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The Poet in the Caves

Wilson Baldridge reviews
Juniper Fuse: Upper Paleolithic Imagination & the Construction of the Underworld by Clayton Eshleman

Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 2003. 330 pp. Cloth: ISBN 0-8195-6604-7, $75.00. Paper: ISBN 0-8195-6605-5, $29.95.
This piece is 1,600 words or about four printed pages long.

In the mid-1990s, celebrated poet and translator Clayton Eshleman had a realization that his 1982 poem titled “Notes on a Visit to Le Tuc d’Audoubert” embodied “the nuclear form for a book” (254) that would bring together in a totally new configuration his best writings, in a range of genres, which engage the imagery produced during the last Ice Age, primarily the art and artifacts of prehistoric Europe. So, expanding as it were on this nucleus which relates the author’s exploration of one important decorated cave, Juniper Fuse presents the complex narrative of Eshleman’s exploration of scores of major sites, judiciously alternating expository prose with extreme poetry, memoir with objective details about artifacts while providing in-depth annotation that extends the main text in the form of amplifications, glosses of poems by the poet himself, his commentary always as fundamentally imaginative as the work in the main body of the book. Or, as the author himself suggests in a recent interview, “perhaps Juniper Fuse is also a new form for a long poem.” Eshleman moves adeptly from tone to tone, the whole accompanied by ample photographic documentation: ten stunning color plates and eighty-four b / w illustrations fittingly juxtaposed with passages of discursive prose or allusive cutting-edge poems.

Photo of Lascaux caves
Illustration from the book: Lascaux cave: Part of the north wall of the Rotunda, indicating the imaginary ground level on which many of the animals appear to be standing or moving. Photo: Hans Hinz, The Cave of Lascaux, Mario Ruspoli, Abrams, 1987, p.103.

Perhaps also a “fusion” of noun and verb in the title connotes ¾ together with the “wicks made of quarter-inch juniper branches used in many of the 130 hand lamps found in Lascaux” (xi) ¾ the fusion of diverse genres of discourse in this magnum opus, which unfolds according to an underlying chronology, revisiting Eshleman’s path of thought from 1974 to 2001; indeed, the first five of the six main parts draw upon his often magical poems and prose published by Black Sparrow Press during that period, reordering them to some extent while intercalating several exceptional new poems, revised and updated prefaces, essays, and lectures. Part VI of Juniper Fuse, published in a letterpress edition by Canopic in 2000, bears the title “A Cosmogonic Collage”: this section, of monumental consequence, introduces the possibility of a circularity between specific “grotesque” configurations (those of the grotto called Le Combel) and protohistoric mythology. The work is thus a prismatic chronicle of Eshleman’s discoveries wherein the poem serves as a means of knowing, a necessary phase in the discovery process. While taking into account the positions of noted prehistorians and archeologists, Eshleman generously gives us the artist’s view, with his eye for decoding imagery: he shares his vision of the “nearly invisible visible,” of the “other side of nature” (to quote Rilke after Eshleman) in order to show that “Upper Paleolithic cave imagery is a language upon which all subsequent mythology has been built” (5; cf. “The Black Goddess” [210-214]).

The work as a whole rests upon the following analogy: the words of a “natural” language are to literal aspects of the human body (faces, hands, breasts, buttocks, organs) as the animal outlines (mammoths, aurochs, horses, bison, reindeer, ibexes) are to pictorial insinuations of human anatomy. The signs and symbols are primarily signs and symbols of the body, most often “initiated,” suggested by the surface of the cave walls, rock shelters, antlers, tusks, stone blocks, etc., upon which or out of which they are fashioned. “The bison appearing, its rump, say, formed by stalactites, so that by moss lamp it is without any work by man already present in the rock wall, leads to the sensation that what is ‘out there’ is inherent” (74).

In the context of the Stone Age mythos, image-disclosure is thus to unconceal, as it were, what Nature first proposes: the oldest known images were generated “naturally,” but became traces of the advent of Homo sapiens sapiens inasmuch as they were finished by the consummate skill of Cro-Magnon movers and makers over 30,000 years ago according to contours that precede rational distinctions between self and other, inside and outside; precede them by right, not merely chronologically. Eshleman thus shows that cave imagery is not reducible to logical oppositions: rather, it is the grounding of their very ground.

Two ideas of a speculative nature are interwoven throughout, forming the core of the poetics of Juniper Fuse.

