Clayton Eshleman, Juniper Fuse: Upper Paleolithic Imagination and
the Construction of the Underworld. Middleton, CT:
Wesleyan UP, 2003.
Section five of Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy ends
with a curious figure, a "weird image from a fairy tale which can turn
its eyes at will and behold itself [...] at once subject and object, at
once poet, actor, and spectator" (52). The figure weds Dionysus and
Apollo as Nietzsche conceives them. The Dionysian musician surrenders
his subjectivity by sinking into identification with the primal unity of
the world in all its pain and contradiction. But the Apollonian dream
conjures images--symbols, metaphors--from this identification: "Then the
Dionysian-musical enchantment of the sleeper seems to emit image sparks,
lyrical poems" (50). Nietzsche distinguishes the lyric poet from the
epic poet, who is nevertheless related to him, with the fact that while
the epic poet loses him or herself in the pure contemplation of images,
as in the relentless unfurling of poetic language, the lyric poet loses
him or herself in the pain and contradiction of the world; lyric images,
charged with meaning, burst with the brevity of sparks. Through the
"mirror of illusion" that is poetic language, the epic poet is "protected
from becoming one and fused with his figures. In contrast to this, the
images of the lyrist are nothing but his very self and, as it were, only
different projections of himself, so he, as the moving center of this
world, may say 'I'" (50). Unprotected, the lyric poet becomes fused with
the world and with his or her images. The hybrid figure of Nietzsche's
imagining--at once poet, actor, and spectator--is such a lyrist: a poet
in the world, a performer of flesh and blood, and an observer, conscious
of himself in his turns.
- In Juniper Fuse: Upper Paleolithic Imagination and
the Construction of the Underworld, Clayton Eshleman cuts just
such a figure. Three distinct, but intersecting and overlapping, areas
of interest animate the text. The book is at once a book of poetry, a
poet's autobiography, a memoir of his life in and life reflected in
prehistoric painted caves, and an extended scholarly engagement with the
anthropology of prehistory. At its best, and most complex, Eshleman
challenges academic anthropology with the test of his own experience and
the imagination of a visionary poet. "Instead of solely employing
rational documentation (as have the archeologists), it struck me that
this 'inseparable mix' might be approached using poetic imagination as
well as through fieldwork and research" (xv). Eshleman's method, then,
is not one but many. It is a gesture of what he calls disciplinary
pluralism (xii). In this way, significantly and occasionally
disastrously, among its other pleasures, Juniper Fuse offers
a test case for reflections on interdisciplinarity as well as for the
limits and uses of each of the disciplines involved. Readers are
challenged to follow him, and this is no easy task.
- Eshleman's subject is not cave painting per se but rather
the imagination that is recorded in cave wall imagery (xi). Because he
tracks this "Paleolithic imagination" primarily through the roots of his
own experience and sensibility, his subject is also his subjectivity.
The underworld of Eshleman's title is first and foremost the human
unconscious, an unconscious which he believes can be made conscious
through the symbolic consciousness expressed in poetry. (Here
Eshleman owes these ideas to James Hillman's essay "The Dream and the
Underworld" and Norman O. Brown's argument from "Fulfillment," chapter
eight of Love's Body.) The underworld is secondly all that
has been repressed or rejected from human psychology, experience, and
history: unacceptable acts and urges, animal instincts, the extinction
of species and potential extinction of the human race through ecological
disaster. The underworld, then, is the Hell of man. It is the bottom
rung of consciousness and what lies beneath. It is the back wall of
human history. His guiding assumption is succinctly stated:
"Consciousness [...] seems to be the upswing of a 'fall' from the
seamless animal web, in which a certain amount of sexual energy was
transformed into fantasy energy, and the loss partially and hauntingly
compensated for by dreaming and imagining--processes not directly related
to survival" (30). What Eshleman elsewhere terms the "autonomous
imagination," the ability to think and speak in symbolic terms, in
metaphors and images, is born of a moment of loss, when early humanity
began to conceive of itself as distinct from the world it inhabited.
