Review of ‘Anticline’ by Clayton Eshleman

Clayton Eshleman
Black Widow Press, 2010 – 181 pages

Clayton Eshleman is one of America’s most pivotal visionary poets writing today, a word-creator and a language inventor whose work has delved deeper than nearly anyone else into the strata of the poetical core of this planet. He wasan editor of the influential literary magazine Caterpillar which survived, exploded and prospered for 20 issues between 1967 and 1973, and of the magazine Sulfur, published for 46 issues from 1981 to 2000. He is also recognized now as the leading translator of the poetry of Peruvian writer César Vallejo, the fruit of forty years work which culminated with the publication of The Complete Poetry of César Vallejo (California Press, 2007), shortlisted for the 2008 Griffin International poetry prize. Besides, he is the translator of Aimé Césaire, Antonin Artaud and Pablo Neruda, among others.


An ‘anticline’ is what, on a geological map, is recognized as a sequence of rock layers shown to progressively incline towards the surface of the Earth, and, as the title of this collection, it fits perfectly with the author’s life-long love of cave drawings and artwork, and of the multiple geological shelves of ‘thought’ that construct themselves within this poet’s cranium.. Eshleman seems to be a believer in and follower of the philosophical/theological dictum ‘creatio continua’ — Heraclitus’ theory that the world has no stable truths, but is in a state of endless change and flux. Nietzsche of course argued against it and blamed the likes of Plato and Christianity for believing the world to be constructed on theological realities only. Eshleman (and the majority of non-religious mankind) has created his own ideas of truth, throwing off the cobwebs of illusion to suggest, as the German philosopher and historian Max Weber did (while coining the phrase ‘the disenchantment of the world’), that secular thinking has maybe dissolved the mysteries of the cosmos.

In his pivotal and multifaceted poem The Tjurunga, one of two poems (the other being ‘The Book of Yorounomado) which Eshleman describes as ‘the soulend’ holding ‘the rest of my poetry in place’, he has constructed both a psychological and imaginative matrix in which poets and ‘names’ most important to him have been mobilized and intertwined as if to form (in a poetical sense) a genealogical tree of the antecedents of his soul.

I had to create a totemic cluster in which imagination

could replace Indianapolis, to incorporate ancestor beings

who could give me the agility

—across the tjurunga spider’s web—

to pick my way to her perilous centre.

(The Tjurunga)

Keats wrote that ‘Men of Genius are great as certain ethereal Chemicals operating on the Mass of neutral intellect’, for just as the chemical (in this case ‘atavism’) is spilt onto the ontological and still neutral force fields of his page, Eshleman’s imagination begins to spit forth fire, sprouting up in supernatural clusters of word-growths on the horizon, beyond the eye-ridges that appear above the unexpected tectonic shifts of self. The figures in his poems microphone and mouth back the forms of the fitful interior monologues of his mind. A mind which reveals itself in an unyielding semiotics of metaphysical signals.  It is thus a poetry that struggles at the halter of the leash of its own limits, at its own shamanic and global will. From poem to poem he switches on and turns his image-dials until an atavistic transmission is reached, a high imaginative word-frequency in which the history of the living species begins once more to tune-in; and he writes himself into this frequency by admitting:

Never is oneself,

the astronomical amount of absence loaded into every conscious being.

(A Transmigralation)

He is saying that to be a body is not just having a body, and his poetry is a theology of the body in which the mind, flesh and soul are equal components in the construction of total and absolute self. The same self chalked up of course onto the cave-walls in the south of France that have so engrossed this poet for over forty years.  He asks for the impossible from language, and treats his own human gait as a spirit-level to regulate the unexpected physical shifts of his imagination.

We must ask the poem for the impossible, locate ourselves

within this asking, spot the Stone of Division,

then attaching ourselves to this Stone

articulate the amoebic split-off of the divine and the human.

(Poem to Help Will Alexander Fight Cancer)

Religion is something that flares up but burns in a much more complex way for  this poet, and he best sums up his ‘position’ (though ‘position’ is only my own interpretation) when he asks ‘is the function of religion to keep humankind from becoming fully born?’ (Placenta). A question that almost pre-empts a need for and practice of theodicy. In his introduction to this collection, Kenneth Warren states that throughout Anticline Eshleman “generates fresh hang-time on the cross of a signifying culture that crucifies human imagination”— but Eshleman is not a religious poet, rather he is that of the anthropological and psychic doctor unpeeling the bandages of the flesh of human presence, to reveal to us only a God’s first teleological absence from the world, before the now centuries old kenotic x-ray of the sun began to lampshade our living flesh. Jesus Christ is evoked, but is not in anyway a messiah or a saviour, for such is the continually regenerating network of mental activity that functions inside this poet’s brain, you get the impression that he could never actually see the nailed theological Christ up on biblical Golgotha: rather he would see first those aboriginal peoples, shouldering branches out of a forest and preparing the way for God to introduce the cross. Just as ‘Gaia theory’ has re-established the link between humans and the rest of nature which was affirmed in mankind’s first religion, animism,  so too in Eshleman’s poetics this ‘link’ is constantly made between the earth and the still powerful anthropological forces that drive his mind forward. The work of many painters also ‘drive’ this poet’s imagination, such as Munch, Pollock, Rousseau and above all the eschatological works of Hieronymus Bosch where we find a solar coupling of souls and an atomic explosion of creative energy that enables Eshleman to ask of the reader:

Imagine a flea with a howitzer shadow

or a worm whose shade is a nuclear blaze.

