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What a writer surrounds himself with, or places before him, while he works, are companions as well as water-marks, examples of the rigor and imagination he hopes his own efforts will be up to. Somewhere I recall reading that, while in Paris in the 1930s, Henry Miller wrote in a nearly unadorned room, and on a desk that held only his writing materials. My guess is that by the time he got to Big Sur, and was seriously doing water colors, the context in which he worked took on more image life.

Visitors to the Pompidou Art Museum in that same city can now view "Breton's Wall," the wall behind the poet's desk at 42 rue Fontaine for many years, with its shelves full of "found objects," pictures and photographs. I saw it at the 2000 Surrealist retrospective there; it was one of the most striking "works" in the exhibition. In fact, I wondered how Andre Breton could function imaginatively facing this tidal wall of primitive and modernist psyche. It made me think again of Miller's unadorned room (against the lushness of Tropic of Cancer)--no distraction, no presence of the great dead or one's own contemporaries. Workroom as Zen temple. Outward ceremony removed to encourage the priest or artist to bend all efforts toward an interior world.

Writing about Sigmund Freud's antiquities collection, Lynn Gamwell states:
 Throughout many years of collecting, Freud frequently
 rearranged his antiquities, but they were
 always located only within his study and consultation
 rooms, never in his living quarters. These
 hundreds of human and animal figures all faced
 him like a huge audience--from his desk, from
 cabinets, from across the room. Freud chose in
 particular to confront many figures of scholars,
 wise men, and scribes; some were always on his
 desk. He wrote thousands of manuscript pages
 facing Imhotep, the Egyptian architect who, in
 late antiquity, was revered as a healer. Freud's
 desk was also the home of the baboon of Thoth,
 the Egyptian god of the moon, wisdom, and learning,
 and of a Chinese sage. He was in the habit
 of stroking the marble baboon, as he did his pet
 chow, and of greeting the Chinese sage every
 morning. (1) 

These "hundreds of human and animal figures" facing Freud "like a huge audience" make me think of a shaman's paradise, or a range of differing orders in attendance as Freud excavated legendary reality. On the basis of the photographs in Sigmund Freud and Art, it would appear that Freud owned, and worked before, at least twenty-six Egyptian artifacts. One tie in between such artifacts and his thinking is hieroglyphics. He wrote: "If we reflect that the means of representation in dreams are principally visual images and not words, we shall see that it is ever more appropriate to compare dreams with a system of writing than with a language. In fact the interpretation of dreams is completely analogous to the decipherment of an ancient pictographic script such as Egyptian hieroglyphs." (2)

Freud was also possessed by the way the dead live on intrapsychically and work on the living mind. I imagine that under Harold Bloom's "anxiety of influence" is Freud's preoccupation with the commands, prohibitions, and fears of the deceased on the living. However, I believe that the poets I have spent the most time with--Blake, Crane, Olson, Vallejo, Cesaire, and Artaud--have not carried a restrictive charge. Primarily, they have given me permission to say anything that would spur on my quest for authenticity and for constructing a unique alternative world in language.

In an unplanned, chancy way, the objects I have chosen to surround myself with in my Ypsilanti workroom (since 1986) are not only watermarks or rigor to emulate but things to be around and to enjoy, presences that give me heart, as well as odds and ends that have just appeared and asked to be included.

Directly over my head as I sit and write (now on a computer; until 2003, I used a 1984 Swintec electric typewriter) is a wasp nest in pristine condition retrieved from a neighborhood tree branch:
 I write below
 a wasp nest
 strung to the ceiling,
 immense weightless grenade of masticated
 inner walls honeycombed with tiny samurai
 frozen this past October--
 my work here is to bury
 and keep alive
 a fertile queen. (3) 

My workroom is on the northeast corner of the second floor of our 1919 craftsman's bungalow which we think originally might have been purchased (as a house kit) from Sears Roebuck. In contrast to Freud's placement of his collection, much of our art collection is distributed throughout the house, especially in the dining and living rooms.

