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My poem "Spirits of the Head".

I have been studying the paintings of Francis Bacon since the early 1970s, and have written several poems based on notes taken while attending various exhibitions. In 1999, I purchased a copy of Bacon: Portraits and Self-Portraits. This collection focused on heads and reverberated with an exhibition I saw in Paris at the national Museum of African and Oceanic Arts of painted and decorated skulls from such places as Brazil, Peru, New Guinea, and Indonesia. Adorned with natural dyes, shells, vegetable fibers and clay, these tribal skulls vibrated with that mauve zone filled with two-way traffic between the living and the dead.

Since the Bacon heads often appear to be sites of violence, grotesque distortion, and psychological tumult, they connected with the decorated skulls, and because they were slashed and contoured with swirls of red, black, and especially white paint, they evoked a fantastic vision of the brain that is discussed by Weston LaBarre in Muelos/A Stone Age Superstition about Sexuality (a kind of 1984 addenda to his monumental study of the origins of religion, The Ghost Dance). Here is LaBarre's thesis:</p> <pre> If bones are the framework of life, more specifically it is the semen-like marrow (muelos) in the bones that is believed to be the source of semen. The skull, as the bone enclosing the most plentiful muelos-marrow in the body (the brain), is therefore the major repository of the generative life-stuff or semen. Consciousness and life are the same stuff and thus have the same site. The idea seems bizarre and contrived to us only because we have forgotten the formative origins of our ideas. Yet, as later discussions will

establish, the concept of brain-muelos as the source of semen is

everywhere inherent in European thinking, as well as in that of

societies elsewhere. (Muelos, p. 3) </pre> <p>Much of LaBarre's ethnographic information comes from areas on earth represented in the decorated skull show in Paris. Head-hunting for braineating purposes appears to run from the Neolithic up into the 20th century. This superstition accounts for aspects of human behavior that would otherwise remain mysterious or be misinterpreted. It not only, in part, explains cannibalism and headhunting, but adolescent fellation, sodomy, and superstitions concerning ejaculation and women. Poets especially may be interested to know that among the New Guinea Asmat, in their origin myth of head-hunting, the decapitated skull can speak (as in the Orpheus legends) and hence can offer his name to an initiate.

Near the end of 1999, my wife Caryl was receiving physical therapy at the Hands On Clinic in Plymouth, Michigan, a half-hour drive from our home in Ypsilanti. I would drive her there and while she was receiving therapy would spend an hour or so at a nearby coffee shop, taking notes on my reading from the above-mentioned books (as well as a catalog from the decorated skull exhibition and an occult study by Kenneth Grant, Outer Gateways).

The point of this note taking was to create a kind of matrix of materials that I could then draw upon for a poem. There are around a dozen pages of notes leading up to the writing of "Spirits of the Head." As an example, here is one page of notes:</p> <pre> Alcheringa time

timeless time of the unconscious immortal influence of our dead

others upon us Celtic head solar symbol severed head

skulls facing west heads that can exist in their own rights.

gilded head holy vessel (is the Grail a holified skull?) raiding for slaves and human heads skulls nailed into position on the lintel of the gateway skulls at the bottom of storage pits head literal seat of fertility (Celtic) antlered Cernunnus animal fertility --bring a skull home to get the babes!-- springing of antlers from the life-stuff in the head </pre> <p>Earlier on the day that I wrote the poem (December 15; 1999), I took notes specifically on Bacon's portraits of his lover / model, George Dyer. What Bacon saw in male heads, Dyer's in particular, struck me as a clot of desire, rage, inspiration, and destruction, with assymetrical planes exuding soul-stuff. The use of white evoked a combination of whipped cream and sperm, and thus the brain-muelos described by LaBarre. Bacon the headhunter!

DYER'S HEAD</p> <pre> battered bolt irregular screw (!) chunk of rock semen spat Cherokee topknot head semen-spattered

& blood-ripened, raw, with blackened sperm sockets head in a transparent body sock of blood and semen soaked in soot on pink ground dog emerging from the whipping kennel of the sperm-furred head head flesh torqued as if on a rotary blade oozing its life force, its muelos grubs </pre> <p>I got to the question that opens the poem via pondering the decorated skulls (in the exhibition catalog). If the head is charged with divinity, then the taking of a venerated (or enemy) skull could be thought of as putting its power on hold, of making its force ritually available for the living.