Eshleman suggests that a gesture of simultaneous penetration and extension was a key factor in the prehistory of image-making. Written with an explicit sexual and psychological charge, the scenario is that of a Cro-Magnon engraver gouging a hole in the womblike hollow of the cave, symbolically “feminizing the surface of the wall but also facing an uninvadable impasse. The simple but extraordinary solution to this impasse was to abandon penetration into for cutting a line across the otherwise unyielding matroclinic matter” (xx). This “moment” implies nothing less than the emergence of a structure of similitude: animal or human bodies in here like ones out there. Free hands shape what sharp eyes behold: the vision (this outline at this spot on the wall resembles that being) is a vision because it is a making (poiēsis) at the very same time. “The hole that had become a line was a fundamental metaphoric transformation” (xxi). It’s about what conditions the possibility of referential intention: interspacing in extension and in depth, inseparable from the definition of figures in terms of time relations and automatically metaphorical.

In “Winding Windows,” Eshleman writes: “The outline of image / vibrates back to a primal grounding: / separation from that which a person / imagines to be his food” (20).

This leads from the first core motif into the second.

He names the ground of imagination “the separation continuum.” Over a period of approximately 26,000 years, the poet argues, such an interval was being configured as the separation-in-progress between animal and hominid, which at once entails a specific reciprocity between the two that appears in cave art as juxtaposition or “crossbreeding,” the clearest examples of which are the hybrid “sorcerer” figures such as the bison-headed hominids in Les Trois Frères and Chauvet. Eshleman recognizes that, in point of fact, the animal/ hominid separation already had occurred, but the archeological record attests that Cro-Magnon people lived in symbolic and ritual fusion with the creatures of their world: as though the animal and hybrid figures were a reflection upon that very “separating-out,” the embodiment of a shamanic rebonding with the world experienced as “a pelt of animals.”

Eshleman’s move entails the repetition of a primal gesture: going from “no image to an image” by coaxing the latent anima out of the material, as did Cro-Magnon. Eshleman has created a body of work that corresponds to the immediate beauty of these outlines which open onto a perspective where likenesses discovered by Pleistocene makers reappear. Juniper Fuse is not a collection of pieces about the caves, the author insists, but rather seeks to “engage” them with and through writings that let images approach as though “from scratch,” ex nihilo. “Origin” is thus a figural reiteration of what has always been emerging in and through the walls: Otherness wherein humanity appears as animality postponed.

Upper Paleolithic images configure what came to be known as being, the structure of presence understood as a coming or advent of humankind: the “separation continuum” disclosed through similitude in Stone Age artifacts. Collocating quotes from N. O. Brown, André Breton, and Allen Ginsberg in the poem “Matrix, Blower,” Eshleman envisions the block upon which a Cro-Magnon stonecutter engraved said structure through a proto-metaphor:

“At Abri Cellier: the neck and head of a blowing horse / crudely engraved in a stone block. / Across the neck, a vulva a bit bigger than the horse head has been gouged. / ‘The original sentence, the original metaphor: Tat Tvam Asi, Thou art that’ / Blowing horse head = vulva, / thus: a blowing horse head vulva, / ‘Convulsive beauty will be veiled-erotic, fixed-exploding, magic-circumstantial or it will not be’/ The exploding and the fixed at 30,000 B. P., / the Aurignacian ‘hydrogen jukebox’” (199).

Eshleman’s opus should come to be recognized as a fundamental meditation on the invention of metaphor, as it makes poetic sense of the amazing array of forms and features symbolically thrown together: early traces of rapprochement (bringing remote things together to light the “fuse” of image). The beginnings of metaphor overlap here with the beginnings of mythos which, after the close of the Paleolithic, would develop over the next few millennia into protohistoric mythology as the substratum of rational thought. From this viewpoint, cave imagery opens “winding windows” onto the prehistory of language as we know it: “Line animating stone. Incipient alphabet” (102).

Clayton Eshleman has made notable contributions to contemporary poetry through his many previous collections, his translations (particularly those of César Vallejo, for which he received The National Book Award in 1979), and his work as founding editor of Sulfur magazine. Now, with Juniper Fuse, he offers a truly comprehensive work on the sources of mythopoetic imagination. It is a work of major importance because in gaining “a connection to the continuum during which imagination first flourished,” exploring through all possible means “the earliest nights and days of soul-making” (xi), Eshleman reveals the extent to which the very first entries in humankind’s register of metaphor opened the timespace that continues to be the source of meaning in the Western tradition of the arts and humanities.

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