On the part of the north wall directly in front of me is a framed torn dust jacket, found on the basement steps of the Gotham Book Mart in NYC in the late 1960s, with a black and faded-rose Plate 70 from Blake's Jerusalem. Under a massive dolmen framing an occulted sun are three tiny figures, one of whom is holding what looks like a Druid harp. When I remember to, I took up and read, in Blake's hand:
 Imputing Sin & Righteousness to Individuals:
 Sat deep within him hid: his Feminine Power

For Blake, Rahab signified, I think, among other things, the Whore of Babylon, the false church of this world, the opponent of Jerusalem, and the crucifier of Jesus. Such lines goad me to excavate the hidden, to confront my own spectre. They also reflect Blake's dark division, as he aged, concerning women.

Over the Blake are two small drawings of me reading at UCLA in 1971 by R. B. Kitaj. Above them is a multi-colored pencil drawing by Robert Duncan (a wiry-haired mandrill head, bust of a Poundian-looking man, and a large, long-necked headless bird). Stuck with scotch tape to the bottom of the Blake frame is a snapshot of the Dun Bhaloir area of Tory Island off the northwest Donegal coast of Ireland. We took a boat out to the island while visiting Ireland in the summer of 2003. The photo was taken by one of my students at the Donegal Poets House who accompanied us. Dun Bhaloir, in the photo, looks like a lizard of craggy rock, settled into the water, its head turned toward open sea.
 Risen like a sewer of precognition,
 of lacertilian biotite
 folds, cerebral
 lobes, anacoluthic
 evocations of Coatlicue,
 risen directly from Tory Island's ocean floor,
 cankered into
 its own principle of petri-growth,
 with heather, like rooted nightcrawlers,
 swarming between
 the bony plates extending
 along its crest, Dun Bhaloir
 turns its headless
 head to eyelessly
 stare into the Atlantic's horizontal
 dark blue depth--
 flat shades,
 which are a
 banished Adam to
 this apple-tree abyss of erective crag. 

The east wall, to my right, and the south one, behind me, are mainly covered with book shelves holding single author volumes (A through S) of American poetry (P through Z have extended into the guest room). Two shelves are book free. I used the lower one on the east wall for manuscripts, postcards, and three framed photos of my wife Caryl. On the wall behind this shelf are two more Blake reproductions ("The Arlington Court Regeneration"--part of which was used on the cover of My Devotion, Black Sparrow Books, 2004--and "The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun"). There is also a piece of calligraphy by Ohno Hidetaka (a Kyoto painter friend of Cid Corman's) that was commissioned for another book, The House of Ibuki, Sumac Press, 1969. The calligraphy reads: "ibukinouchi." Next to the Ohno is a framed snapshot of a charging wolf spider. My first wife Barbara's father, Rudy Novak, spotted the spider on the dining-room table, dropped down to table-level with his camera and snapped the spider as it ran toward him.

There is a second spider in the workroom, a large rainbow-colored, wood Mexican one with a baby on its back, perched on a stake in the philodendron by the west window. For me, such spiders are evocations of the red garden spider after which my collection of essays, Companion Spider, is named.

On the end of the east wall bookcase is a straggly collage of images tacked up over the years. Under a photo of a box jellyfish (that looks like an extra-terrestrial skull) is a postcard reproduction of "The Arlington Court Regeneration," and under it a postage stamp of Dagwood Bumstead serving himself one of his towering midnight-snack sandwiches. Under Dagwood is a frazzled (from being carried around in my billfold for years) National Geographic photo of four New Guinea head-hunters sitting on a log. One of them is the living simulacrum for my mythic head-hunter, Yorunomado. Under the head-hunters is a glossy black and white reproduction of a painting by Francis Bacon: a naked man writing at a desk, his back reflected in an adjacent mirror. Sticking out from the side of the Bacon is a picture of Bugs Bunny. Attached to the bottom of the Bacon is a "Gusano Rojo" Mescal label, with a cute cartoon worm in a diaper trudging along, winking at the viewer, a jug of mescal in his shoulder sack.

Like the poet Ron Padgett, my introduction to the world of imagination was through newspaper comics. There were no paintings or books (other than the Bible) in the house where I was brought up in Indianapolis. As a kid, I would sprawl over the Sunday comic strips on the living-room rug, day-dreaming with Dagwood and Blondie, Jiggs and Maggie, Moon Mullins, The Katzenjammer Kids, and Smoky Stover.