Already in this passage one observes the extent to which Eshleman borrows
his terms from William Blake and from psychoanalysis more so than from
the staid, responsible, objective terms of prehistoric anthropology.
(Significantly, David Lewis-Williams, one of the foremost living
prehistorians, argues in his book The Mind in the Cave that
symbolic consciousness is in fact essential to the success and survival
of our species: it participates in and permits social organization and
the division of labor in a more effective, because hierarchical, way than
was previously possible.)
- Eshleman and his wife Caryl began visiting the caves of
the Dordogne in 1974. Resonating with themes and images long established
in Eshleman's work, the galvanizing experience occasioned a shift in the
tone and topic of the poet's corpus: where his previous major
collections of verse (Indiana, Altars) focused
with often ferocious, even embarrassing, psychological honesty on the
poet's own life, his WASP upbringing, and his education, his writing
after the encounter with the caves, while retaining its rootedness in the poet's inner life, turned more resolutely outward.
Juniper Fuse took shape across the volumes of poetry and prose Eshleman
published since the late 1970s: Hades in Manganese (1981),
Fracture (1983), The Name Encanyoned River
(1986), Hotel Cro-Magnon (1989), Antiphonal
Swing (1989), Under World Arrest (1994), and From
Scratch (1998). Juniper Fuse then is an anthology.
It gathers perhaps a third of Eshleman's poetry and prose on its topic,
undeniably the most significant third. The first two parts of
Juniper Fuse represent selections from Hades in
Manganese and Fracture. The latter parts more
radically commingle materials from the later books.
- But to say that much of Juniper Fuse has
previously appeared in print is misleading on at least four counts.
First, Eshleman's collections of verse are in fact often anthologies of
previously published materials. His poems first appear in journals, as
broadsides or in chapbooks, before finding their way into larger, more
widely distributed collections. "A Cosmogonic Collage" and The
Aranea Constellation are two sections of Juniper Fuse
that before now have only appeared in minor or small-circulation formats.
- Second, each republication occasions a subtle shift in
the meaning of a poem or prose piece through its new context. In
From Scratch, Eshleman compares and contrasts his process to
that of Robert Duncan in Duncan's "Passages" series (From
Scratch 182). For Duncan, the "Passages" poems, published in
sections within separate volumes, stood apart from the books in which
they appeared. For Eshleman, the writings which comprise Juniper
Fuse fit into the books where they made their first appearance
and the larger project as well. In this way, the earlier collections
each include poems specifically concerned with questions of the
Paleolithic imagination as well as other poems which may or may not take
up these questions. Each of these collections presents a narrative,
however loose, of the author's life, among other things, in the years of
its composition. Juniper Fuse, however, while still
charting such a narrative, presents itself as tightly focused on the
Paleolithic imagination. Furthermore, Juniper Fuse presents
itself as an anthology of both prose and poetry: here, prose pieces that
once served to preface or annotate collections of poetry mingle with the
poems they once prefaced in an entirely different constellation.
- Third, each republication often includes revisions:
changes of words or phrases, of lineation, occasionally massive
reordering, additions to or subtractions from the text. Some of these
revisions are minor; others, obviously, are not. In "Silence Raving,"
the first poem in Juniper Fuse, originally published in
Hades in Manganese, Eshleman changes, among other things,
the phrase "the power/ the Cro-Magnons bequeathed to me, to make an altar
of my throat" to "the power/ the Cro-Magnons bequeathed to us: / to make
an altar of our throats" (Juniper Fuse 3). In poems concerned with the nature of
subjectivity, such shifts from the personal to the universal are
enormously significant. (In this particular case, they damage the poem
by coming too easily.)