Line 4: description of one of the decorated skulls from the Marquesas Islands in Polynesia.

Line 9: plays off "the cosmic dive," probably the oldest known myth, of Upper Paleolithic antiquity. In its many versions, a creature dives to the bottom of the primordial seas to bring up a bit of mud from which the original land mass of the earth is formed. The lines in the poem extend this metaphor to a Cro-Magnon descent into a cave where, on the walls, with cave water and mineral pigments, humankind's earliest images were made.

After the poem's title is resounded, the following lines riff off fantasies of the head, with Bacon's portrait distortions just under the surface. With the mention of George Dyer, Bacon comes in directly.

"Merry Christmas, Mr. Mayhem" turns on the 1983 David Bowie film, "Merry Christmas, Mister Lawrence." The line is decorated, as it were, with 19th century decorated German skull images.

In the last strophe "head on its hair body" comes from one of Bacon's images of the head of Isabel Rawsthorne, where her hanging hair is turned into little penguin-like flippers and an elfin body.

The end of the first draft was more elaborate than what I finally decided on. While I prefer the revision, the first version shows how I got there. After "in pluck with his brother," I originally wrote:</p> <pre> Can I release the animal of his face, this dog-spider, this cateel? Can the unsayable bark so as to verify that the racial whitewash will never totally succeed in gating the community of souls? Soul head, squashed back against its matrix, matrix of eye tires, phantomatic swatch of hair, head on its hair body, homuncular head, alchemical gaze of a hairbody through which the putty of the face mills, reconstituting its black flame ape-source hovering existence's indentured antenna-- </pre> <p>"Spirits of the Head" is a fantasia; while it proceeds to some extent via association it is not "free association" or "automatic writing." When I was a kid, I had one kind of firecracker that did not explode, but issued a long curling smoking worm out of its ball. I think of poems like this as extending out of themselves, as if all the lines to come are packed, in nucleus, in the opening lines, or, in this case, in the title.

Under this parthenogenetic image is a compositional method that I developed while doing research on the origin of image-making in the Ice Age caves of southwestern France. Here I would like to quote from the Introduction to my book Juniper Fuse: Upper Paleolithic Imagination & the Construction of the Underworld:</p> <pre> In the late 1970s, Alexander Marshack showed Caryl and me a photo of an incised ox rib from an Acheulean dig near Bordeaux. The astonishing thing was that between 200,000 and 300,000 years ago a hominid appears to have made a curving slash in the bone (referred to by Marshack as a "core meander"), and then to have placed this cutting instrument on the slash and made another curving cut (referred to as a "branch meander"). This act was repeated several times ... Whoever made these "meanders" was, in a subliminal way, creating history (thinking here of "history" in the Charles Olson derived sense of "istorin, to find out for oneself," in which I would put the stress on "out," or exit for the self). Taking a lead from the caves and the terms Marshack used, I attempted to find a way to branch out in my poetry while keeping a core at work within the meandering. I sought a focused movement forward through material that would keep open to associative side- tracks ... Later, I read Anton Ehrenzweig's commentary, in The Hidden Order of Art, on the relation of the maze to the creative search, and realized that my approach to core and branch meandering was a way of schematizing the labyrinth I entered when I started to work on a poem. </pre> <p>So, with "head" as its "core," "Spirits of the Head" puts out "branch meanders" as it works its way along, such as "the World Tree," "Satan's nails," "Mr. Mayhem," and "Bosch working the pump." I seek in each of these lines to present material that a reader could not have anticipated, but which, when it occurs, seems uncommon-sensically relevant, and a stud in the poem's over-all intended coherence.

CLAYTON ESHLEMAN'S poems printed here are from a manuscript entitled An Alchemist with One Eye on Fire (the introductory essay of which appeared in the November/December 2005 APR). He has also recently completed a 60-page improvisation on Hieronymus Bosch's "The Garden of Earthly Delights." His translation of The Complete Poetry of Cesar Vallejo, with a Prologue by Mario Vargas Llosa, will be published at the end of 2006 by University of California Press.

photograph by Tom Wallace
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Author:Eshleman, Clayton
Publication:The American Poetry Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2006
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