The north wall to the left of the window is filled with two large framed reproductions of Hieronymus Bosch triptychs: the Lisbon "Temptation of Saint Anthony" and "The Garden of Earthly Delights." They have been there for fifteen years, and I have found them very difficult to "read" and assimilate. Then several years ago I found John Rowland's edition of "The Garden of Earthly Delights" reproduced complete, in color, in the original size. This book enabled me to study the triptych area by area. Last year I applied to the Rockefeller Study Center at Bellagio on Lake Como, Italy, for a one-month residency to write about this triptych. Armed with a rolled-up reproduction in a tube, and Rowland's book, Caryl and I left for Bellagio in mid-October. Now I have a sixty-page work, in poetry and prose, called "Improvisations on Hieronymus Bosch's 'Garden of Earthly Delights'".

The last painting reproduction in my workroom that I will mention is Caravaggio's "The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist." This is his largest painting (12 by 17 feet), painted on the island of Malta in 1608 when a price was on his head for a murder committed in Rome (apparently accidentally in self-defense). My reproduction is so dark that it would not be possible to use it to write about. In 2002, Caryl and I spent a week in Valletta, Malta, where the painting is to be found in the Co-Cathedral. The guards in charge turned off the double alarm system and let us get up close. I was standing with my nose inches away from Caravaggio's sole signature on any of his paintings, scrawled in the blood oozing from the neck of the just-decapitated Baptist. Later, and after a lot of research, I wrote an eight-page poem on Caravaggio called "The Beheading."

I have two old Japanese tansus (wood chests) in my workroom, a small one on my desk, and a larger one under the Bosch triptychs. On this latter tansu is a chunk of granite holding pieces of a dried pomegranate. In front of it is a bird nest holding an egg-shaped stone. Between nest and rock is a 19th century sterograph of a Lapp shaman in ceremonial dress standing in the doorway of his log teepee.

My desk is a wood-stained door. On top of it, by the wall, are three large chunks of jasper, and two photos of painters: my dear deceased friend, Nora Jaffe, and the painter whose work means the most to me: Chaim Soutine.

Having described my workroom "arsenal," I now have to acknowledge that all of it vanishes when I get involved with a poem. Time also disappears. But this is not exactly a trance. I have taught myself to critically see through what I am writing, to assay its implications. I am also able to move back and forth to my Webster's International Dictionary on a little table by the typewriter. Suddenly a quesnon of factuality arises: in what year did Caravaggio complete such and such a painting? Break my concentration or bury the question? Both options are problematic. I don't google much.

The antiphonal process of spontaneity and self-critical blowback is seldom perfect. In a first draft, there are bound to be some cliches, obscurities, and irrelevancies. For over thirty years, Caryl has been a wonderful sounding board, reading and commenting on just about everything I have written or translated, usually sending me back to the workroom to rewrite--which I am happy to do. Allen Ginsberg's "First thought, best thought" motto presumes that a spontaneous phrase is a thought. I have found that the thought in a poem often takes months, sometimes years, to fully flex its articulation.

About a decade ago, I realized that if I attempted to revise a poem immediately after completing a draft or two, the self-critical faculty that was useful during composition would take over and grind the poem down to nothing, turning me into an animal eating its cub. So I started turning over first drafts, setting them aside for up to a year before investigating them. I have felt that this works. What is most distinctive about a draft often looks stupid to the critical inspector. By delaying a year, I re-approach the poem as if somebody else had written it and learn to respect its oddness.

For the past nine years, Adrienne Rich and I have sent poems, often in drafts, to each other as part of our correspondence. From Adrienne I have learned something about self-restraint: where it does and does not strengthen a piece. How much elaboration one needs to give any nodal point is a dilemma that must be confronted poem by poem.

