Enraptured: An Homage To Clayton Eshleman / John Olson
A week after hearing of my old friend Clayton’s death, I pulled his collection of Companion Spider essays off the shelf and began a salutary immersion. I chose this book for the strength of its convictions and its determined authenticity. It was the best place to find a Clayton still alive, still warm and pulsing.
I remembered how helpful this book had been – helpful for a whole host of reasons – but mostly because in these essays Clayton was explaining the great mystery that is poetry and why someone would be crazy enough to devote themselves to its making. He doesn’t enter into technique overmuch. It isn’t about the mechanics of style. It’s about Being, with a capital B. Spirit in a time of cruelty. Passion in a time of apathy. Ecstasy in a time of confinement.
Clayton’s essays were always so spot on, so rich in insight and so fully determined to be honest. I don’t remember a single case where he lapsed into obscurity, or resorted to pedagogical formulas or academic jargon. The language was lucid, as always, but not without a polychromatic glow, a robust blend of enchantment and muscle. The energy was Blakean, visionary, incandescent. As if light, taken in its full reality, could be drunk from a bottle.
He was drawn to the shamanic, but not the occult. There is a big difference between the transmutational and the supernatural. He had the same instincts and fascinations for matter as the philosopher Gaston Bachelard. Each time I read one of Bachelard’s books – particularly Earth and the Reveries of the Will – I find Clayton everywhere.
Clayton often referred to alchemy. It was a main metaphor for the art of making poetry. Poetry was the philosopher’s stone, the essential lapis for the lapidary of the poetic line. Poetry – being a fluid medium, an amalgamation of disparate elements – lends itself to the ancient medieval art of transmutation. “Like alchemy,” Clayton writes in an essay titled “What Is American About American Poetry,” “the poetry that matters to me faces the blackness in human hearts and seeks to transform it into a product that tries to become responsible for all a poet knows about himself and his world. “
Clayton was also painfully aware of another unfortunate equivalent between alchemy and poetry. In an essay with Rodrigo Garcia Lopes for Brazilian magazine Medusa, Clayton observed: “There always seems to be a small number of people who will work their lives in poetry and will be grateful for the opportunity to do so regardless of the paucity of response. Poetry in the 21st century could become like alchemy at the end of the 19th century: a handful of people working on what appears to others as obscure and unnecessary transformations. Such workers will need a Jung to justify their activities as part of an evolving symbolic consciousness. If this alchemical parallel is pertinent, however, the news is not good: to my knowledge, alchemy as a practice has ceased to exist. “
Clayton could always be relied on for his unwavering honesty.
This discouraging fact concerning the severance of poetry from mainstream culture in no way deterred Clayton from producing poetry. He was immensely prolific. He single-handedly published enough books of poetry to build a small house. And if one can imagine the luminous fluids swarming and bubbling in an alchemist’s laboratory, one can better appreciate the savagery of Clayton’s metaphors, their uniqueness and vulcanizing rumble, their flair for the macabre and their facility for disrupting normative perception.
Clayton turned to the Wagnerian, the imagery of heat and agitation – phosphorescence, derangement, pandemonium – when he wanted to emphasize a point, especially when the topic at hand concerned internal tensions and conflicts of an individual struggling to adapt to the concussive tyrannies of modern life. It was by no means a Victorian melodrama, but far more representative of the terrible forces at work in the poetry and art of William Blake, the melted contortion of demons and dynamism in the visionary furnace. Clayton had a remarkable sensitivity to the contagion of trapped, voiceless, unconscious emotion in the human body. He borrowed a term from medieval alchemy and called it a masa confusa, “in alchemical terminology, which also applies to writing poetry,” he writes, “prime or first matter is to be found in yourself.”
It is the uncreated, the masa confusa.
To be confused is to be inert; inertia
is the primary sin, the dragon to be slain. You cut apart to name, to say
that it is this and not that. In the masa confusa (your self, your ZERO =
your uroboros, the swamp of your attempts at thought and emotional
clarity) are all the seeds of what is to come.
