mind of an Incan child abandoned on a mountain
300 years ago? A child spitting up
lizard blood, freezing to death in a stone shrine,
now can you grasp Cheney’s infantile wrath?”(9)
In this sort of imagery, Eshleman proves to be the poetic heir of Georges Bataille’s anthropological approach to politics inasmuch as, for both Bataille and Eshleman, other, “primitive” cultures are not so much objects of study as repositories of wisdom needed to understand a modernity that has never been modern and never will be. The building of totems, poetic or otherwise, are the means to understand world problems on both the micro and macro levels.
And the lesson that Eshleman teaches is that we, as poets and cultural critics, do not even have to build these totems, they are everywhere. Reading “Minor Drag,” we realize that the key to ending brutality in the Middle East starts with not so much an account of Western guilt, but with deciphering its cultural logic:
The body piles at Abu Ghraib,
apple-stacked asses like a gigantic Sadean sexual molecule
male all the way through,
the Caucasian subconscious unleashed on the brown body. (72)
What we must do, then, is recognize that the future of human civilization depends not so much on mapping the human genome as carrying that idea to our own dreamworlds as they are “unleashed.” The molecular decoding of these “minor drags” works in tandem with the creation of totems by both our friends and enemies, the ones we find in the past as well as the future, and the way we build and understand them will determine the evolution of humanity’s most elusive gene—love.
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