Monday, February 12, 2007

Are You Experienced?

The Clayton Eshleman experience moved through Portland last week, leaving the Complete Vallejo and his new An Alchemist with One Eye on Fire in its wake. I caught the ‘Eshleman only’ portion of the tour at Powell’s, Vallejo being saved for a local university the next day.

It’s hard to hear Eshleman read without thinking of the remarkable acts of stewardship he’s devoted his writing life to: translating Vallejo on the one hand, explicating Lascaux on the other, with Caterpillar and Sulfur thrown in for good measure. There’s a pervading sense of the ‘long view’ in his writing, both in the subjects it takes on and in the notable lack of ego that seems fundamental to the voice at work in his poems. The new pieces he read at Powell’s, where “Dionysius is here, but so is John Ashcroft,” point to the ‘deep present’ he seems to write from, where the individual consciousness of the poet as it ripples through language is at once infinitesimally small and a part of the ‘big tradition’—the “back wall” of the human artistic impulse—that includes everything from the Upper Paleolithic to Presbyterian Indiana. (Lindsay Hill mentioned Eshleman’s urge “to find and face the back wall” in his poems in his deft introduction.)

What I think I value most in Eshleman’s writing is the way it insists on finding a new perspective—really, a new subjectivity—to accommodate all the global information that’s been pouring into the Anglophone since at least J.G. Frazer. Hearing him read, I’m reminded how modern our current version of antiquity really is, Sumer and Sutton Hoo, Mycenae and Tutankhamen, turned up by all those earnest imperial shovels in just the last hundred-plus years. Eshleman’s poetry is an experiment in what it would feel like to experience our current moment within that expanded context; Isis and Iraq, Cheney and Persephone, considered as part of the same “spacious cave of the dream” that is also the sum of all hominoid creative activity on the planet so far.

I can’t always enter into Eshleman’s poems in the way I’d like to—too much of the lithic and cosmic, too little bounce and distortion for my own poetic strike zone. But I recognize in his reach something cognate with the radical stretching of normative U.S. consciousness to fit global conditions you find in the work of Judith Goldman, Rodrigo Toscano, Jules Boykoff, or Laura Elrick; or, in a different vein, in the ‘othering’ encounters Gary Sullivan tackles so brilliantly in Elsewhere. Poetry understood not as self-expression, but as a way to “open a space for a nascent self” that’s continually being reshaped in the face of incoming planetary news.


olgastamata said...

rodney-enjoyed your read immensely. the final "film immersion" piece was beautiful. thanks tony c.

et said...

I don't mean to tease, but I don't see the difference between these two ways of describing poetry:

"Poetry understood not as self-expression, but as a way to “open a space for a nascent self” that’s continually being reshaped in the face of incoming planetary news."

Perhaps you are talking more about process, or about the poet's self-concept?

Love, Elizabeth

rodney k said...

Hi Tony: Thank you! I'm glad you were there.

Hi Elizabeth: Good question. I guess I was thinking in the broadest terms of poets who feel they have a core self they want to get down on paper--a cache of personally significant experiences, feelings, memories, etc.--and words aren't much more than a medium for expressing it more or less beautifully, vs. those who use the poem space more consciously to create, distort, extend or lose their 'self sense' through the encounter with language: say, Billy Collins vs. Leslie Scalapino?

Unknown said...

Though it occurs to me that I get more of a sense of Scalapino's self from her poetry than of Collins' from his. More of an "authentic" self, yet. This doesn't invalidate your point, of course. Collins, as you say has a premeditated sense of self that he wants "to get down on paper," one that he takes great pains to construct so as to seem "natural," whereas Scalapino seems to be following something inchoate and invisible, without any inordinate amount of "self-consciousness," and ends up producing the truer projection of what might be considered her identity. I'm sure some people would object to that way of putting it, but I mean it very positively.

CLAY BANES said...

C.E. at UCB today.

Scored the FOR CLAYTON/FROM CLAYTON book signature.

Ready to be pulled up into the skies, a life lived.

rodney k said...

Hi Kasey: Thanks! What you say feels true to me too.

In retrospect, I think the Eshleman reading got me trying to puzzle out some of the connections between 'global poetry'--say, Eshleman, Nathaniel Tarn, Eliot Weinberger, Jerome Rothenberg, etc.--and the emerging 'poetry of globalization' (Juliana Spahr's term, from her blurb for Jules Boykoff's new book). So different on the surface, so entwined (in some ways) at the roots. I may try to write more about this later.

Hi Clay: I've got to wait till Rod Smith's next book I guess to get a FOR ROD/FROM ROD. I want that Vallejo in paperback!