- Fourth, Eshleman's previous collections, generally
published through Black Sparrow Press, were rarely and sparingly
illustrated. Juniper Fuse, however, is illustrated and the
book benefits from it. "Indeterminate, Open" constitutes a poem in the form of notes
on a set of photographs and drawings by Monique and Claude Archambeau. The
poem in From Scratch did not include the drawings and it
reads like a series of captions to absent images. By including the
images, Juniper Fuse permits the piece to serve as a
demonstration of the primary gesture of the text as a whole: the
intermingling of word and image, image and word.
- Though Eshleman's writing has long incorporated prose
prefaces and annotations, he regards "Notes on a Visit to Le Tuc
d'Audoubert," originally published in Fracture (1983), as
inaugurating a definitive stylistic shift to a pluralistic or hybrid
textual "anatomy." Ostensibly notes taken on a visit to the cave, the
mosaic includes photographs and sketches, roughly descriptive and
allusive notes, and passages of dense poetic meditation. Eshleman
borrows the word "anatomy" from Northrop Frye, who used it to describe
William Blake's "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell," another collection of
poems and prose, of fables, epigrams, and images. For Eshleman, the
"term also evokes the writing that Artaud did beginning in 1945: a
fusion of genres incorporating letters, poetry, prose, and glossolalia"
(254). An anatomy is a text incarnate: a body of many organs and
members. Eshleman's anatomy includes poetry, prose poetry, essays,
lectures, notes, dreams, and black-and-white and color images. Forty of
the book's three hundred pages consist of notes and commentary. Like
"The Waste Land," Juniper Fuse is a poem including
footnotes, but Eshleman pushes this notion farther, in keeping with
Charles Olson's dictum that one should "leave the roots attached" (Olson 106).
Juniper Fuse is a collection of poems but it is also a
notebook on the composition of those poems.
- Juniper Fuse is a self-proclaimed poet's
book, written to "reclaim the caves [...] for poets as geo-mythical
sites in which early intimations of what we call 'muse' may have been
experienced" (xii). The Vézère valley in the
Dordogne--where many of these caves are to be found--is a region of
France, but it is also a moment in time--the Upper Paleolithic--and a
mythic space--Paradise, for Eshleman--all of which can be reclaimed by
the poets (see "Cemeteries of Paradise" 101). Eshleman's travels through
and observations of the region form part of his autobiography. His
appreciation of the period in time reflects his study of and
contributions to prehistoric anthropology. His appeal to myth recalls
his vocation as a poet. Paradise, for Eshleman, is a designation for the
place first offered by Henry Miller, but it is also a religious sphere of
primary concern to William Blake. The poetic tradition informs not only
the language but the agenda of Juniper Fuse, a book
that marshals the resources of poetic language in its investigation of
the Paleolithic imagination and the hidden depths of the human mind.
Poetic language, literature, according to Ezra Pound, is "language
charged with meaning" or "news that STAYS news" (28, 29). The charge of
Eshleman's poetic language follows from its dense imbrication with
complex meanings and associations.
- The "fuse" of the title, for example, is first and
foremost historical, factual: it refers to the juniper wicks used in
Paleolithic lamps found in the caves. The juniper fuse is the wick that provided the light by which prehistoric man painted
the caves. Now, for us, the book casts a similar light on the paintings; not the light of
creation, but that of a particularly active and engaged mode of
interpretation. Eshleman's primary question is why "such imagery
sparked when and where it did" (xi, emphasis added). The spark of the image
ignites the fuse. "Image sparks" is Nietzsche's phrase for lyric poetry in
section five of The Birth of Tragedy. The fuse is also the
fuse of fusion: the fusion of man and cave wall in the process of
engraving and image making; the fusion of poet and cave image casting
image sparks, lyric poems. The fuse is also the fuse of a bomb (xi).
The fuse is the fuse of fission, of atomic disaster, which haunts these
pages: the images cast by the atomic blast at Hiroshima. "When such
words fuse,/ they thirst in us, thus do not fuse,/ because we are fission
- Fusion is the fusion of language in puns. Here again
Eshleman borrows his terms from Brown's Love's Body. Brown
writes: "In puns, 'two words get on top of each other and become sexual';
in metaphor, two become one" (252). Puns are the essence of symbolic
consciousness, and symbolic consciousness is Dionysian consciousness; the
erotic sense of reality; the fusion of subject and object via symbolism.
