Some Voices on the Left
BY PAUL CHRISTENSEN
A Book of Witness: Spells & Gris-Gris By Jerome Rothenberg New Directions 188 pages, $15.95
Facing Invasion By Clayton Eshleman Unarmedjournal.com Pamphlet. free
Everwhat By Clayton Eshleman Zasterle 58 pages, $10
Juniper Fuse: Upper Paleolithic Imagination & the Construction of the Underworld By Clayton Eshleman Wesleyan University Press 336 pages, $29.95
One More River to Cross: The Selected Poems of John Beecher Edited by Steven Ford Brown. Foreword by Studs Terkel NewSouth Books 252 pages, $20
erome Rothenberg came onto the scene in New York 50 years ago with a movement he called Deep Image, which seemed like a way out of writing about the self in the age of confessional poetry. The result of Rothenberg’s efforts to escape the self were mixed; he was the most gifted anthologist of his generation and set out to prove there was once a single consciousness out of which the world did its thinking and praying, the remains of which could be found among the performance art, spells, fragments of myth he collected from every continent. His own poetry was too often an imitation of those oral cultures he admired, and not enough of a unique lyric voice of his own. Occasionally, as in the moving dirge over the death camps in Poland, where his family had roots, he rose to a kind of lyric splendor. But his ear was erratic, and his mind was on too many other things.
In A Book of Witness, Rothenberg has found himself. The language is spare, the lines blunt and unadorned, but the words are tangy with truth, those of a man in his seventies lamenting the death of friends, and preparing for his own death. The poets Paul Blackburn and Armand Schwerner appear early in the book, and are the beginning of a roll call of departed friends. Other voices from the past intervene in his lyrics, including those of Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Louis Aragon, Andre Breton, Samuel Beckett, Robert Kelly, Rochelle Owens, Clark Coolidge, Pablo Neruda, and Robert Duncan, to name a few, but only in a line or two, an association, now part of his own thinking. The real attention is to his aging body, his memories, his willingness to die at any time. I walk the stupid last mile into heaven cursing the light that blinds me. I reach up & drive an owl from its perch. —“Cursing the Light” The watch on his wrist is a reminder of fleeting days; his metaphors are about borrowed time, living beyond others, taking the path alone, or strolling down haunted streets filled with ghosts, angels, the sound of pianos buried in the earth. His way is to the grave, but the fact of death is a liberation. It allows Rothenberg for the first time to embrace the self, the body and mind that witnessed seven decades of a bloody, tormented century. He says as much in an eloquent “Postface,” chiding all those poets, including himself, who had run from the pronoun “I,” and “debased, or more often despised… one of our great resources in poetry.” To eliminate this center of lyric energy was “futile,” an admission he freely makes after decades of warring against all and any who dared to filter the world through a single intelligence. But, as he cautions a few lines down, that personal voice is “really the voices of the gods.”
The witnessing of his times in 100 page-length poems, half written in 1999, the other half in the new millennium, does not take on big subjects like the wars, the peace movement, the political mayhem; these are assumptions in the background of his meditations on light, on his own fragility and ebbing strength, his relations to lovers and to his wife Diane. He is amused, grateful, occasionally erotic; he has a light touch on all these matters, as he draws on his own personality and humor, his own way of seeing things. Here’s a sample from “The Search for Truth”: The search for truth is all I have yet I discard it. With my fingers I can make bells ring. The role of sex is crucial until hunger drives it out. We are on a football field with grass the color of old hair. Someone with a stomach filled with worms watches us breathe. I never knew how charming Rothenberg was until this book. He’s relaxed, happy, his farewells are not tearful at all, but joyful. He’s mellowed into a kindly old rabbi, whose humor is from vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley; he was always a trickster in poetry with his raids on the unsayable and the indecorous, but now he combines a serene sense of the sacred, the profane, and of oblivion in a voice winnowed down to essences, into a kind of jabbing lyric tart with vinegar and self-mockery. He has become poetry’s fiddler on the roof.
