The Poetry Project

All the Way In: Ira Clayton Eshleman 1935-2021

Robert Kelly

I think of the young man from Indiana who sat with me in a bar in the Village decades ago. He was dazed by the Village, the multiplicity of types, the sense of artists at work everywhere, often ostentatiously, the pleasure loving, the flâneur mood of it. Distracted often by some Village-y passersby, he talked the first inklings of what would become his quest. He had been a student at Indiana University, enrolled in some sort of business education program I think, and had to take an English course, those required courses still persist. The teacher turned out to be, thanks to the angels, the dynamic and enduring Jack Hirschman, still at the time the literary poet and lit student I had been close to at CCNY (talk about required courses!) not so long before—Jack was not yet the ardent people’s poet of the Bay Area but what he gave to Clayton was a wake-up call that roused the “little wooden boy” (as CE once described himself) into the vigorous quest he spent his life upon, seeking the center.

And where do you find the center? Over the years, sometimes close-up, sometimes from afar, I got to watch and marvel at the energy of his quest. To the Japan that the post-War poets had opened up, magic, Basho, haiku, Corman in Kyoto, and Clayton went there. And then the explosive pastorals of Neruda and Vallejo (to whom Eshleman dedicated years of study and translation), the hard-headed raptures of William Blake, these all spoke to him, taught him. Along the way he ran into the gospel of Wilhelm Reich and got drawn in for years—he once told me how much he had spent on Reichian analysis, which seemed to my coarse mind to be a matter of lying down and saying to the therapist, Doctor, give me my body.
But it was the caves that did that.

He was (angels again) lucky enough to win actual entrance into the great caves of the Dordogne. Most of us know them, if at all, from some book, postcard, museum display. But he went in. And in those depths, lit by his torch as by the “juniper fuse” of the ancients, as elsewhere, he found far more than the mysterious, haunting, beautiful paintings and rubbings some of us left there thirty thousand years ago. The beauties of cave art that Malraux and others had chanted to the world were, it seems to me, and I say it without any feeling of irreverence, a kind of distraction from the genuine work of the cave. Here in the dark there is no one to find but yourself. The pictures are graffiti scrawled by early finders on the great unwritten text of the stone itself.

Most of Eshleman’s later work comes from, speaks from, his experiences of the caves. Entering the interior of the earth, like the old alchemists’ adage, he had found the hidden stone—the jewel of his own body: his own word. Because the caves were waiting for him to speak their word.

Caves. Many of us have had the dark wedding with the earth that even small caves propose. I think of Howe Caverns in upstate New York I got to marvel through when I was a child, or right nearby the cave in Rosendale where in the forecourt of the sunken pool they do poetry readings—but as we listen to each other read aloud, way in the back the stone slips up into darkness. The same darkness.

When I think about Clayton’s latest and richest work, I realize how much he made the caves speak to him and to us. I found myself remembering that other boy from the Midwest—Cincinnati now, not Indianapolis—John Uri Lloyd, whose scientific romance Etidorhpa strikes me as one of the great American texts of the 19th century, one that students should be reading in school along with Hawthorne and Melville and Wharton and James. The novel (some early editions have remarkable drawings) is about, in, from the largest cave system on earth, the Mammoth Cave of Kentucky, 400-plus miles of subterranean passages, salients, avenues, streams, echo chambers, alcoves, all waiting to spell out their word. Lloyd’s was the beginning, fanciful, narrative, human, maybe too lost at times in story and science. In Eshleman’s work, he is impatient of stories and lingering maybe-myths. He asks the caves himself, his own word, final declaration of a life so well spent in poetry.

Poets from the Midwest—they are the ones to whom we should turn, and demand from them the meaning of the middle, middle of our world. So abundantly they have given us the word we need: Lloyd, Eshleman, Irby, Crane, Niedecker, Bly, Wright, Lansing, Lyons, Chernicoff… In their work, the center began to speak. The word of the core.

#264 — Spring 2021