November's release of THE GRINDSTONE OF RAPPORT marks the third time in three years that Black Widow Press has published work by Clayton Eshleman. And this is the keystone, the index piece, for those new to his work, as it is an extraordinary gathering. From www.claytoneshleman.com, here's a description:
A comprehensive survey of Eshleman’s poetry, prose poems, essays, and translations. This one volume edition of Eshleman’s works spans some forty years of exploration and writing on themes as varied as ancient cave paintings and the Paleolithic imagination to critical self-analysis, to viewing modern politics through a poet’s eye. Eshleman and his poetry have remained vibrant and varied throughout his long career. A translator of the first rank, winner of a National Book Award and now two Landon Translation Awards (2008 award winner), Grindstone also allows a reader to see and participate in the breadth of Eshleman’s mastery of translation with examples from his works from the French of Aime Cesaire, Michel Deguy, Artaud, and from the Spanish of Cesar Vallejo and Neruda. With over 30 books to date there was a wealth of materials to choose from.
But don't let that quiet announcement speak for the book. Try Ron Silliman's perspective on the work, informed as it is by Silliman's personal overlap with Eshleman's work. Or -- better yet -- pick up the compendium, but also from Black Widow, Eshleman's 2006 collection, AN ALCHEMIST WITH ONE EYE ON FIRE. Here's the heart of this poet/essayist and his exploration of the dark -- not "evil" but the quietly present depth of us all, from the prehistoric caves of the Dordogne, to the inner awareness of our coming deaths, to the heart leap of birth and love that persists even in sleep. ALCHEMIST opens with this:
N. O. Brown: "The central feature of the human situation is the existence of the unconscious, the existence of a reality of which we are unconscious." Poetry, then, is about the 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.
This opening essay includes a look at the "democratization of poetry" as found in today's abundance of MFA programs, and Eshleman's blunt evaluation: "This system is now producing thousands of talented but unoriginal writers, most of whom would not be writing at all if it were not for jobs." Ever willing to point to passageways to deeper levels, however, Eshleman proceeds to offer an outline for a responsible avant-garde in poetry and to challenge others to grapple with his image of its most worthwhile aspect: "a form in which the realities of the spirit can be tested by critical intelligence, a form in which the blackness in the heart of man [sic] can be confronted, in which affirmation is only viable when it survives repeated immersions in negation -- in short, a form that can be made responsible for all the poet knows about himself and his world."
A taste of what emerges from such pursuit, from "Irish Jig" [at a Concert by Millish]":
interior stellar zoom,
the poetic art,
ecstasy enstacy of
The obstetrical toad is
gigging in his fertilized skirt.
Fetal propellers are
turning left, strengthening
energies into a heart.
Remarkably, it's possible with yet a third book from Black Widow to become enmeshed in conversation with Eshleman: ARCHAIC DESIGN, published in 2007, is a 342-page bundle of his essays and interviews, both of others and of himself. From his shamanistic experiences in Kyoto, to his fascination with art and its bridge to words, to his engagement with other poets (his translations of César Vallejo have been a lifetime gift to his writing and to our reading), he demonstrates the paths of intricacy and analytic consideration with an open hand and quiet smile of invitation: You don't have to be as well read or brilliant as this poet to walk the paths; you just have to place one foot in front of the next, up the heights or down into the caves, with your eyes open and your heart willing to be surprised, even in its moments of recognition.
The final interview in ARCHAIC DESIGN is called "Shadow Matters," and as I read it yet again, I recall a casual summary I've heard of life's contrasting sides: "The darker the shadow, the brighter the light."
Eshleman's work aptly uses the interplay of both that inner darkness and its essential blaze of flickering flame. I wish you all three of these volumes, for an enriched and substantial new year.