My workroom vanishing during composition makes me wonder: exactly what am I improvising upon? It would have been interesting to ask Willem de Kooning that question in the 1970s when he appeared to be traveling upon improvisation alone. When Bud Powell or Charlie Parker improvised, they were working off a chord structure that provided them with patterns on which to choose their notes. Even though Bud Powell's version of "Tea for Two" is outrageously original (it feels like an all-out attack on the triviality of the song), the listener can detect the ghost of "Tea for Two" via his improvised lines and clusters. In this respect, the poet improvising has nothing immediately feeding him a base on which to direct his moves.

Or does he? I suppose the subconscious should be brought in here, but it would not make sense to simply substitute it for musical chord changes, which are from a previous score. The base, if it can be called that, I experience when improvising is a complex of spontaneous words increasingly channeled into a focus (a word I prefer over "subject"). At the same time, unless spontaneous input persists, the poem can easily settle into a repetitive pattern, signaling the reader that he can shift into cruise mode and cease to be actively engaged as a reader. If, while I am in the middle of something, a particular word or phrase announces itself as closure, I do not set it aside and direct the poem toward it. I pitchfork ir into the next line, then see what's around that corner.

The material that the subconscious provides (spontaneous words and phrases that do not make common sense, but may be of symbolic significance) recalls dreaming. (4) Perhaps improvisation in poetry, moving at the urgency of image propulsion, can be thought of as dreaming awake, which would be another way to state the antiphonal process I mentioned earlier. Still, I am not happy with the word "dreaming" here. Conscious input during composition involves more modeling than it does reception. Most of us experience dreaming as something happening to us. Writing poetry can be the most intensely active mental performance possible, with the subconscious induction speeding through a labyrinth of conscious filters, hitting dead-ends, entangling with more subconscious material. Perhaps "envisioning" would be more accurate than "dreaming awake," as long as one can embed the word in the compositional process and not let it stray into the realm of traditional prophecy. I would also want to qualify it, in terms of my own writing, as containing not only the ir-real ("existing in imagination only"), but language shadows of the all too real. And I would also want to acknowledge that spontaneity while writing, in my case, often is partially contingent upon months of research and thinking into an area beforehand.

While cooking dinner, I sometimes wander out of the kitchen and into the living room where Caryl often sits, watching the evening news, on TV. One evening I caught a glimpse of Dick Cheney speaking, noted his unusual mouth, and then returned to the kitchen. For the next couple of hours, that mouth floated in and out of my awareness; attached to "it," like fishing lines heading out into the invisible, were swarming sensations about our theocratic junta and its dreadful invasion of Iraq. Then I went up to my workroom and sat down.
 Dick Cheney's mouth
 slides on circular-saw teeth, with rakers,
 to rip out the throats of words,
 to drape their worm-casts,
 scare-nets, over brains hypnotized by
 the blind light of innocence,
 that tunnel of camouflaged history called
 "it's a free country." 

CLAYTON ESHLEMAN'S most recent books are his translation of The Complete Poetry of Cesar Vallejo (University of California Press, 2007) and Archaic Design (a collection of essays, interviews, prose poems, and notes, published by Black Widow Press, also in 2007). Next fall, Black Widow will publish The Grindstone of Rapport, a 600-page Clayton Eshleman Reader.


(1.) "The Origin of Freud's Antiquities Collection" by Lynn Gamwell, in Sigmund Freud and Art, SUNY Freud Museum, Binghamton, NY, 1989, p. 27.

(2.) Sigmund Freud and Art, p. 75-3.

(3.) From "Erratics," in My Devotion, Black Sparrow Books, Boston, 2004, pp. 95-96.

(4.) Dreams, reported, generally do not make for very interesting poems. The remembered dream is just another kind of description, out of step with the immediacy of being in the poem, here and now. My experience recalling dreams is that the recollection is always partial, making me add conscious material as the telling proceeds. Thus I find it much more exciting to begin a poem with a dream fragment and then to begin improvising, not worrying about describing the dream accurately. Since dreams are mainly visual, putting them into words usually only skims off material that is immediately transferable to a verbal equivalent.
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Title Annotation:In the Studio
Author:Eshleman, Clayton
Publication:The American Poetry Review
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2008
Previous Article:Lament for Sideshow.
Next Article:Two Hospice Essays.

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