An Anatomy Of The Night, poem by Clayton Eshleman
When the Pre-Socratic poet-philosopher Parmenides sought the truth of reality, he visited Nyx in the halls of night. Nyx was the sensuous and beautiful goddess of night. She was born out of chaos and, after mating with Erebus, the deity of shadow and darkness, gave birth to a number of lesser deities, including Hypnos (sleep), Thanatos (death), and the Oneiroi (dreams).
This makes exquisite sense to me. It is at night the soul dilates. The boundaries imposed by daylight disappear. Jobs, appointments, routines, assemblies, judgments, everything that constitutes the structures of day and the everyday world dissolve into the abyssal glitter of night. Not only do we see it but feel it as well. Taste it in our wine. Feel it in our sleep. Try to escape it in bars and highways and motel trysts. Fill it with music. Appease it with drugs.
We are adrift at night. Untethered. It is the uncharted ocean of timeless space whose immeasurability terrifies and thrills the mind and whose fathoms hold the secret of our most primordial being. The mind is more receptive to the supernatural at night, more alert to the aberrations and anomalies of sense perception that are deadened by the static of day. “Imagination’s place might be the night sky of Renaissance astronomers or astrologers, or the geographical continents of explorers,” observed James Hillman. “It might also be the gigantic mythological construction of Dante’s worlds, the complex stoves and vessels of alchemist’s laboratories, the memory theater of Giulio Camillo, or the imagined past of Greek and Roman antiquity. Imagination must have space for differentiated unfolding. This immeasurable depth of soul or endless cavern of images, as August called it, or ‘black pit’ in Hegel’s words, must have a container. If we today would restore imagination to its fullest significance, we too need some sort of enormous room that can act as its ‘realistic’ vessel.”
The vessel, in this instance, is Eshleman’s book-length poem An Anatomy Of The Night, its “differentiated unfolding” the blastocoelic membranes of Eshleman’s nocturnal embryogenesis.
The opening poem is nineteen lines, erratically indented. It begins sensuously, voluptuously, with a broken taboo: “The sky is a bath incestuous.” Whitman is referenced in a feminine context: “Whitman arched by / his menstrual harp.” This is followed by some truly beautiful and dreamlike images: “vermilion moon scarves, surf resounding, / swim through our serpent-paneled spines,” “Earth / pink and quilted with tufts of violet grass.” The poet sees William Reich on the last night of his life, November 3, 1957, “recumbent on a prison cot.” The following image accesses Thanatos: “All is alive including the death carousel I load into the projector / of my awareness.” The inclusion of a slide projector - a device associated with 20th century technology and family entertainments - contrasts with the oneiric beauty of the preceding images and following three lines, blending - outside temporal order - ancient Greek and eastern cultures and capping it off with a macabre image embodying the gelatinous delirium of night: “Basho’s compote of cicada-absorbed rock / Aphrodite’s pudenda served on an orchid of clouds / Graze of the night’s hydra-mollusked tongue.”
The images are warm, macabre, sensuous, disturbing. Erotic and slithering and wet and bleeding. The feeling of night as a realm of otherworldly splendor is firmly established. References to Aphrodite and Basho and Whitman create a hive of visionaries brought together by the storied wax of mythopoesis. Basho and Whitman were both wanderers. Night is a time of wandering. It is neither a pilgrimage or a journey. There is no goal at night. No destination. There is only the stone and steam of strange landscapes, fondled organs, aggressive sirens, manhood in drag.
The reference to William Reich is significant. Reich, an Austrian-American psychiatrist, is recognized for his controversial ideas concerning psychoanalysis, breaking a taboo against touching the patient, but is perhaps best known for his theories concerning a primordial energy he termed “orgone.” “Orgone is blue in color,” he wrote, “visible to the naked eye, and responsible for such things as weather, the color of the sky, gravity, the formation of galaxies, and the biological expressions of emotion and sexuality.” He built boxes called “orgone accumulators” in which people could sit and soak up healing orgone energies. The press called them “sex boxes” that caused uncontrollable erections.
Eshleman compares himself to an argiope in the second poem, a species of arachnid that is sometimes also called a “writing spider” because of the similarity of its web decoration to writing. He also alludes to himself as a “a shadow self in shaman sores.”
The constant metamorphosing from one identity to another, human, animal, insect, Serpente, is synonymous with the instability of night. It is a time of shadows and ooze and tricks of light. Filamentous lines of sticky complexity. The many allusions are intended to extend the reading of the poem to other sources. Eshleman is a generous poet. His images are macabre, bizarre, grotesque, volatile and changing, but they aren’t hermetic. The nebulous subtleties of the French symbolists are not much in evidence. Eshleman paints in broad strokes. His transformations read like a summons to the rattle of Druidic ceremonies amid ancient oak. He quotes from a letter by Antonin Artaud to Jean Paulhan written from the Rodez asylum: “To sleep is not to slumber, but to live on the side of the dream, and not like a sleeper giving off the compiled mucus of the dream, but like a fiend seeking itself, contrary to any consciousness of wakefulness, in that sort of terebrant immanence, in that space of unfathomable immanence where our unconscious is woven.”
