Saturday, May 29, 2010

Eshleman’s Energy

“Tavern of the Scarlet Bagpipe”

a poem

Clayton Eshleman

from his new

(Boston: Black Widow Press, 2010)

Vigorous. Intense. Potent.

That’s the kind of energy you’ll find, what I found, in Anticline (Black Widow Press, 2010), the latest collection of poems (at least his sixteenth) from Clayton Eshleman, whose first book was published in 1962 and whose poems, from what I read here, seem strong as – heck, stronger than – ever.

Anticline has approximately 175 pages and sixty poems, divided into three sections. The centerpiece – it occupies the middle of the book, between two sections of shorter poems – is “Tavern of the Scarlet Bagpipe,” a single 25 page, 13-part, approximately 750 line poem that comes with another 15 pages of supplemental prose (including an introduction and five appendices). The poem’s an opulent – deluxe, sumptuous – take on Hieronymus Bosch’s early 16th century triptych painting, The Garden of Earthly Delights.

The Garden of Earthly Delights

Eshleman’s poem takes its title from his term for a particularly rich image (it’s reproduced at the top of this post) found in Bosch’s painting. Atop a tavern in a hollowed out bone-orb there’s a small flag depicting – yes, indeed – a scarlet bagpipe; the flag-image echoes an identical-looking actual, large-sized instrument atop an adjacent disc. “Tavern of the Scarlet Bagpipe” is a cool sounding place, I gotta admit, and seems appropriate too as a title in that Eshleman in the poem suggests, among other things, that Bosch’s image concerns the:
Artist as tavern aslosh with the lightning of Dionysian over-reach,
    pickled melancholy . . .

“Tavern of the Scarlet Bagpipe,” its prose introduction explains, stems from Eshleman’s decades long fascination with Bosch’s painting. He saw the triptych in person in 1979 at the Museo del Prado in Madrid and ever since has hung reproductions on his workroom wall. He’s also collected and read books and articles on Bosch.

In late 2004, Eshleman enjoyed a month-long residency at the Rockefeller Study Center in Bellagio, on Lake Como, specifically to study The Garden of Earthly Delights via reproductions and secondary texts. He generated close to 100 pages of notes. Thereafter, he created almost 700 worksheets while writing and shaping the final version of his poem.

Eshleman calls this project “the most challenging thing” he’s ever taken on. Now that’s REALLY saying something, given that in addition to writing many books of his own poetry, Eshleman’s translated all of César Vallejo and (with others) Aimé Césaire, studied for decades Ice Age cave art and early human imagination (see his almost 300 page Juniper Fuse (Wesleyan, 2003), and for years edited the top-flight poetry journals Caterpillar (1967-1973) and Sulfur (1981-2000).

This whole deal – the decades of study and thinking, intense weeks of focused even extravagant wood-shedding, pages and pages of notes and worksheets, a motherfucker of a project finally coming to a finished creative work – is a most appealing kind of crazy, the kind of thing that can really put the poetry in a poem. Sure, sometimes a poem’s as easy as opening a floodgate and letting the waters flow.

But other times, it seems to me, it’s something entirely different. Materials must be gathered and aged, considered and mixed. Equipment, including flasks, beakers, funnels, pipettes, and condensers, plus heating and cooling apparatuses, must be obtained, set up, and tested. And then the experimenting and actual work begins, and only then, slowly over time, do ideas and language condense and distill into the words of poem.

1: Heat source / 2: Still pot / 3: Still head / 4: Thermometer/Boiling point temperature
5: Condenser / 6: Cooling water in / 7: Cooling water out / 8: Distillate [the poem] /
receiving flask / 9: Vacuum/gas inlet / 10: Still receiver / 11: Heat control
12: Stirrer speed control 13: Stirrer/heat plate / 14: Heating (Oil/sand) bath
15: Stirrer bar/anti-bumping granules / 16: Cooling bath.

O holy time-taking diligent (al)chemical poet obsessions!


Eshleman in “Tavern of the Scarlet Bagpipe” takes many approaches to, with, and from Bosch’s painting. He details many particulars, putting into words the awesome rush of the Garden’s visual imagery. He speculates, via assertions and questions, about what goes on in the work. He brings into the poem matters from outside the triptych, including a few events from recent times (for example, Salvador Dalí and Donald Rumsfeld appear), and imagined voices (Bosch himself speaks in one section), and much that’s self-reflective or of special concern to him. At a few points, Eshleman even puts himself right in the painting!

