Eshleman's Caves: a review of JUNIPER FUSE

Eshleman's Caves: a review of JUNIPER FUSE

JUNIPER FUSE: Upper Paleolithic Imagination & the Construction of the Underworld.
Clayton Eshleman
Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 2004

For Jay Murphy, Clayton Eshleman in his JUNIPER FUSE makes a resounding case for lived experience, for the tortuous growth, however partial or fragmented, as rooted in self-suffering as modes of vision and dream.

Pound would have understood this project, certainly Charles Olson. Or Robert Duncan with his researches into the Kabbalah, medieval and early Renaissance alchemy, and Michael McClure, whose series of poems, Plum Stones, was largely inspired by the “physics of nothingness” of the ancient Chinese school Hua-yen. Conversation with Michael McClure, May, 2004. It’s a given, perhaps, that any poetic work worth considering is just an elegaic tip of an iceberg, of a depth of investigation that a lifetime barely reveals. Still, it is difficult to see any contemporary equivalent to Juniper Fuse. In it the poet, translator, editor and Sulfur founder Clayton Eshleman combines poetry, psychoanalytic and philosophical speculation, art historical summings up and musings, and often perilous, nothing if not visceral, personal wrestling with the psychic forces conjured up by his more than twenty-five years research into the “nearly disintegrated Atlantis” of the ancient cave paintings in southwestern France. Chock full with fascinating and sizzling insights or ruminations on nearly every page, Juniper Fuse is a rhizomatically structured source book where a prose discussion of the origin of image-making 10 to 40,000 years ago turns into poetry, and sets of poems around the Cro-Magnon merge seamlessly into thoroughgoing if idiosyncratic metaphysical exploration or impacted, visionary reminiscence. The territory of Juniper Fire ranges from Eshleman’s “cobra” experience in Reichian therapy, to speculations on the original whirring, spiraling lines of the labyrinthine swastika sign, to the occult meaning of the “Whore of Babylon” or “honey-moon.” Eshleman has certainly worked his material, and it has worked him. He seems to have taken to heart the injunction of Antonin Artaud, who advised, in Eshleman’s translation, “to be somebody,/you must have a BONE,/not be afraid of showing the bone,/and of losing the meat on the way” (Artaud 292).

Eshleman was inspired by Olson’s notion of the “saturation job.” As Olson wrote in a 1955 letter to the then young poet Ed Dorn, “Best thing to do is dig one thing or place or man until you yourself know more abt that than is possible to any other man. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Barbed Wire or Pemmican or Paterson or Iowa. But exhaust it. Saturate it. Beat it” (qtd. in Eshleman xii). For all their immense importance, Eshleman found that no other poet or writer had really delved full force into the issues of Ice Age art, this puzzling, potent “primordial underworld.” There were tantalizing brushes. We know Picasso visited Altamira in 1902. And T.S. Eliot visited a similar cave in the Pyrénées, coming away with the blithe impression that “art never improves” (qtd. xiii). Ezra Pound passed by them (without stopping) in his 1912 Walking Tour of Southern France, and they stirred Henry Miller, who never entered them but nevertheless proclaimed in The Colossus of Maroussi that the caves of Dordorgne “gives me hope for the future of the race, for the future of earth itself” (Miller 5). The closest experiment to Eshleman’s remains Georges Bataille’s 1955 Lascaux, or the Birth of Art; some of its theses - the human as the transgressive animal - also went into his later Eroticism. Eshleman doesn’t follow Bataille’s lead here, rather Eshleman is obsessed with nothing less than the advent of “that catastrophic miracle called consciousness,” the mysterious, mournful separation of the human from the animal, the haunting impression that humanity is an “anguished attempt to center a ceaseless duplicity conjured by the evidence that each step forward seems to be a step backward.” Often drawing on a lot of early psychoanalytic theorizing (Ferenczi, Roheim, Klein, Reich, and Jung, not Lacan), Eshleman draws out some of the possible consequences of consciousness’ gain in liberation from the “seamless animal web,” and the concomitant loss of vital sexual energy now transformed into fantasy, dreaming, and imagining (Eshleman 30).

