by Clayton Eshleman
In 1979 I visited the Prado Museum in Madrid and spent a half hour before Hieronymus Bosch's " Garden of Earthly Delights ." For the past fifteen years, I have had framed reproductions of that painting and the Lisbon "Temptation of Saint Anthony" on my workroom wall. I have found both of these triptychs impossible to take in as a single work, just looking at them on the wall. So they have hung there like steely challenges while, over the years, I have collected books and articles on Bosch, waiting for the right moment to engage at least one of these masterpieces.
In 2003 I proposed a one month "Bosch project" for a residency at the Rockefeller Study Center at Bellagio on Lake Como in Italy . My idea was to spend two months going through my materials and then, while at the Study Center , write into "The Garden of Earthly Delights." My residency project was accepted in May 2004, and my wife Caryl and I left for the Center on October 18.
I took along with me a rolled-up reproduction of the triptych in a tube, a xerox of Wilhelm Fraenger's chapter, "The Millennium: Outlines of an Interpretation" from his book, Bosch, a copy of Laurinda Dixon's Alchemical Imagery in Bosch's Garden of Delights, a xerox of Michel de Certeau's "The Garden: Delirium and Delights of Hieronymus Bosch" (from his The Mystic Fable, a book I discovered while reading Robin Blaser's poem, "Image-Nation 25, Exody"), a couple of pages of bird lists from Terry Tempest William's Leap, and John Rowland's The Garden of Earthly Delights / Hieronymus Bosch, which reproduces the triptych in colored panels in the original size. Being able to study separate portions in detail partially solved the problem of how to assimilate everything there.
Once at the Center, I tacked the reproduction (about one-third the size of the nine by seven foot original) to large sheets of cardboard and leaned it against the wall on a table next to my desk. In front of me was a window vista on a pristine cloud, mountain, lake scape, where the Como and Lecco lakes joined. The same vista, I felt, could have been beheld in the 19th century, and I imagined that it would not have been strange to have seen Shelley or Rilke strolling through the olive grove a hundred feet below and beyond my window. It was an extraordinary pleasure to contemplate the reproduction of this triptych in such a transcendental setting.
I re-read my materials for a week, then continued to re-read while studying the reproduction, checking portions in the Rowland edition, and writing notes in a large notebook (initially I did not see what I wrote as notes but as the work I would present as my "Bosch project"). While I sometimes disagreed with Fraenger and Dixon (both, in my view, impose elaborate systems on the triptych, moving it into a rational perspective, rather than acknowledging its many obscurities), both writers had really studied Bosch's work-as had de Certeau-and their detailed comments helped me to notice the "minute particulars" that proliferate throughout it. After a week or so, I hit the Bosch "wall" that I imagine all serious viewers of "The Garden of Earthly Delights" experience: there is no core meaning to uncover. Certain figures and image-combines appear to be the fruits of Bosch's inventive arsenal and there is nothing at hand to call them. I found myself in the position expressed by a line in a poem by Michel Deguy: "I know, or I invent."
Two areas in particular in the middle " Paradise " panel offered substantial challenges to what I was writing: the constructions along the top which I ended up calling The Terrestrial Transformers, and the static melee of nudes and fruit in the lower part. While at the Study Center , I spent about a week carefully describing what I saw in these areas. When I began to revise, back in Ypsilanti , I realized that pages of detailed description were going to stop my work in its tracks. I ended up writing a page on the Transformers, without describing them, attempting to evoke their unique, weird power, so that others might be inspired to grapple with them as I had. For a section on the frieze of nudes, I borrowed some phrases from Frank O'Hara's poem, "In Memory of My Feelings," a fantasia on his various selves. Given the similarity of nearly all the nudes, I conceived them as a multitude of doubles of a single, roving persona.
As always in the past, Caryl helped me a lot with my project. At the Study Center , she went on line for information on the mysterious red fruitballs and put me in contact with Dale Pendell, whose letter in response to my query I decided to include as part of my text. Back in Ypsilanti , she went through my one hundred pages of notes and helped me to understand that the process of studying and attempting to assimilate the triptych, while significant, was less crucial to display than a text that reorganized my study into an imaginative structure.
In my improvisations, I have placed the notational material first since it represents the initial scanning and probing of the triptych. In the poetry that follows, I have attempted, in most cases, to keep "The Garden of Earthly Delight" before the reader while, at the same time, envisioning it and riffing off of it. Bosch's Eden , Paradise, and Apocalypse panels were mirrored in the idyllic Lake Como setting as well as in the horrors that the American military was, and is, perpetrating in Iraq (and in the corporate pollution of the environment). At various points , I have updated materials so that there is some impingement upon the present.
Other excerpts from Improvisations by Clayton Eshleman in ActionYes #1:
A Bosch Apocalypse Update
Fantasia off the Force of Bosch