This is not to say clarity.
If there must be clarity,
let it be opaque, let the word be
with distance, a clear
and dense mosaic, desiring
- Eshleman's poetry is often a poetics in poetry: a
meditation on and demonstration of the workings of the poem as they are
at work. His poetic language is often, and often best, a language of
puns, of slang, and of neologisms. It is a poetics of force and
fracture: a contorted speech of words twisted and turned as Eshleman
sifts the "etymological compost" of language (51). In "Winding Windows,"
the word "convexcavatious" recalls Sandor Ferenzci's exaggerated and
visionary psychoanalysis wherein every convex surface is a phallus and
every concavity a vagina. But it mingles the convex with its
opposite through the notion of excavation, and thereby discovers the
great theme of the book as a whole: the figure of the "hole that becomes
a pole"; the vulva that seems to produce the phallus which Eshleman
posits as the "core gesture" and "generator of image-making" (235):
The hole that grows [...] may be one of the most fundamental versions of
the logos or story. [...] Increasing in height or depth as the gods or
shamanic familiars ascend or dive, the soul's end, or purpose is always
beyond our own, a tunnel generating its own light--or crown of flame. It
is a hole grounded in both absence and appearance, a convexcavatious
This poetics of force and fracture affiliates Eshleman's poetic practice
with that of a formidable if "minor" strain of twentieth-century writing whose exemplars include Raymond Roussel, the
Joyce of Finnegans Wake, Antonin Artaud, Paul Celan, John
Cage, Pierre Guyotat, Valère Novarina: writers who, in Novarina's
phrase, chew their words; they crush language, ruminate on its syntactic
building blocks, and reveal its hidden histories and futures.
- Crawling through Le Tuc d'Audoubert, Eshleman "is
stimulated to desire to enter cavities within [him]self where dead men
can be heard talking" (72). "I feel," he writes, "the extent to which I
am storied" (92). Juniper Fuse begins, in epigram, with a
poem by Paul Celan (in Cid Corman's translation). Thereafter it borrows
its terms and agenda from William Blake, Charles Olson, Hart Crane,
César Vallejo, Antonin Artaud, and Aimée Césaire,
among others. As a poem including history it must be read in the
tradition of Pound, Williams, and Olson.
- But the poet here is also among prehistorians: the
Abbés Breuil and Glory, Annette Laming, André
Leroi-Gourhan, Siegfried Giedion, Max Raphael, Paolo Graziosi, Alexander
Marshack, Jean Clottes, Margaret W. Conkey, Paul Bahn, David Lewis
Williams, and Richard Leakey (xv). Eshleman's dialogue with the
discipline of prehistory is conducted more overtly than is his
often-implicit continuance of the poetic tradition. This dialogue too is
odd for its adherence to Blake's maxim that opposition is the truest form
of friendship. Eshleman argues with André Leroi-Gourhan, in
particular, over and over again in Juniper Fuse. He writes
as a perpetual outsider, even after twenty-five years of research and
exploration in the caves; he refuses full participation in the dominant
and dominating anthropological discourse on the caves.
- Another degree of disciplinary pluralism: the poet among
psychologists and cultural theorists. Eshleman supplements the
archeologists and anthropologists with reference to C. G. Jung, Sandor
Ferenzci, Geza Róheim, Erich Neumann, Mikhail Bakhtin, Weston La
Barre, Charles Olson's Call Me Ishmael, Norman O. Brown,
Kenneth Grant, James Hillman, Hans Peter Duerr and Maxine
Sheets-Johnstone (xv). Here too is a tradition, this time in cultural
theory. It is the countercultural tradition in cultural theory.