(Tavern Of The Scarlet Bagpipe)

The landscape of Bosch’s garden align well it seems with the metaphorical animality of Eshleman’s poems, both in the courageous artistic sense and in the shape-shifting polymorphous interaction of the discourse between his images. Madness is and can be the great chemical freedom of the imagination, the pulsing blood-river on which the most incredible and sometimes unlikely word-associations can be rafted, set sail, kept afloat:

I give a functionality to the void, instilling it with a gear-work of

irrational transmission.


Madness to be here, so let’s slip back into the egg, or feed a cherry the

size of our heads to a blood-red dolphin.

(Tavern of the Scarlet Bagpipe)

He goes on to ask ‘through the foliage, whether Satan can be heard snickering?’ the ‘foliage’ it seems of both the ‘garden of earthly delights’ and the actual earthly living systems of the planet today. God then has become no more believable or sustainable than a ‘celestial’ monstrosity that might want to deposit the eggs of the bodies of the ‘saved’ onto the great burning dung heaps of hell. This poet wants to ‘slit open’ sin as if it were a biological cell, as for him, man’s wrong doings and catastrophes on earth are too natural a disaster for any belief in theological sin.

The New Testament Greek verb ‘harmartano’, translated as ‘to sin’ literally means ‘to miss’ (a target) and, by extension, ‘to fall short’ of a moral standard. Yet the ‘sin’ that Eshleman speaks of is not the felix culpa of the Bible, but the earliest atom (after a two-thousand-year-old drum roll) beginning to unsheathe itself of sin’s original dark film. Certainly the poet applies himself with his pen in no less vigorous a manner than Bosch used to with his paintbrush, and his pen is continually akin to a pair of scissors, for he frequently snips the flowerhead of paradise and sends it back to hell, a hinge. The page is the lens in his primordial laboratory, and at times the writing in this powerful collection resembles that of a hallucinated Darwin peeling back the bark from ‘The Tree of Life’ to reveal only the earliest discovered bone on earth.

I wonder:

might this Fountain of Life,

a mineral-plant-monstrance,

liquids peeing through orbs and dishes,

balanced on percolating muck

—be the pumping heartwork of an androgynous matrix?

(Tavern of the Scarlet Bagpipe)

The French-Romanian philosopher E.M. Cioran, in a section of The Temptation to Exist, wrote “if all peoples had reached the same degree of fossilization, or of cowardice, they would readily come to an understanding”. Eshleman develops this idea and derives his potent poetical energy from the same principle extended to all living forms; he sees and reacts to the absurdity of any human glory as of course an ‘over-civilization’ of kairic time, preferring in his poetry to time-lapse figures suspended between a perpetual state of life and death. He states this himself in the notes for his poem ‘Eternity at Domme’ when he stood overlooking the Dordogne River: ‘a mass of contrasting ideas and feelings from my decades of cave research kaleidoscopically locked into focus. Suddenly I had realized my life’. And he clarified the importance of this experience when he wrote in the same poem:

I’m ancient as never before this afternoon

(Eternity at Domme)

It is the moment when every historical figure since the beginning of time resumes the foetal position within the womb of his being, the moment when the mask of the first created human face tips from his chin and drops back into the mould, as the rib in the chest of every man is sandblasted clean again by this fresh new revelation. In The New Revelations of Being, Artaud described it in this way: ‘I have struggled in my attempt to exist, in my attempt to consent to the forms (all the forms) with which the delirious illusion of being in the world has clothed reality’. ‘Being’ is the botched gait of our still unresolved species, and like Blake, Eshleman is fully prepared and equipped to follow the worm back into the first pore of creation, to crawl into the still unanswerable holes of the head, to participate in any necessary or punitive ceremony, to chant and hold aloft his pen like a torch until locating his own face chalked up onto the wall of some still undiscovered Paleolithic cave.

E.M.Cioran once wrote of Rimbaud and Nietzsche that they were writers and thinkers ‘straining at the extreme limits of themselves’ and this also could quite easily be applied to this writer who, now at seventy five years of age, is still writing at the height of his powers and locating the ‘resurrectional spirit’ of poetry through the writing and translation of a poet like César Vallejo — one among pivotal visionary poets for Eshleman, that are still ‘positioned’ deeply within his ‘being’, and who form a vital link within the complex web of his imagination; poets such as Blake, Artaud, Olson, figures keeping alive the still living systems of ideas, ancestral poets who aid both his genetic and unsuperstitious search for the revelation of truth, whatever ‘truth’ that may be.

A final truth could be found in the poem ‘Descent’, in which Eshleman it seems has reached something of his own internal ‘incline’ when now in later age and facing the ever steeping mind-ridges of his creativity, he witnesses finally what has gone before and what is still, yet, maybe to come:

Below closure’s boneyard,


source of the next

poem’s being.


Paul Stubbs – Paris, Dec. 2010


Black Widow Press

Clayton Eshleman

Paul Stubbs is the author of three books of poetry, ‘The Theological Museum’ (Flambard Press), ‘The Icon Maker’ (Arc Publications) and ‘Ex Nihilo’, a long poem (Black Herald Press, September 2010). Another full collection, ‘The End of the Trial of Man’ is forthcoming in 2011.


About thefiendjournal

I was born in Blackpool, England and am currently based in Lancashire. Poems have been published in magazines in the U.K, Ireland, France, New Zealand, Canada, U.S.A and South Korea. A pamphlet; "MMV", was published in 2008. Hundreds of poems have been written in draft form, and multiple books are being planned and edited for future release. As well as editing 'The Fiend' I translate, paint and dabble in photography (images of which have occasionally been used here).
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3 Responses to Review of ‘Anticline’ by Clayton Eshleman

  1. Pingback: Book reviews, by Paul Stubbs « Paul Stubbs, poet

  2. Pingback: Nancy meets the Mômo | The Fiend

  3. Pingback: Anticline – by Clayton Eshleman « Paul Stubbs, poet

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