Organized Nomadistorms of Broken Oases
by Clayton Eshleman

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Click here to read translations of Aimé Cesairé by Clayton Eshleman & A. James Arnold.

In late 2008, I was invited to participate in Week Three of the 2009 Summer Writing Program at Naropa University. The theme for my week was identified as “Polyvalent/Rhizomic Identities” and described in the following way: “The rhizome is a tuber system that moves horizontally and shares a paradigm with Indra’s Net and the world wide web. We are all polyvalent hybrids, capable of moving in multiple directions simultaneously. On a genetic level we are composed of dominant and recessive genes. How does this translate in our writing and in our work as writers? Walt Whitman contained multitudes. From some point of view, we are all hairy bags of water. How does one identity serve another? We’ll honor the brilliant scholarship and vital translations that Clayton Eshleman has done of Peruvian poet César Vallejo.”

Unsure exactly what to make of all of this, I wrote to my old comrade Pierre Joris and began to explore with him what I thought “rhizomic identity” might be. Branching off from the writing of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari in their book Rhizome, Joris has mounted a new poetics on the concept which he lays out in his book, A Nomad Poetics.  Here, after quoting Joris’s proposal, I would like to set forth our exchange, illustrate how such theory might relate to Joris’s own recent poetry, and then briefly reflect on the rhizomic, Pound’s Pisan Cantos and Olson’s Maximus Poems.

Joris: What is needed now is a nomadic poetics. Its method will be rhizomic: which is different from collage i.e., a rhizomatics is not an aesthetics of the fragment, which has dominated poetics since the romantics even as transmogrified by modernism, high and low, and more recently retooled in the neoclassical form of the citation—ironic and/or decorative—throughout which is called “postmodernism.” Strawberry Fields Forever. A nomadic poetics will cross languages, not just translate, but write in all or any of them. If Pound, Joyce, Stein, Olson, & others have shown the way, it is essential now to push the matter further, again, not so much as “collage” (though we will keep those gains) but as a material flux of language matter. To try & think, then, of this matter as even pre-language, proto-semantic, as starting from what Julia Kristeva calls the chora, which she defines as “a temporary articulation, essentially mobile, constituted of movements and their ephemeral stases.” And then to follow this flux of ruptures and articulations, of rhythm, moving in & out of semantic & non-semantic spaces, moving around & through the features accreting as poem, a lingo-cubism, no, a lingo-barocco that is no longer an “explosante fixe” (Breton) but an “explosante mouvante.”

Concerning “crossing languages” Joris elsewhere writes: “We will write in foreign languages (real or made-up ones) in order to come to the realization that all languages are foreign. And those that are not are uninteresting in their self-reflecting egoism. All languages are creolized by what Edouard Glissant has called the chaos-world. The first need thus is to have done with the prison-house of the mother tongue i.e., why should one have to write in the mummy/daddy language, why should that oedipal choice be the only possible or legitimate one….”  I will return to these points later. Here it is also important to bring in a bit more of the Deleuze and Guattari theory, especially their rejection of the “tree”: “The rhizome is an anti-hierarchical means of organizing knowledge and of recognizing intersections and engagements between seemingly disparate ideas and things. Botanically, the rhizome is a branching that has no ‘center.’ All segments are fertile. Any segment broken off from the rest may serve as a new starting point, a new origin of life. As a heterogeneous composition, it brings all manners of materials into productive contact with one another. In contrast to the tree: knowledge organized around and branching out of a central ‘truck.’ In the arboreal system, ‘trunk’ is understood as origin, source of authenticity or authority. Its branches are mere iterations or representations of their own content.”

Eshleman: To think of the rhizome as in the sense that Deleuze and Guattari are describing takes me back to the origin of the metaphor at around 30,000 B.P.: juxtaposition of a vulva and a horse head engraved in a limestone slab (the two equal in size, slightly overlapping, and ‘punctuated’ with three cupules, one before the horse head, one as the horse’s eye, and one in the center of the vulva). The metaphor and the meander (the basis for Aurignacian “art” which was rediscovered by Jackson Pollack in the 1940s) seem to me to be the rootstock of imagination, or the fold between no image of the world and an image.

Joris: That is indeed very accurate both to the thought of the rhizomatic and in relation to your work on caves & beyond. “Metaphor,” however, may be a difficult one as metaphor is easily (always if you believe Derrida who writes marvelously about it in his essay “White Metaphor”), a hierarchical, vertical situation, an attempt at transcendence. I wonder in the case of the cave material and Pollock if “image” isn’t the better word. What Pollock produces is an image in process that is finished when the energy, physical and psychic, that he pours in, runs out (“a painting is never finished, it is abandoned”). In the cave work what is absolutely fascinating for me is the mass of drawings, one next to, over, or across another, with something of an implied equivalence between them. Not one of the cave drawings, not one of Pollock’s squiggles or canvases is “it” i.e., THE metaphor for art, life, the godhead, the masterpiece-that-says-it-all. Your “juxtaposition of a vulva and a horse head” doesn’t necessarily seem to create a metaphor, but is a complex image, with no need to elevate them into what could only be some sort of abstract transcendental unity.

