To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Clayton Eshleman: From “Anatomy of Night,” four sections


What is the nature of the night?

Might it be the boundless destruction of existence in the origin of the universe?

Is it an infusion brewed of cosmic darkness, initially articulated by those shamans who, spanning the abyss of the Fall, reconnected, if only in vision, humankind with its animal matrix?

Is earth but a tear in mad Ophelia’s mangled target eye as she crawls the Milky Way searching eternally for the right black hole in which to deposit the God-crisis in her being?

O light, you are oasis!

Descending / ascending, a plumb line through our minds, the axis mundi longings to connect that antlered shaman buried in ice with the morning stars all singing hosanna together.

Is there a basic dream?

An animal dives deep into primal waters, brings up earth…
I tumble into a hole, turn my body into a womb; while in this cave
I begin to daub its walls,    out of my body
                                I begin to make a world…


What was my dream in my mother’s womb?
To know my double Gemini, my Clayton double, Ira?
But I was unnamed then, of the non-named,
tuned into placenta static with the chaos of my pillow.
Did my coming into being dream at all?
If so, it was a fetal fantasy of ingesting mother morays, yes,
the eels of the mother right, the right to be,
a dream of eels wavering upright, in mother left,
wavering and reeling. Was I fearing to be left in mother as an eel?
Or to lose my eel while emerging, to be without eelity,
an ash lemon? No, I did not know this then,
I knew nothing but the daemon moray amassing in my umbilical
the eel passing between my mother and the meander becoming
the whelping mortar, placental nog, rich with her tissue,
the gift I was taking in, her life, I was converting into a moray


November 7, 1970     Methodist Hospital, Indianapolis

Walked into C 743. She was in a single railed bed, picking at covers, trying to sit up—most of her hair gone—moth-eaten stringy clumps sticking out straight—dyed-brown, skull showing. Acorn, monkey: these words now cross my mind—then, to my horror, I only saw my mother possibly mad in a short hospital gown, sitting, helplessly picking at whatever, eyes wide, seeing, not seeing, skull-head on tiny shoulders—legs bruised, dark splotches, big feet, large dead toenails, legs like helpless clubs sticking out.

We embraced—I held her a long time, a minute it seemed—two minutes—she was a little crumpled and loosened pack of faggots. I sat down, instant knowledge that she was my mother and also no longer was—but she recognized me and told me, her mouth and face slack and tense at once, that she was surprised and happy to see me. I held her hand. Her grip strong two weeks ago was somewhat gone, but her fingers held—sheer bone—her loose skinned wrist mottled brown. I wanted to cry right off but kept almost savoring the duality: this was the first time I had never clearly seen her as my mother. In spite of her growing old, aging until now did not essentially change her--even as she grew stiff, and would walk leaning backwards, I still regarded her essentially as I had from childhood, babyhood even, on----but today, at 5:00 PM Death had moved in—was now more than 51%? in and of her. I thought immediately of Sam Abrams’ youngest child Joshua who at ten can’t talk and has an acorn monkey fidgety muscle gesture look. Death as an interior other, coming alive—no—not alive, but as if, as a tree dies, another form of its withering emerges—as if dying/withering at a certain point becomes an image which is not simply the loss of life. This is horrible—more horrible than if I had walked into the room, saw her head bent over and she had looked up without a face. But it was not a blankness either that shook me—I couldn’t say she had de-evolved and was now a wild child, or an animal crazed with disease in the woods. Again, that would have saved me from seeing her. No, it was my mother acting like a child—that is, she no longer had any protocol. She did not cross her legs, she had no underwear on and if I had tried to do so she would not have stopped me from looking at her cunt. Later she ate with her fingers and let me help her to the toilet. I lifted up the hospital gown and helped her sit down. In our whole life together I had never seen her undressed or had been with her while either of us performed a function in the bathroom. She was so out of it, so overtaken by biological ravage, that I had no context in which to place her. The yet that most profoundly resounds is: she was my mother. Death was Gladys Maine Spencer.

I sat down and held her hand. She again tried to get up into a sitting position, seemingly to read the hospital stamp on the sheet edge. I kept holding her hand and at a certain point my eyes were so flushed I let the cry come. I dropped her hand, buried my face in my own hands and wept. Not as long as when I realized in 1966 that I could not live with Barbara and Matthew, and not as convulsively. She patted my shoulder and said: “There, there, don’t feel bad.” I started to laugh in the midst of my tears, saying “You! You’re telling me not to cry!” I awkwardly told her that I was crying because she was so sick. Then she said: “The greatest pleasure in my life has been to be your mother.” I replied: “I guess (and I weighted that word) I’ve really liked being your son”—which I immediately corrected to: “I’ve loved being your son.” Very quietly she said: “I know that.” Then her mouth slacked and twitched, and she stared off, eyes wide open, into the dim wall…

I wish I could render her state more totally. I was struck by how her otherness was so close to that of many young people I’ve met briefly, when I have thought that they were out of it, drugs or whatever. When I finally made contact with the nurse, a very starched woman in her late 50s, squat and simplistic in the way she acted (telling my mother to be a “big girl”), she seemed just as out of it! After the nurse left, I helped my mother eat some of the smelly hospital fish they gave her. At one point, 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.

The shit on her hospital gown didn’t upset me, nor did the single tooth that appeared to be the last one left in her mouth. It was when I remembered, thought of her as the person I had known more consequently than any other—thirty-five years—that I felt scared and sick. As long as I stayed in touch with what I immediately saw, I felt somewhat numb, as if memory is part of our lives and we repress whole memory out of not being able to stand the discrepancy between it and what we see. It was ok to watch her drowse. I was kind of charmed that she would eat with her fingers and would let me help her to the toilet with its frightening diagonal aluminum bar along the wall for the dying to grasp as they lowered themselves down.


I put my life into my mother’s tomb. Her furniture: frozen animals. The atmosphere? I pulled the WC udder-chain of iron-geared clouds. It began to drizzle aftermath, inner math, registries of Wabash glades. Her bones, milk-soft, were xylophone to my mental tongs.

[NOTE. The complete text of the 35-section “Anatomy of Night” will be published in January 2012 by Black Widow Press, part of a new collection of poetry and prose, The Price of Experience, and a testament to Eshleman’s ongoing power as a poet and explorer of hidden selves and worlds. Born Ira Clayton Eshleman Jr. on June 1, 1935, in Indianapolis, Indiana, he is the only child of Gladys and Clayton Eshleman, to which the preceding excerpt bears sufficient witness. Earlier postings on Poems and Poetics can be found here and here and here, along with an essay of mine on his work as a translator. His own web site is available at (J.R.)]


Anonymous said...

Thats pretty great right there.

Particulary the "Moray Eel" passage. Sublime writing.

Thanks for putting this out there.

Anonymous said...