Compared with other contemporary interpretations, for instance those of the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, the radicalism and extremity of Eshleman’s project is all the more profound. Nancy looks at Lascaux and only sees “the gesture of the man tracing the contours of the apparition that nothing either supports or delimits… the simple strangeness of presentation” (Nancy 71-3). Rather than a mere evocation of being, however monstrous, Eshleman is aswim in what he calls the “basic thesis of occultism” - Blake’s assertion that that the Creation was the Fall, that only mental things are real. In this occultism, he follows closely and strongly the writings of Kenneth Grant, an acolyte of Aleister Crowley, who asserted the ancient mystical postulate that the stream of life (existence) is illusion, and the stream of death (being) reality. Eshleman characterizes Grant’s interpretations as “extremely ‘liquid’ ” which “often differ, depending on the context,” based on an erudition steeped in African, Arabic, ancient Egyptian, Greek, Gnostic, Hebrew, Sanskrit, Tibetan and voodoo teachings (Eshleman 279). Clearly, Eshleman’s project involves what Grant calls the “willed effort to Cross the Abyss” and “resolve the antimonies of mundane consciousness”(qtd. ibid). Eshleman’s speculations are never far from but in fact always linked, and fused tight, to his experiences in the stone wombs. At one point exploring the caves, in the summer of 1996, Eshleman finds himself in total darkness for a half-hour:

At first I closed my eyes (wondering if it would make any difference; it didn’t), and rubbed my eyelids with my knuckles creating the dazzling diagrammatic millrace known as phospenes. Then I opened my eyes and stared into the dark. After some 10 minutes, pinpoints of light appeared like a fine snowfall holding in place. I thought of the three levels of light in the dark I felt myself inhabiting: the light in my head, the light in cave dark, and the stars in the night sky above. At some point in prehistory (possibly for navigational charts), they had become “heavenly bodies” configured as creatures, humans, and objects. Dürer’s 1515 zodiacal map evokes a night belly with an intestinally entangled creature world. Animals are above us and below us; they know more than we do and less (84).

At another point, in Le Tuc d’Audoubert, “at times I wanted to leave my feet behind, or to continue headless in the dark, my stomach desired prawn-like legs with grippers, my organs were in the way, something inside of me wanted to be

an armored worm,
one feeler extending out its head,
I swear I sensed the disintegration of the backbone of my mother now buried 12 years
Entangled in a cathole I felt my tongue start to press backwards, and the image force was: I want to choke myself out of myself, to give birth to my own strangulation, and then nurse my strangulation at my own useless male breasts - useless? No, for Le Tuc d’Audoubert unlocks memories that bear on a single face the expressions of both Judith and Holofernes at the moment of beheading, mingled disgust terror delight and awe, one is stimulated to desire to enter cavities within oneself where dead men can be heard talking - (72)

Those who looked askance at Bataille’s Nietzschean mythologizing about the Lascaux caves, are likely to find Eshleman even further beyond the pale. But the striking sensory descriptions in Bataille’s account are even further amplified here to a power-pitch, combined with a remarkable precision. The form of Eshleman’s book follows what he terms could be a film of the St. Vitus dance of one’s posture and pilgrim’s progress through the caves - as if portraying the stages of life - “birth channel expulsion to old age, but without chronological order, a jumble of exaggerated and strained positions that correspondingly increase the image pressure in one’s mind - “(71).

Eshleman indicates how some of the images strike one like lightning. One 30,000 year-old Aurignacian engraving shows a large horse head and neck, on which is superimposed an equally sized vulva - shades of Lautréamont’s umbrella and sewing machine or Allen Ginsberg’s phrase “hydrogen jukebox” from “Howl.” Some images are poised such that a viewer must contort his or her body into the position of the depicted action to see it, arching one’s back along small crevices or ledges. The caves, after all, are not just metaphorical but veritable labyrinths. In what is virtually a kind of processual paradigm where one synapse relays to all others ad infinitum, Eshleman writes

Inching along walls and through tunnels, sometimes on my knees or waddling, occasionally on my belly, the cave and my mind became a synesthetic ‘salad’ of splitting overlays. Sensations and associations amassed and crumbled, bent and extended, died then flashed again, in ways that made me feel I was being processed through them rather than the other way around. Standing before large compositions in which the realistic, the fantastic, and the unreadable are in overlapping juxtaposition, I have felt myself drawn into a vortex of shifting planes which afforded no place for a perspective or a terminal (xxiii-iv).

Here is no paradisal return to undifferentiated origins but rather the “incubational pit,” a “womb of stone,” enough to make one sweat one’s animal” giving way to supercharged poetry:

The moment we touch anything that touches us
the entire body becomes a pipeline of inverse fire hydrants
wrenching shut the feeling valves,
for to connect with even the stain of an image is fearsome,
a cog to cog moment in the interlocking
twister of an enrapt reporter calling up
the abandoned elevators of the lower, simian body
derailed in Africa, those rotting luncheonettes
visited only by hyenas and ferocious striped worms,
those bleached cabooses individuation pretends
to have left behind but which lurch open onto our brains
in dream to keep us open to
the fugal future of an earth
awesome, infinite, coiled in hypothesis.