Eshleman, in short, writes of and about, into and out of, calling and responding to, The Garden of Earthly Delights. The art acts as subject, spur, and mirror. The poet gives life to the Bosch’s work, the work gives it right back to him, and we, the readers, ride the energy on both sides and in between. Eshleman gets close to what I’m saying, I think, when he writes at the end of the poem’s eighth part (which concerns the “Apocalypse” wing of the painting):
This flash frozen nightmare. It is the onlooker
who puts motion into Apocalypse. Expressionless males faces, dots
    or blotches where eyes should be. Who are they? Who am I?
This vision is a kind of mirror facing me, likewise a mirror.
                                                                 Between our banks
a drama surges, ripe with circular cease and wheel.

Ultimately, “Tavern of the Scarlet Bagpipe” presents no overarching conclusion about The Garden of Earthly Delights, because that’s just not possible. As Eshleman states in his introduction, “there is no core meaning to uncover” in Bosch’s painting. Or, as he elaborates in an appendix, “Bosch’s stupendous inventiveness plays havoc with an all-over theory. Spontaneous moves abound.”

The poem has a lot of this same feel. As the variety of its approaches – including the descriptive, speculative, inventive and reflective – suggest, Eshleman’s “distillation” (yes, that’s the word he uses, in the first section), contains much. Although the poem’s tightly constructed – each of its 13 parts pertains to an identified panel (or portion thereof of the triptych (including the reverse sides of the wings) or the painting as a whole – but within and across this architecture it sprawls. Sprawls as a healthy, vigorous plant or bush does, with branches, leaves, and flowers that extend, grow and bloom in ways not entirely predictable.

I can’t possibly, at least not right now, fully write about “Tavern of the Scarlet Bagpipe.” There’s lots in it, and I’m still digging Eshleman’s words and ideas (see the Addendum at the bottom of this post for some of what Eshleman himself sent my way after this was published). So today, I play - -for you, dear readers – a few choruses of “these are a few of my favorite things.”


I love first the poem’s many purely descriptive lines. They are concise and vivid. They bring to life Bosch’s jam-packed painted wonderland(s), the work’s multitude of hallucinatory, otherworldly dream-particulars. I could pair an image from the painting and Eshleman’s corresponding description, but instead I’ll just give the poetry because in this case the words are enough.

The excerpt below – it’s about two dozen lines – in the main describes a scene found in the middle of the central (or Paradise) panel of Bosch’s painting. Large numbers of animals, most ridden by naked men, parade around a small round pond in which naked women stand, stretch, or swim. Birds flit about or perch, often on a person’s or animal’s head, and many other beasts and people are seen as they too move from the sides into the circling multitude.

But that’s my prose. Here’s Eshleman’s verse, found in the poem’s fifth section. The excerpt begins shortly after Eshleman’s mentioned the “[t]hirty-one female nudes” who “cavort in the mother-elixir” (the pond or pool at the center of the scene). The view then pans out and zooms in on the “rotating cavalcade” trying to get the female’s attention:

    little red bear under a horse. Bud-like clusters of mainly nude male riders,
        all identical.
    A crow sits on a long thin branch piercing huge grapes.
    Circling cocks, camels, prancing ponies.
    Black-winged stilt poking its needle-beak into the anus of an upturned
         leg-forked lad.
    Chatting youths, wearing tern, woodpecker headdresses.
    On a large white boar, one holds up a heron’s wings.
    Transformation of the millstone. Labor converted to a snorting, heaving
    Bull, donkey. Pronghorn with Hathor fruit sun between horns.
    Leaping, static, this engine of the mind.
    About what hub does the creative wind?
                                                          A nymph-clustered pool?
    Three riders bear a fish devouring another fish (one pets the devourer
         as if it were a pet).
    Lateral entry: an immense lobster shell packed with dirty asses
         plugging its orifice, carried by a platoon of nudes—
    drive this too around the carousel! Griffon with jet-black tipped wings,
         round porcupine blazon.
    Lion lugging a huge carp. Two storks on the back of a rose boar
         with black balls, a black-and-white-suckered-tentacle-tail.
    Lavender leopard with goggle-black eyes. All are astrologically-
         tinged, medicinal, layered with superstitional abuse.

High octane poetic energy powers these lines. They are potent, whether full (i.e., grammatically “correct”) sentences or just fragments. The sentence that ends with an exclamation point (“ . . . drive this too around the carousel!”) underscores Eshleman’s enthusiasm, his excitement, at what he’s doing.