- Finally, though most importantly perhaps, the poet is
among people. Jacques Marsal (1925-1988), for example, was among the
children who tumbled into Lascaux in 1940: he never really left. He
stayed nearby, leading tours and attending to the cave for the rest of
his life. Eshleman celebrates him in "Like Violets, He Said," a short
text of prose and poetry accompanied by the famous photo which documents,
in its way, the cave's discovery. "I'm overwhelmed," Eshleman observes,
"by the difference one person can make in the personality of a place, not
via declaration or sheer information, but by being folded in, obliquely,
wearing Lascaux, allowing its grace to loom, allowing us, hardly aware of
his movements, our own reading through his light" (98). The title of the
piece comes from Charles Olson's line, quoted in Eshleman's poem: "Men
spring up like violets when needed." Paul Blackburn also appears. The
piece is elegiac, moving. For Eshleman, the spirit of a place includes
the spirits of those who have passed through it. The piece is
metatextual, the stories layered in dense mosaic: Olson and Blackburn
taught Eshleman to perceive such spirits, and Marsal became one of them
just as Eshleman himself has now, for us.
- Juniper Fuse, far more so than the writings
of the prehistorians, courses with reference, with story. The central
contrast of the text is that between Eshleman's subjectivity and the
layers of reference--to poets, prehistorians, psychologists, and those
others who have peopled his experience--through which he experiences not
only the caves but the world. The motion of the text is characterized by
Eshleman's attempt to excavate, to get beneath these layers of meaning,
reference, or explanation, to sift beneath these presences to what he
only experiences as absence, loss, the zero, the hole (26, 235). "Pure
loss pours through. I'm home" (100).
- Eshleman's subjectivity, often present in rough physical
terms, in-the-minute descriptions of the physical experiences of the
caves, grounds the book. His response to the writings of the
prehistorians is always to test their maps, their drawings, or their
descriptions, finally their theories, against his own experience of the
caves. If he corrects any given theory or explanation, as he often does,
it is based on personal observation. He offers a careful description of
crawling through caves, or of standing in a space that lacks sufficient
oxygen, or of his eyes adjusting to the light of the dark. Such
observations are denied us by the disciplinary responsibility of the
anthropologists, the objective necessity of science. Juniper
Fuse offers a phenomenology of the painted caves.
- The subject of the book, then, is decidedly Clayton
Eshleman. But Eshleman both is and is not alone. A self-proclaimed and
perennial amateur before the culturally legitimated authorities--the
scientists, the anthropologists--Eshleman nevertheless speaks from the
ground of a different authority. Awed and annihilated by the cave
imagery that is his concern, he rediscovers himself in the animals and
hybrid humanoids pictured therein. "If the figure of the interior leper
took me backward, it was also a comment on the present: the rediscovery
of my own monstrosity while studying the grotesqueness of hybrid cave
- For Eshleman, "a single smoking road leads from
Indianapolis [where he grew up] to Lascaux" (91). It runs via Auschwitz
and Hiroshima. The history of man is a history of horrors.
Faced with so much story, I release my grip
from Whitman's hand, "agonies are one of my changes of
garments"--in the face of Auschwitz?
- In tracing the roots of symbolic consciousness, Eshleman
has written a book of the dead, an incantation for absent beasts and
beings. Odysseus stands in Hades as his tutelary figure (67).
We are thus, in the late twentieth century, witness to the following
phantasmagorical and physical spectacle: The animal images in the Ice
Age caves are also the ghosts of species wiped out at the beginning of
our Holocene epoch; today they "stand in" for the species we are daily
eliminating. [...] Such images are primogeneous to the extinction of
possibly all animal life. (248)
- Eshleman's postmodernism is that of Charles Olson. In
response to the totalizing, exclusionary, hierarchical trend in
modernity, he speaks for those who cannot. In Juniper Fuse,
he gives voice to the animals and humans, prehistoric or present, who
haunt the caves. His celebrated corpus in translation--of César
Vallejo, of Aimée Césaire, of Antonin Artaud and others--is
but another form of this same project.
COPYRIGHT (c) 2004 BY Stuart Kendall.
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