There are many inclusions of expository prose included in the poem. Eshleman quotes large chunks of work by Géza Róheim, James Hillman, A. Alvarez, Herbert Kühn, Djuna Barnes and E.M. Cioran.
James Hillman, who passed away last October, was a psychologist with a very unique take on the Jungian archetype. He developed a polytheistic psychology that fused human psychology with the stratum and transcendence of myth. He theorized that the ego is but one psychological fantasy within an assemblage - or web - of fantasies. He was more focused on the idea of soul, or psyche. The word ‘soul’ is avoided in the precincts of postmodernist irony. But Eshleman stems from a long tradition of poet as shaman, as visionary, bringing poetry back to its more primordial, Dionysian energies. He is in sync with Hillman, who criticized modern psychology as being too reductive, materialistic, and literal. Hillman, like Eshleman, was alert to the speech of the soul, particularly in its manifestations as myth and metaphor.
Géza Róheim was a Hungarian psychoanalyst and anthropologist credited with founding the field of psychoanalytic anthropology.
A. Alvarez is a British poet who has written a book about dreams called Night: Night Life, Night Language, Sleep, And Dreams. Eshleman quotes generously from this book, but one statement I found particularly revealing reads “What you see is what you know, and what can be heard or felt or smelled but not seen is terrifying because it is formless. There are only two ways to make night tolerable: by lighting it artificially and by sleep which shuts down the senses.” I would a third, which is to imbibe alcohol and/or drugs. Carousal is a reliable technique for tricking night fright into frolic. Mercutio bouncing down Verona’s cobblestoned alleys delivering his Queen Mab speech.
Herbert Kühn was an eminent German scholar who, for a long time, was considered one of the best connoisseurs of Ice Age culture and its legacy in art. Eshleman himself has spent nearly a lifetime exploring and writing about the ice age caves in the Dordogne region of France. The quote Eshleman has included here focuses on a visit to the Niaux cave in the Ariège department of southern France in 1949, which Kühn believed to be one of the great religious centers for Ice Age people. Kühn describes his feelings about The Green Lake, “one of the most sinister things to be found in any of the subterranean grottoes…” “Black and deathly quiet the waters stretched before us. The absolute stillness by the lakeside is so uncanny that it soon becomes almost unbearable.” This is a wonderful description of not just a lake but of the otherworldly dimensions beyond the natural world, the bourne from which no traveler returns. Though, in this instance, the traveler does return, but with a feeling of those underground waters, “black, immobile, uncanny, awful,” still lurking in one’s marrow as one exits the cave and returns to daylight.
There are several deeply personal sections in Eshleman’s nocturnal anatomy. One is a deeply moving prose poem about his mother’s death. Eshleman’s mother occupied a “single railed bed”in room C 743 of Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis. Eshleman’s description of this visit is astonishingly candid. But not sentimental. Not the least sentimental. The feeling is too intense, too honest, too stark, too loving to be sentimental. Everything seems suffused with death. “At one point,”” he writes, “I looked out of the window and watched in the darkness seven stories below a large heavy black woman slowly cross the parking lot - it’s all dead - that is the phrase that came to me, as if the nature of life - including the imagination that had opened to me when I was twenty-two - was that of death, as if that which lives and goes on is death. My mother was now a puppet, jerked by the cords of Death.”
This sentiment is echoed in section 25, which is a quote from Djuna Barne’s Nightwood. Dr. Matthew-Mighty-grain-of-salt-Dante-O’Connor utters “We are but skin about a wind, with muscles clenched against mortality. We sleep in a long reproachful dust against ourselves. We are full to the gorge with our own names for misery.”
Section 26 begins with a quote by César Vallejo: “’It is clear,’ declared César Vallejo, noticing a black beetle giving head to a caiman virago, ‘why metaphysical life is so rich with pause.’”
Three lines end section 26: “In the neuron orgy / in cranial dark / to know thyself is to give a self to no.”
Eshleman’s pun on “no,” which night also be Japanese Noh, which derives from Japanese Nogaku, meaning skill, or mushin no shin, a Zen expression meaning “the mind without mind” and is also referred to as the state of “no-mindedness,” a mind not fixed or occupied by thought and thus open to everything.
An Anatomy of The Night is not the poem of an old man, certainly not in the way we have come to think of old people as rickety, doddering creatures in nursing homes sitting zombie-like in front of televisions, struggling to remember who the people are that come to visit them periodically, but it is the poem of a man late in life. Getting old does not mean getting old. You can get old without getting old. It depends on how actively engaged with life you are. I find it deeply encouraging that a man now in his late 70s can write such vigorous and generous poetry. The reflections in this poem are dark, but dark in that curious way the Sufis talk about, in which darkness becomes an illuminating force. I’m 64 myself. I can attest that a man still feels youthful feelings late in life, though those driving propulsions of one’s 20s have dissipated. One feels crepuscular. Feelings are still quick and quickened by what Breton called elsewhere. “Existence,” he said, “is elsewhere.” And yes it is. And that’s what I find in Eshleman’s work here. An ample feeling of elsewhere articulated in a “drop of psyche separated into streams, / each with a febrile image purpose, / ravenous image serpents all heading out hungry for extension…”
Interview with the University of Southern Maine
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