Eshleman here doesn’t capture each and every detail seen in Bosch’s parade, but presents plenty enough to set the mind spinning with the spectacular scene. He mixes his approach and the rhythm (including the length) of his lines, sometimes piling on adjectives and nouns, as in the third-to-last line’s multi-hyphenated description of the boar’s tail, and sometimes going full-on basic, as in the two-word sentence “Bull, donkey”).

I especially love the echoing alliteration at the start of the last two non-indented lines. That effect brings together the “Lion lugging a huge carp” and the “Lavender leopard with goggle-black eyes” – two images of particular hallucinatory intensity – into one persuasively pulchritudinous phantasmagoria. This description drives me back to the rest of the text, to read again, and closely, his words, and to look too, and carefully, at Bosch’s painting (high resolution images are readily available on-line).


Near the middle of the excerpt above, Eshleman switches modes; over the course of three lines he doesn’t describe the circling parade but makes an assertion and asks two questions about it, or about the thoughts it inspires:
Leaping, static, this engine of the mind.
About what hub does the creative wind?
                                                     A nymph-clustered pool?
This kind of probing, large and intelligent, that is a hallmark of Eshleman and thus another of the great joys in reading “Tavern of the Scarlet Bagpipe.” Eshleman, to get sort of cliched about it, has not only been around the block a few times, he’s repeatedly explored the friggin’ archeological remains beneath it, and has a few ideas about what he’s seen.

In the lines quoted above, Eshleman’s equating of Bosch’s fantastic circling parade with the mechanism and energy of thought (“Leaping, static, this engine of the mind”) strikes me as utterly correct. But what’s really great is the way he extends or pushes his ideas: the following question (“About what hub does the creative wind?”) with its matching end-rhyme and syllable count gives off a maxim-glow, but it is a question. A question that’s answered by another (“A nymph-clustered pool?”), an approach that makes clear that Eshleman doesn’t pontificate here but seeks and tests, offering possibilities. The reader, this one at least, happily, delightfully goes along, riddling and thinking right with him.

Here’s another query by Eshleman from “Tavern of the Scarlet Bagpipe.” I present first the image which gave rise to Eshelman’s lines – it’s a detail from the left (Eden) panel of The Garden, which I ellipse here:

And here’s the corresponding verse, from the poem’s third section:
I wonder:

                    might this Fountain of Life—
a mineral-plant monstrance,
liquids peeing through orbs and disks,
balanced on percolating muck
—be the pumping heartwork of an androgynous matrix?
Now I’m not sure I’ve ever seen an androgynous matrix, let alone the heartwork of such a thing, and that’s exactly why this particular question works so well: the inventiveness sparks the speculation into an idea that fires the imagination.


Although Eshleman asks plenty of questions in “Tavern of the Scarlet Bagpipe,” he also makes many very definite, quite definite, statements. This too is a hallmark of Eshleman’s writing and (if I may) his personality too, as anyone who’s read his criticism or received from him (as I have) pointed e-mails directly challenging something you’ve written. When he’s convinced, Eshleman’s confident and fearless and doesn’t hold back.

Here’s an example of Eshleman’s energy of certainty, taken from the very end of the ninth section of “Tavern of the Scarlet Bagpipe.” The statement, a strong-willed opinion, is spurred by an image near the bottom middle of the right (Apocalypse) wing of the triptych in which Bosch depicts a well-dressed rabbit who stands upright and carries a hunting horn, game bag, and a long pike from which a naked woman – whose belly, in the words of the poem, is “farting fire” – hangs from her heels. Eshleman first describes that scene and then, taking the view of the animal he calls “Squire Rabbit,” exclaims:
so, the hunting’s been good! So good the butchered creatures
     have turned the tables.
Think of the earth from a rabbit hutch point of view. Can you imagine
the cow report if slaughterhouse reality could be mooed?
Or the hook-torn trout assembly granted a symposium of the creek?
            Apocalypse is what we have done to them.
This inter-species table-turning, with us humans sharply condemned, packs a wallop. Here Eshleman’s questions – and they are marvelous ones, particularly the force of the suggested cruelty and pain in the “moo[ing]” of the cow – are answered with certainty. The final line, and the final word’s italics, leave no doubt, and it’s bracing, sobering, and convincing.


As mentioned above, Eshleman at certain points in “Tavern of the Scarlet Bagpipe” puts himself (or is it finds himself?) in Bosch’s painting. He becomes via poetic projection a part of the action, even as he reports, speculates, and riffs on the artwork. This is wild, and why not? Getting into it, literally-in-imagination, certainly suggests his intensity of involvement with, and depth of immersion in, the triptych.

