There are seventeen poems in RECIPROCAL DISTILLATIONS. The book opens with a detailed perspective of modernist art provided as a foreword by Roberto Tejada; it concludes with "Further Notes & Appendix." There are also interior notes after the poem "Spirits of the Head." One might argue that for a small collection, this is enough explication.
Yet what Eshleman offers -- in his lifelong tradition of teaching while discovering -- is an explanation of the roots of many of the poems, their birth within his journeys: to museums, to exhibits, to caves of Paleolithic artwork, to the complex inner journeys of his shamanistic experience. And what Tejada offers is a modernist binding of the poems to art history.
So this brief "poetry alert" takes the third aspect of vision: that of the poems as written.
There is never a case for "just the words" in Eshleman's poems. They deliberately evoke layers of meaning and experience. Like the Paleolithic "hominid" (CE's word) who placed a slash along the curve of an ox rib (a "core meander"), then added another (a "branch meander"), Eshleman deliberately pushed for core and branch in himself and his words, echoing his discoveries in the caves of Lascaux that he and his wife Caryl explore once a year or so, with or without a cavalcade of literate associates.
Read this way, the poem meanders through inner heads, the eye as crater or as target, the jawless (this becomes clearer again with a glance at Bacon's haunting, despairing images). Then Eshleman pulls the horror into theos:
God has withdrawn into the Devil's Skull from which he fires spider filaments into the glory hole of mankind.
Within the face, Bosch working the pumps:
And thus we seize another vision, Hieronymous Bosch's evocation of condemned existence in the Dark Ages of humanity. Yet spinning around again (which I find Eshleman's work provokes in my reading), look at Bacon: he's not just painting horror, he's specifically painting aging and its effects. Eshleman wraps up his poem with,
Can I made the unsayable bark to verify that racial whitewash will never succeed in gating the community of souls?
The long wrapping line with its levels of abstraction and query becomes a hook back to the outside of the poem -- as in, where do we go after we close the book? What strength or what wounds do we carry into our daily tasks of response to the world, after reading Eshleman's response to the art that has cried out about war?
The note Eshleman adds to the poem, seven pages long, insists on adding yet more complexity: He adds more mention of occult study and comments that Bacon's renderings of male heads, that of his lover/model George Dyer in particular, "struck me as a clot of desire, rage, inspiration, and destruction, with asymetrical planes exuding soul-stuff. ... a combination of whipped cream and sperm, and thus the brain-muelos described by LaBarre. Bacon the head-hunter!"
There is in fact much darkness, much death in this collection. "Corot, 1870" layers shadows of existence upon layers of landscape. "The Beheading" digs into the soul of Caravaggio, who "could not completely / slip the Christian corset." And "Radix," a series of "improvisations for Khaled Al-Saa'i," begins with alphabet demons and Cro-Magnon "night talk," erupting however into "peonies swelling / with crimson joy."
The collection's finale, "Monumental," entwines the grim protesting paintings of Leon Golub with Eshleman's vision of war, of racism, of Western culture:
The Golub archetypal question:
if abstract color fields are peeled away,
what terrors will show through?
I recommend this collection for a season (at least) of labor, digging into its allusions and visions, as well as into the works of visual art that shadow the words. This poet brought us five publications in the past year, all deeply and meticulously reworked to multiple levels of conversation and response, and all at last calling us to our own responses. Here is a fragment of a blog pieces called "Responsories: from artist/writer Art Durkee that sets Eshleman's work into yet another context:
Some of the most interesting books, to me, are responses to Paleolithic shamanic art: Clayton Eshleman's poetic study of cave paintings; Gary Snyder's research into Native American poetry; Jerome Rothenberg's anthologies of modern re-tellings of the old chants, poem-stories, and songs.