For Clayton, life and poetry were synonymous. He was particularly drawn to a kind of poetry that feeds on a mysterious energy, a troubled soulfulness empowered by a strange dark energy pounding behind the sternum that gathers into a rage of expression, a dense, colorful turmoil of linguistic power. He referred to this dark, ineffable spirit as the duende, a Spanish term for a heightened state of emotion, described by Lorca as a “power and not a behavior … a struggle and not a concept” whose spirit “must be awakened in the very cells of the blood.” We see it in the eyes and the graceful aggressions of the flamenco dancer. It was an intense consciousness that did not derive from the conscious mind and its learned patterns of cognition, but from what Jung called “the border regions of the psyche that open into the mystery of cosmic matter.” It’s a primal wildness that bends the conventions of language into forms and images that depart blithely and potently from the meshed gears of cognition. Villon, not Voltaire. Nerval, not neurology.
In the same way that the alchemists sought the Philosopher’s Stone to turn lead into gold, Clayton sought to create a poetry that would function as a Philosopher’s Stone, turning our masa confusa into an analgesic of wholeness, a warm blue fire.
I first discovered Clayton’s work in The Voice That Is Great Within Us: American Poetry of the Twentieth Century, edited by Hayden Carruth and published by Bantam Books in 1970. The poem – “The Black Hat” – appears at the end of the book, when Clayton was still relatively young, in his early to mid-30s. The poem is inspired by his experience living in Kyoto, Japan in the early 1960s. It’s a long poem, around 155 lines if you include the last barely phonemic crackles at the end – “boo boo / caca caca / pup / gh” – as it drools into silence. This is not a poem I would associate with Clayton (when I read it, I knew next to nothing about him) and the rugged phantasmagoria and roiling turbulence of his later writing; the lines are short, heavily compressed and are more characteristic of American objectivists, notably Louis Zukofsky and George Oppen. The images are a montage of domestic and commercial objects presented in sharply shifted lines and non-sequiturs that give the piece its sparkle and energy. The opening lines – “Yorunomado was sitting in his black goat wool tent” – recall the time Clayton spent in Kyoto, Japan, in the early 1960s. Yorunomado, which means “window of night” in Japanese, was the name of a cafe where Clayton was working on his translations of César Vallejo, a poet he greatly admired. In the context of the poem, Yorunomado is a creation of Clayton’s imagination, a shamanic presence that remains underdeveloped as the poem mercurially evolves from image to image. I love the energy of this poem. He has the quick and edgy disposition of a gazelle, assembling and disassembling a world of fractals, startling juxtapositions, and random phenomena in a tumult of nimble invention.
In 2003, Clayton published a masterful work entitled Juniper Fuse: Upper Paleolithic Imagination & the Construction of the Underworld, a collection of poems, essays, drawings and photographs devoted to the art of the Ice Age in the caves of the Eyzies region of France. He gave the project an intense, exploratory quest, what the poet Charles Olson liked to call a “saturation job”. He engaged with the Paleolithic imagination as a Theseus-like caver exploring his way through a rock and crystal maze. His intent wasn’t to kill a minotaur. His intent was to find the purest sources of art. In an interview with J.J. Blickstein in 2003, Clayton remarked “I believe that following poetry back to Cro-Magnon metaphors not only hits real bedrock–a genuine back wall–but gains a connection to the continuum during which imagination first flourished. My growing awareness of the caves led to the recognition that, as an artist, I belong to a pre-tradition that includes the earliest nights and days of soul-making. Such has released me from some of the alienation and hopelessness that have permeated the 20th century.”