Clayton Eshleman’s prodigious energies have turned into a publishing whirlwind of late. I am barely keeping up with his output and can only glimpse three of his new works as they fly into the libraries and add to the 60 or 70 others of his long career. Facing Invasion is a nine-page chapbook with a prose reflection on the horrors of war and a poem, “Nocturnal Veils.” Eshleman addresses a nation hiding from the consequences of its violent acts against others. If Americans could look into their bathroom mirrors and see Iraqi children with half their heads missing, would something in them revolt against this war? As he notes soon after, “There are no Vietnamese names on the Vietnam Memorial Wall.” He quotes from several lurid war accounts to make his point that we do not know war from our armchairs. “Nocturnal Veils” speaks to the same notion that we dare not penetrate too far into what we do or we shall confront the horror within. The language in this and much of Eshleman’s recent poetry is revved to the red line, with the imagery pushed so hard it becomes Salvador Dali’s landscapes: Bush’s secret is his tiny tail, leathery, about 3 inches, like the tip of a Komodo Dragon’s tail— note how he is always heavily guarded from behind, for if some joker pulls his tail, a long yellow forked tongue will spurt from his face—
Eshleman’s Everwhat, the reverse of a cliché expressing indifference, tracks familiar ground for anyone reading his oeuvre of the last two decades—meditations on the poets Henri Michaux, Omar Caceres, Cesar Vallejo, the painters Leon Golub, Francis Bacon, and a variety of verse essays on surrealism, blackness, and violence. As Eliot Weinberger once noted in an introduction to his poetry, Eshleman is underrated as a satiric poet. His humor is broad, cartoonish, made up of Disney-like animations and the grotesque world of Georg Grocz and Hieronymous Bosch. There’s nothing like Eshleman in the annals of American poetry—he springs from a made-up tradition combining painters who explored violence and gore, like Bacon and Golub, and the writers who have plunged into the dark side of the human Soul—Vallejo, Antonin Artaud, Aime Cesaire, Henry Miller, Celine. The list could go on, but for most Americans, the names and the landscapes are unfamiliar. On the Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda, not a hero of his, he writes: I hear Neruda—he’s a langoustine of a man, a violet maiden in multicolored fleece, both hands paralyzed from swatting political lice. Neruda! A swiller of a gale, a snood disguised as a church, Rutabaga in cleats, something found on the beach which as you fondle it, urinates in your heart. Neruda, what is truly to be found under his tray of forceps and sledges? It is difficult to get through a single page of his poetry without guffawing, falling off the chair. His political convictions were all laid down years ago; the older poet is tired of stating his points of view and now presents his truths and moral certainties in a landscape this side of madness. Everything is alive, melting into opposites, springing up like cartoon menaces out of the things we take for granted in our daily lives. Nothing is certain, and where the political monsters stalk like creaking reptiles over his painted world, the unconscious empties out its endless parades of imagery. Eshleman’s caustic wit and indefatigable imagination for the bizarre and exotic are quickened by moral outrage and disillusionment. How much white can a head take? Can it assimilate supremacy, heaven? Can it take on the reddened battlefield of man’s pincer gaze at pluck with his brother? Can I make the unsayable bark back to verify that racial white- wash will never succeed in gating the community of souls? —“Spirits of the Head” Juniper Fuse is Eshleman’s compendium of poems, essays, notes, and speculations on the birth of imagination from within the caves scattered along the western edge of France. As Eshleman perceives the matter, imagination was the birth of human identity and the death of a paradisal continuity with the rest of nature. The splitting off of humankind from the rest of breathing life meant isolation, perversion of natural truths, and a deadly autonomy free to wreck the world. This is human history according to an ardent, resourceful, highly articulate anti-humanist. Eshleman resents the evolution of modern humanity, with its wars and political corruption, its perversions of power, and now its assault upon the rest of life.
You will not find excerpts from Eshleman’s revised history in any school books. He has put together a fiercely defended argument that we are orphans of the planet, and to illustrate what he means, his “Visions of the Fathers of Lascaux,” a long poem about France’s most famous painted cave, reenacts a “birth” of the human mind from out of the primordial stuff of undivided life. The operation is more like an abortion in which something impish and otherworldly is pulled from the skull of a sleeping figure, and made to do mischief thereafter.
Other pieces of Juniper Fuse are field notes and archaeological musings, analyses of particular works in Lascaux and other caves. The title refers to the sprigs of juniper that served as torches for the cave painters. The various readings of cave art and their significance are a brilliant display of scholarship and sophisticated speculation. Even if he can’t prove his main thesis, that this is both the cradle and the burial of some grand mistake, he has managed to weave a lot of threads of history and art together to suggest how we began to think and invent, and where poetry and narrative originally sprung from. Anyone who has visited these caves will be astonished at their resemblance to the cathedrals that came well after—with their echoes, sacred paintings, and the chambers in which altars were put up much like the naves of a church.
John Beecher, a descendant of the Abolitionist family of Beechers, witnessed much of the middle decades of the last century from the vantage point of a social activist at odds with almost everything he saw in America. He was the scion of an Alabama steel-mill executive, but scrabbled through the Depression years as a mill hand, where he began writing labor poetry that was as realistic and powerful as were the photographs of Walker Evans. Beecher lives among the voices of Pete Seeger, Carl Sandburg, union organizers, the impassioned moral conscience of Amy Goodman. There’s even a touch of Tom Waits in his tough-guy rhetoric, all the kids he knew riding the rails up and down in the ’30s.
Beecher’s poems are rambling, sometimes loosely framed narratives, but his passion condenses suddenly in an image, a line, a detail that makes the poem feel like a crushing moment in a play. You forget the lilting conversation and concentrate on a single painful phrase. Here’s the opening from “Report to the Stockholders”: he fell off his crane and his head hit the steel floor and broke like an egg he lived a couple of hours with his brains bubbling out and then he died and the safety clerk made out a report saying it was carelessness and the craneman should have known better from twenty years experience than not to watch his step and slip in some grease on top of his crane and then the safety clerk told the superintendent he’d ought to fix that guardrail We have forgotten how powerful labor realism can be in a country in which factories and unskilled working life have been obscured. We only seem to know the life of the successful, those who make decisions and earn the big money. The life under the heel, as Jack London once described it, is invisible in our time. But thanks to Steven Ford Brown’s careful editing, John Beecher brings it all back in lurid detail, and in stark language that will not let you drift or close the book. His testimony is first-hand, and his compassion for the workers around him is never allowed to become sentimental or pretended. One More River to Cross should be a gift to every manager trying to trim his work force or raise production quotas without overtime pay. For that matter, anyone who hasn’t been on a factory floor or done the heavy lifting should read this book as a moral duty. Paul Christensen’s latest book is The Mottled Air from Panther Creek Press. He is co-editing a book of eco-essays with Rick Bass for Wings Press, due out this fall.