Man makes poetry of cave art
Melding the realms of archaeology and poetry, Clayton Eshleman — American poet, translator, and editor — spoke about his experiences discovering ancient cave art in Southern France to an audience in Porter Hall last Thursday.
The lecture drew on Eshleman’s recent book of poetry, Juniper Fuse: Upper Paleolithic Imagination & the Construction of the Underworld. Eshleman cited the wicks made from juniper branches that he found during his cave excursions as the source of the book’s title. The symbolic title serves as a snippet of his book’s content, which draws heavily on Eshleman’s findings of Cro-Magnon rock art and its metaphorical interpretation.
An excerpt from Juniper Fuse reads, “The way a cave might leak perfume.... In the Cro-Magnons went, along its wet, hide walls as if a flower, way in, drew their leggy, tense traumatic bodies, spidering over bottomless hunches, groping toward Persephone’s fate.”
Throughout his presentation, Eshleman recreated his encounters with the cave art that inspired the poetry in his book. He projected slides of images from the art that influenced his writing in order to talk in detail about each piece and its symbolic or metaphorical significance.
Many images showed an advanced degree of intellectual development within the Cro-Magnons. One image of a horse head aligned with the outline of a vulva, Eshleman said, served as a metaphorical connection between “head power and vulva power.”
Some pieces of art that Eshleman displayed were painted with manganese or okra, in such detail that he compared to the work of artist Pablo Picasso.
Hybrid figures such as bison-humans or reindeer-bison reoccurred in many cave paintings; Eshleman said that the hybrid animal was “the engine of anima display.”
According to Eshleman, these imaginative figures influenced his detail-heavy prose-poetry in Juniper Fuse.
Some students who enjoyed Eshleman’s presentation nevertheless felt unsatisfied with its emphasis on the discovery of cave art, rather than on the poetic process.
Sophie Zucker, a first-year science and humanities scholar, said, “I didn’t feel like Eshleman was necessarily an expert on archaeology, and I wish I saw more of the writing aspect of his work rather than the facts that he had gathered.”
Eshleman delivered his lecture as part of the Victor M. Bearg Speaker Series sponsored by the Science and Humanities Scholars program, which is headed by William Alba.
Alba said, “What [Eshleman] is doing is a nice counterpoint to what we often do at CMU. We’re so involved in innovation and that requires us to be at the edge of today and tomorrow, whereas what he’s doing is looking at humanity and stretching it back to the distant past.”
In his opening remarks, Alba said, “With the sensitivity and insensibility of a poet, [Eshleman] translates his experiences so that we might better understand what he encountered there.”
Eshleman is a Professor Emeritus at Eastern Michigan University and author of over 40 books, including books of poetry and translations.