In “The Aranea Constellation”, a monographic prose poem linking the myth of Ariadne to the artful Arachne, and focusing on the labyrinthine quest to achieve a poetry as primal and immediate as breath and fire, Clayton provided an autobiographical narrative explaining how he formed a spiritual bond with the Arachnida:
1963: There was a gorgeous red, yellow, and green Aranea centered in her web attached to a persimmon tree in the Okumura backyard. I got used to taking a chair and a small table out under the web where I’d read. After several weeks of “spider-sitting”, the weather turned cold, with rain and gusting wind. One afternoon, I found the web wrecked, the spider gone. Something went through me that I can only describe as the sensation of the loss of one loved. I cried, and for several days felt nauseous and absurd.
A week later, I decided to motorcycle out to northwest Kyoto and visit Gary Snyder. Gary was not home, so I had tea with Joanne Kyger and, late in the afternoon, started the half-hour drive back home. As I drove south on Junikendoori, it appeared that the motorcycle handlebars had become ox horns and that I was riding on an ox. A lumber company turned into a manger for baby Jesus and kneeling Wise Men. I forced myself to stay aware that I was in moving traffic, and looking for a place to turn off spotted Nijo Castle with its big tourist bus parking lot. Getting off my ox-cycle, I felt commanded to circumambulate the square Castle and its moat. I saw what seemed to be Kyger’s eyeballs in the moat water. At the far northwest corner, I felt commanded to look up. Some forty feet above my head was the spider completely bright red, the size of a human adult, flexing her legs as if attached to and testing her web. After maybe thirty seconds, the image began to fade.
I immediately felt that I had been given a totemic gift and that it would direct my relationship with poetry. Out of my own body, I was to create a matrix strong enough in which to live and hunt.
I first met Clayton and his wife Caryl at a conference in Vancouver, British Columbia devoted to the poet Robin Blaser, in the summer of 1995. I was accompanied by my wife Roberta, who has a better memory than me. She remembers how Clayton and I “hit it off.” I told Clayton about my recent experiences with the Native American Sweat Ceremony, and how much I loved seeing a 1969 sculpture by Isamu Noguchi located in Seattle, Washington State’s Volunteer Park. The sculpture – which looked like a giant chocolate donut to me – towered over a reservoir that I did laps around. It excited my imagination to think that the center of the sculpture – the heart of the sculpture – was nothingness. Clayton knew exactly what I was talking about, which filled me with joy.
Clayton assumed something of a fatherly role for me after that. We maintained an email correspondence that would last for decades, during which he advised me on how to navigate the world of literature and publishing, and even practical advice on everyday matters, like the purchase of two motorcycles instead of a car (we opted, in the end, for a car).
Clayton (I always found it appropriate that the word ‘clay’ should constitute part of his name) is a poet of origins. He somehow convincingly sustained a poesis rooted in the shamanic traditions of poetry, particularly poetry outside the western traditions, and made it into something cosmic and basic as granite without any silly New Age trappings or pretensions. He would also cite jazz as a source of inspiration. In a 2017 interview with Georgian poet and translator Irakli Qolbaia for Jacket 2, Clayton noted the fundamental influence bebop pianist Bud Powell had on his early writings:
My relationship to origins has been multifaceted. I think my first engagement was hearing at sixteen years old on a 45 RPM record the bepop pianist Bud Powell play his improvisation on the standard tune “Tea for Two.” I listened to Powell’s version again and again trying to grasp the difference between the standard and what Powell was doing to and with it. Somehow, an idea vaguely made its way through: you don’t have to play someone else’s melody – you can improvise (how?), make up your own melody line! WOW – really? You mean I don’t have to repeat my parents? I don’t have to “play their melody” for the rest of my life? Later, I realized that Powell had taken a trivial song and transformed it into an imaginative structure. While reading the Sunday newspaper comics on the living room floor was probably my first encounter, as a boy, with imagination, Powell was my first experience, as an adolescent, with the force of artistic presence and certainly the key figure involved in my becoming a poet when I was twenty-three years old.
What I find so relatable here is my own discovery of a creative source that would continue to impact my entire life. And the man who spent a lifetime seeking for origins and primal energies to feed his poetry – a poesis of blue fire – is now on the other side.