Eshleman: I feel that metaphor is neither vertical nor horizontal. How is “love is a red, red rose” hierarchical? It is an intensification, a sensualization of an otherwise abstract term—love—that is often involved in an idealistic, hierarchical system. The literal is hierarchical. The Bible read literally results in the saving of believers and the burning of non-believers, total lowering, total raising. I think of metaphor as fusion (“my eyes are fix’d / in happy copulation”), as a new creation, a third. God is an absolute, a one, not a metaphor. The shaman is a metaphor (as is “I,” as Rimbaud astutely stated) because he is a fusion that participates in both the human and the animal realms.

Deleuze and Guattari we must keep in mind (I am thinking, having not read them, knowing them only via scattered quotations) are secondary thinkers whose work places them in the middle of something else. Aurignacian meander “systems” have many beginnings and many ends. It strikes me that primary thinkers involved in what we can call the autonomous imagination make use of arboreal metaphors as well as rhizomic ones; that is, a creative project determines its own vectors, designs, limitations, signatures as it moves out, or in. You also wrote that a truly open field has no up/down, front/back. But rhizomes themselves send out tendrils, or rootlets up, and below, as they themselves project horizontal movement. So they are somewhat tree-like in this regard.

Joris: I think the difference here is, to use Deleuze and Guattari again, that trees cannot transform their individual (hierarchical) parts (roots/trunk/branches) into each other (they are fixed, in that sense), while rhizomatic plants can & do all the time. But you are right in saying that major artists use both—though their tree or hierarchical structures are often what is or remains the least interesting (Dante is a great poet despite the Christian hierarchy that is structurally and in every other way the core to his poem; same goes for most of, though not all of, the religious art of the Renaissance—which we appreciate in spite of the doctrinal underpinnings).

Eshleman: Gerrit Lansing’s early book is entitled The Heavenly Tree Grows Downward. How do you understand this? One approach would be to say that Lansing is interested more in the rootwork of the tree than in its foliage. Years ago, I thought he was plunging the tree into the earth and reversing its flow. But now I think that the direction he is interested in is underworld, root realm, and the nourishment of earth to root, versus branch to air. However, all this may be moot, as the tree in its full environment draws upon air and earth. The first World Tree is in Le Combel, a section of the Pech Merle cave; it is a stalagmitic formation with a vulvar fissure in its base and breast-like pod shapes above  (daubed with black manganese by Cro-Magnon people between 18,000 and 16,000 B.P.) This Tree can also be thought of as the first Black Goddess. There is a photo of this amazing figure on p. 211 of Juniper Fuse.

Joris: Gerrit comes out of a very hierarchical (the magical, hermetic, etc) tradition. One could see his tree as an attempt to exactly reverse this, to upset the apple-cart (which still keeping an inverted hierarchical order of the universe going). I think the poems are often better than what the title’s indications/limitations propose.

Eshleman: Northrop Frye calls Blake’s “The Marriage of Heaven & Hell” an anatomy because it is made up of varying literary genres. This thought crossed my mind while I was working on “Notes on a Visit to Le Tuc d’Audoubert” and helped me understand the overall form of Juniper Fuse as a giant anatomy. It occurs to me that William Carlos Williams’ Paterson (with his father/son hierarchical title) is a marvelous example of an anatomy in a way that must be related to rhizomic theory. From Paterson:

          a mass of detail
          to interrelate on a new ground, difficultly;
          an assonance, a homologue
                                                         triple piled
          pulling the disparate together to clarify
          and compress…

You wrote that one aspect of rhizomic theory as you understand it is a poetics that will cross languages. Lucky you with four. As a monolingual Hoosier I have tendril forays into Spanish and French but cannot write in either. By the way, I think there are many Englishes. The English I write in is not “the mummy/daddy language.” However, according to my father, who kept a meticulous Baby Book record of my first two years, at two I wrote in “mummy/daddy language” my first poem: “Bok old Mamma, Tak-a new Mamma.”

Did Deleuze and Guattari consider Artaud to be a rhizomic writer? I wonder, since Artaud was so body centered (the screaming body, ceaselessly attacked, and in constant self-defense). I envision Artaud as a kind of St.-Sebastian nailed to the World Tree. While his writings, and drawings, are punctured by disconnects, detours, deadends, and mythic grabs, he has always seemed to me as one who fought to maintain a central core (for had he lost it, he would have been dispersed into incurable insanity).

Joris: This abstract transcendental unity may also be behind Artaud’s desire to be done with the judgment of god—who is nothing if not a hierarchical “metaphor” (for whatever you want to have him say)—and whose “body without organs” seems to be primarily an attempt to get rid of the hierarchy of organs (hierarchy is necessary for the demonic—no demonology without strict hierarchies of “fallen angels”—and it is demonic possession that Artaud fought all his life).