Poetically it is difficult to point to Eshleman’s contemporaries - perhaps Maggie O’ Sullivan in her verbal inventiveness that seems to summon up buried languages, in her willingness to drag the bloody carcass across the floor, to re-create poetry in ritual conjuration and incantation. See for one example her Palace of Reptiles(2003); it’s not for nothing that O’Sullivan’s work seems to call for live soundings, that it’s intimately related to performance. As an aesthetic project it is usually visual artists immersed in our electronic sensorium, itself a kind of efflorescent, painted cavern, in film and video, who have most delved into similar issues - one thinks of the physical convulsions and exploration of blindness and smashed particles of language in Gary Hill, for instance. The peculiar gaps and entropic limits in our synapses between sight and hearing and touch and word-language, mind and bodily perceptions have been a rigorously pursued program in virtually all of Hill’s work from its inceptions. It’s especially dramatized perhaps in a work like Crux (1983-7), where cameras are mounted on different body parts of the artist in the shape of a cross, so instead of visuals of body parts created and pinned down solely by eye-vision which is usually the case, the artist-as-cameraperson walking through the woods and his image are one and the same, presented in a real-time physical process. In a work like Withershins (1995) an environment is presented of a large maze facing a large screen; any number of people can enter into this sound-based interactivity; depending on whether one enters from the left or the right, one hears a man’s or woman’s voice, the content of the text depends on the topology of one’s movement. At one point in the maze, the sound text is six layers deep, so even if a viewer walks back and forth the text will continue to unfold in a different way; one area of the maze is symmetrical where the text is only one or two layers deep, yet even here the alternating phrases mirror each other. In his series of works like Dervish (1993-5), Midnight Crossing (1997), or Reflex Chamber (1996) he similarly if far more dramatically explores experiences of aphasis, blindness, apotheosis and breakdown in a sort of highly pitched, electronic “theater of cruelty.” This is true even with Hill interrogates the human figure in cross-cultural migrations like his Accordions, the Belsunce Recordings (2001-2). Hill draws us toward a prior a- or prelinguistic state, or more dramatically forward to extinguishment. It’s no accident that for the collaboration with the Amazon tribe of Yanomani Indians sponsored by the Fondation Cartier in Paris that Hill went the full distance doing psychotropic drugs with the indigenous shaman elders, resulting in his Impressions d’Afrique , 2003. Like Steven Shaviro has written of Reflex Chamber, it “lures us into a kind of embodied thinking, one that has no conclusions short of our own death” (Schaviro 14). In a poetry world perhaps more smooth than striated, Eshleman makes a resounding case for lived experience, for the tortuous growth, however partial or fragmented, as rooted in self-suffering as modes of vision and dream. For all his ambition, Eshleman does not overstate any of these processes. Even famous 19th or 20th century examples of poetry’s wedding with mystic experience - Rimbaud’s “illuminations,” Ginsberg hearing the recitation of Blake - for Eshleman are starkly limited, almost stillborn experiences. They lack the crucial “context” and development perhaps only experienced today by specialists of very particular inculcation in the Fourth World. As Artaud wrote to Breton, “Who does not want to initiate himself to himself there is no other who will initiate him” (qtd. 83). Since so much of the book deals with the fungible remains, the creative dilemmas of dealing with the realization that leaving the darkened cave may mean realizing you never left it, it’s not credible to accuse Eshleman of getting lost in an Dionysian cul-de-sac. He also at several points takes up Adrienne Rich’s suggestion to him that he explore the invariably gendered implications of the material, that, in her words “the abyss surely = woman even when she’s absent or unnamed” (215). We are reminded in Juniper Fire of the medieval hagazussa, the witch who sits on the hag, or fence, separating the village from the wilderness or “outside.” Eshleman realizes that today’s marginalized poet is a near-parody of “the one riding the fence,” a messenger between worlds perhaps indirectly related to Lascaux’s bird-headed man with a ritual staff (83). Yet Eshleman by his own example demonstrates that this task of a “semi-demonic” being “who participated in both worlds” remains an open call.


Artaud, Antonin. Watchfiends & Rack Screams. Ed. and trans. Clayton Eshleman with Bernard Bador. Boston: Exact Change Books, 1995.

Bataille, Georges. Eroticism: Death and Sensuality. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1966.

- -. Lascaux, or the Birth of Art. New York: Skira, 1955.

McClure, Michael. Plum Stones. Oakland, CA.: O Books, 2002.

Miller, Henry. Colossus of Maroussi. New York: New Directions, 1958.

Nancy, Jean-Luc. The Muses. Trans. Peggy Kamuf. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996.

O’Sullivan, Maggie. Palace of Reptiles. Willowdale,Ontario: The Gig, 2003.

Pound, Ezra. A Walking Tour of Southern France. Ed. Richard Sieburth. New York: New Directions, 1992.

Steven Shaviro, “Fringe Research: Gary Hill,” ArtByte Vol. 1, n.4 (October/November 1998): 14.