The Eshleman-in-The Garden approach results in at least two moments that especially delight. They’re both found in the poem’s sixth section. The first set of lines describe and concern an image, pictured below, that appears in near the upper left corner of Paradise (the center panel) in The Garden of Earthly Delights (Eshleman’s lines immediately follow):

So here I am, up in the sky riding a griffin with Persian-blue aquiline
holding a branch from the Tree of Life upon which a red starling
In its talons my griffin grips a wriggling bear.
As a unit, we herald the commingling of all things,
or as many as one artist can atoll, in the coral amassment of a life.
The real kicker here are the final two lines, a compelling capsule summation and celebration of the slow-growing collage of the creative over time. approach. I love the inventiveness that takes the noun “atoll” and makes of it a verb, then associates it with coral, used as an adjective to modify “amassment,” a word that with its repeated though separated vowel and consonants (the a’s and m’s in particular) sounds just like what it is.

But Eshleman’s not done. He’s not just riding the griffin, embodying a herald of commingled things. One idea that undergirds the poem is the self and existence as multifoliate. And so directly across the image of the griffin shown above is another, of something else in the air that’s unusual, and this too Eshleman identifies with. Here are Bosch’s image and Eshleman’s lines, found about one-half page after those quoted above:

I am also a mer-knight on a flying fish, pulling my tail up over my head,
     a salamander pout on my armored mug.

I give functionality to the void, instilling it with a gear-work of
     irrational transmission.
The description here of the poet’s work with the irrational – an important complement to the atolled coral amassment written about in the previously quoted lines – is marvelous, and I don’t want to lessen it by saying much about it.

I also love the idea, set out at the beginning of these lines, of the poet as a mer-knight. In fact, I’m so charmed by that idea that as this post ends I hereby exercise my reader-royal authority and bestow on Eshleman the title Sir Clayton. That’s only right, I think, and richly deserved, given his life-work in poetry, including the achievement of “Tavern of the Scarlet Bagpipe.”

Clayton Eshleman


Clayton Eshleman recently read
the entirety of “Tavern of the Scarlet Bagpipe,”
including the prose introduction and some of the appendices,
on the Joe Milford Radio Show.
The approximately 90 minute broadcast
is archived, and can be heard,
by clicking here.



Clayton Eshleman
on his exploration
into the meaning of
The Garden of Earthly Delights

(May 31, 2010)

After publishing this post, Clayton Eshleman e-mailed several very interesting paragraphs regarding what he considers his success at exploring the meaning of The Garden of Earthly Delights. Here’s some of what he sent, focusing on that for which he quotes from the poem (italics in the original):
“There is one statement in the poem that presses into what could be thought of as the triptych’s meaning:

      The gold coins on the Eden Tree of Life
      reappear only in Apocalypse, where a crouched man
      shits four of them into a caricature of the Cenoté.

      [ . . . ]

      Hence, in Bosch, Apocalypse is “coined” in Eden.

      It is not a breakdown brought about by paradisal transgression.

That is, I think, a significant perception, as all commentaries on the painting that I have read treat the nudes in the center (Paradise) panel as sinners involved in sexual excess [ . . . ] that then brings about the fire and brimstone in the right hand panel. But if Apocalypse is ‘coined’ in Eden, that suggests a deterministic universe.”
Eshleman further explains in the e-mails he sent me that while scholars have long treated the nudity in Bosch’s central panel as sexual excess, no explicit sexual activity takes place, and no erections or vaginas are depicted. At most, he writes, Bosch shows (Eshleman’s terms in quotes here) “a few dreamy passes at foreplay” but they and everything else amongst the (his term) “tendrilesque throng” in the panel “seem choreographed by red berry intoxication or high.” Red berries, Eshleman points out, “dominate, as materials, the middle section” (this is extensively discussed in an appendix to the poem).

“So,” Eshleman concludes regarding Bosch’s painting, “a deterministic universe in which the end is present in the beginning, and the new beginning is present in the realized end. In between, nature’s marvels include mind-altering fruit that enables some to imagine earthly delights.”


1 comment:

Zack Tuck said...

Hi Steve, I found that the phone SPD has for you to be non-functional. We sold you one of the copies of Procedural Elegies with a misprinted title (no r in Procedural). Would you like me to send you a new one (or you could pick it up). Sorry to put this on your blog - I couldn't find another contact.