Some poets find their experience in the backyard or in their fantasies; a few go roaming abroad to discover what lies beyond their towns and the comforts of their own culture. Two such poets are Nathaniel Tarn, poet and anthropologist, traveler of the world and a pilgrim in search of strange gods, and Clayton Eshleman, a poet and translator who conducts guided tours to the Dordogne to examine the drawings of Upper Paleolithic cave culture, the first art forms in human history.
Both men were associated in the late 1950s with groups attempting to liberate consciousness and to discover uses of Freud and Jung for poetry. Tarn orbited just outside the Deep Image movement, and later joined Jerome Rothenberg in what became known as Ethnopoetics, the eclectic, highly relational vision of the world’s poetry as rooted in a collective consciousness flowing below the surface of modern selfhood. That effort and Eshleman’s own to trace the evolution of art from ancient caves to the present, makes both men solitary travelers in strange lands, investigative poets trying to pick up the pieces of something that fell apart and led to the terrors and alienation of the modern age.
Tarn’s long vigil at the frontiers is recorded in Selected Poems, 1950—2000, covering the most tumultuous half-century in modern history, spanning the Atomic Age, the Cold War, Vietnam, Watergate, Newt Gingrich’s revival of the Confederacy in Congress, the impeachment of Clinton, and the destruction of our imperial adventures in the near and far east. His take can be despairing at times:
… and our days have died there is no energy in hand or foot the brain is dull thought starved before it comes to birth the dream locked in our minds tedium destroying all our occasions
“Requiem Pro Duabus Filiis Israel”
But also hopeful,
… in America we now have a dreampath again, or spirit quest if you will departing every day from the mountain top–
“Flight from the Mountain Top”
Tarn shows the ravages of an age that has continued to commit holocausts in the name of almost any political cause, giving the 50 years he has witnessed a lurid, ghoulish cast, which makes hoping for a better time difficult, if not impossible. The loose-knit lines and the unhurried pace of his language move between a lyricism of great beauty and a conversational mode that enchants with its casual reference to primitive desert life, Asian religions, birds, the totem of his poetry, Amerindian lore, and favorite cities, especially the old Russian capital of St. Petersburg.
Tarn is looking for innocence under the rubble and lost faith of his age; he finds it in simple, unassuming things; his vision is mainly pastoral and he throws in with desert nomads, farmers, laborers, those untainted by power and the evil it wreaks upon the ordinary citizen. “Early I acquired the habit of looking for the eternal side of things,” he writes in “Old Savage/Young City,” from a book of that title published in 1964, just as the Vietnam War got underway.
The man is in sympathy with the old hermit bards of China and India, poets like Han Shan, who retreated to a cave near the top of Cold Mountain to write about “the eternal side of things.” Tarn is a brother spirit of Gary Snyder, another loner and searcher after gods beyond Christianity and western life, and he finds divinity in odd places, disguised as gurus, old friends, lovers, and whales rising out of the sea, a frequent motif of his musings on board ships. The whale is his nomad of the deep, and he associates his own life with their wanderings around the planet.
Tarn writes in the tradition of Charles Olson and the Black Mountain poets, whose open-ended style of poetry passed down to him and Eshleman. Tarn’s poem is always in the present, line by line, reactive, willing to turn around at the noise of a window shutting, or some other motion from the surrounding world. You never know which way the logic will jump, as in “The Great Odor of Summer,” which begins, “The land has been dead in its pores all the war long,” which risks sounding like all the other maudlin verse of the post-Vietnam era, but shifts ground in the second line, “now wakes to dogwood without transition.” What better description of winter and spring, and of war followed by a hopeful, longed-for sense that nature is above our own worst passions? As a witness to a vile era, Tarn writes with incredible freshness and hope, with a deep sense of love for the natural order of things in which our human lot has, at times, seemed precariously suspended.
Clayton Eshleman’s long career, spanning 70 books or more of translation, commentary, poetry, memoirs, advice to apprentices, reviews, editorial opinion (from Caterpillar and Sulfur, his journals of the avant garde), is summarized in part in Companion Spider: Essays, his position papers on poetry, on workshops and student writers, and his views on international literature, of which so little is known in our isolated superpower.
Eshleman’s prose is sharp and clean, personal without being self-conscious or tediously self-centered. He is combative at times, as in his polemical piece against the college anthologies, “The Gospel According to Norton,” and funny, honest, and self-searching in his “Novices: A Study of Apprenticeship,” where he indicts the writing programs of America for creating the illusion that young writers can simply spring up out of the ground ready to compose any and all lyrics and become famous. The easy method is only a way of writing about one’s murky, diffuse selfhood, whatever that is. The real artist, he says, learns the tradition and becomes a life-long student of the world if he or she wants to write at all.
As an award-winning translator of Cesar Vallejo, Aime Cesaire, Lorca, and many others, his commentaries on the art of translation are highly instructive on what is good poetry, and a glimpse into his own methods of writing. Eshleman was born in Indianapolis and has struggled against that provincial beginning all his life. His book Indiana (1969) is about breaking free of straight-laced parents who forbade him to play with black or Catholic kids. He grew up empty until he escaped to college, and then crawled into the imaginations of Peruvian and Caribbean writers whose lives were anything but conventional or balanced, but rather torn to pieces by political upheaval, dictatorships, and the executions of fellow writers.
Eshleman is a voice of artistic freedom in this country, a tireless spokesperson for pushing back the limits on what to write about, and how to explore a self vastly larger than the skimpy figure portrayed in conventional poetry. Eshleman clings to the idea that we are only differentiated on the surface, cut off from the primordial that originally fed our imaginations with powerful images of a world of entangled life, a Blakean pre-world of merged things all throbbing in a collective embrace and without a trace of consciousness about being separate or individualized. His poetry longs to return to that Eden, and his songs, his dirges and rhapsodic lyricism are a sustained blues solo on being robbed of his primal nature. In “What Is American About American Poetry” he writes,
To speak internationally for a moment, poetry is always going nowhere and on one level to hell– on another, not to hell, but to the underworld, the pre-Christian subconscious. Poetry is fundamentally pagan and polytheistic…
He goes back to the French caves to remind himself of where art began, in the throes of a battle in which human identity had not yet abandoned its home in wild nature, or regarded itself as something unique and apart.
Eshleman’s poetry rebels against our flight from unpleasant realities, our willingness to believe the press when it edits and censors the real news of the world. “The poetry that matters to me,” he concludes in “What Is American About American Poetry,” “faces the blackness in the heart of man and seeks to transform it into the product that attempts to become responsible for all a poet knows about himself and his world.”
Tarn and Eshleman share a world that is large, populous, filled with wonders we seldom hear or read about. They embrace this world, and find no reason to ignore writers of other cultures and of other periods. Both are spiritual men who have combed the debris of our time and gone abroad hoping to discover something else to believe in. They are scavengers of a few idols and some prayers, but their world is so intensely real in their imaginations and in their writing that our more conventional poetry looks scrawny by comparison.
Poet and essayist Paul Christensen has been a professor of English at Texas A&M University since 1974.