From the mid-1990s on, the words “nomadic poetics” and “oasis” have provided focal energies for Pierre Joris’s poetry. While he seems to have settled on American-English, his 4th language, for poetry, he is also fluent in Luxembourgian, German, and French. The latter two languages often flicker through his American. One meaning of his nomadic drifting is an openness to crossing languages. His nomadic poetics involve turbulent opacity, the poems composing, recomposing, decomposing before the reader’s eyes. The poem as a sand storm? Here I also think of the water-filled tunnel leading to the Upper Paleolithic Chauvet cave opaque with kicked-up silt by the diver-nomad-poet swimming through.

In line with nomadic drift, the poem becomes a poem-oasis, or “poasis (punning as well on poesis, from the Greek word for “making,” generally understood today to mean “the making of poetry”). “Nomadic poetics” and “poasis” suggest that for Joris the world has become a symbolic desert, evoking Jerome Rothenberg’s term, “The New Wilderness,” an update twist on T.S. Eliot’s vision of “The Wasteland.” Joris’s “desert,” however, is hardly empty; there is an electric friction in his writing, a ragged palimpsest of words seeing through or being blocked by other words. In our correspondence, I proposed that Pound’s Pisan Cantos struck me as the primary predecessor example of rhizomic procedures for our age, and that Pierre’s poem “Winnetou Old” was somewhat beholden to the Cantos. Pierre disagreed with my latter point and wrote me back the following:

   I don’t think Winnetou Old goes directly to or from the Cantos, though obviously
   the C’s were essential to my sense of poetry from early on. WO in fact arose from
   a strange mass of shapeless near automatic writing, some 20 pages or so, that came
   out of the blue in an Indian restaurant in Tooting at the tail-end of a solitary boozy
   lunch. It then took me a few months to puzzle out those non-lineated prose ramblings
   & find a way of setting them up on the page. And yes, there is some Dante and some
   Italian connectivity (though the latter is radical politics of the opposite sort of Pound’s
   —as the Bridgadi Rossi were still active at the time I wrote it). The core, figure, who
   weirdly disappeared in the main, was a narrating voice, half-hallucinatory, that was
   “Winnetou” the Karl May fictive Mescalero chief who came to me, returning as a run-
   down contemporary old Indian, the kind you could meet in most towns along RTE 66
   in New Mexico or Arizona. I figured there was also some Castaneda & some Artaud
   in there or in the voice I was hearing.

With Pierre’s words in mind, I returned to Poasis and re-read “Lemur Mornings,” at 24 pages the longest poem in the collection. While this poem moves faster with less contextualization than other poems in the book, its “flux of ruptures,” “warp speed,” and “constant destabilization of view point” is typical of the writing in Poasis. Here is the beginning of the first of eight (relentlessly vertical on the page) “Lemur Mornings:”

     caught may in coattails
     aztec drudge goddess
     pianola payback hogs
     these last testamentary folds
     quadrants drive & divide
     blindfold trees new
     greenage acres the ford
     uptime brought to you
     carries over the noise
     the disc monthly
     microsoft conjunctions
     smudge the stellar
     meals the spillover
     a major backup snuggles
     close & wet & warm
     child’s play a haystack
     shoves a needle home
     carry-over from winter
     tour yacking on the frozen
     tundra radioactivated
     mink coats coatliqueued…

   The methodology implicit here is glossed in another poem, “Animals to the Point:”

     do not come to a point
     flow, keep moving
     the sound from just
     below to just above
     modulate the
     unending lines,
     start again in
     the middle, nel
     mezzo sing it anew,
     do not come
     to a point.

The writing in “Lemur Mornings” is apparently automatic writing moving so fast that in comparison a draft of some lines from Canto 74, described by Richard Sieburth as “rapid… swift, heavily enjambed verse units; in the onrush of inspiration…” reads almost stately. It yields its meaning in a way that, in contrast, makes the Lemur passage appear to be, as Joris puts it in another poem, “shoveling / sand & mica into our eyes…”  Here is the Pound:

     infantile synthesis
          in Barabas
     minus Hemingway—
        minus Antheil—
     by name Thomas Wilson
     Mr. K said nothing
     in one whole month
        nothing foolish
     if we weren’t dumb
     we wdn’t be in here

When typing up his notebook material later, Pound lengthened some of these 12 lines, turning them into 5, which also made them more available. The reading problem here is one of referentiality; one needs Sieburth’s notes to learn that Wilson and Mr. K are Pound’s fellow prisoners at the Disciplinary Training Center outside of Pisa.

In archeology, a “core meander” is the initial line of an engraving; lines that follow, attached to or in relation to the core meander, are called “branch meanders.” As a language nomad (on a jet-powered camel), we can think of Joris’s writing in “Lemur Mornings” as meanders bereft of their core, or as unmoored branch meanders that occasionally intersect with the poet’s main fire source, the poetry of the Rumanian Paul Celan who chose to write in German and to consciously syntactically disintegrate it. As Celan’s sterling and primary American translator, Joris has been drenched in the Rumanian’s often nearly opaque densities, and it is a mark of his strength that his work shows not a copycat indebtedness but an assimilated transformation of his tormented predecessor.

Pound is a predecessor for Joris in a different way. The elegiac and autobiographical Pisan Cantos, identified by Sieburth in his excellent Introduction to the 2003 New Directions edition as Pound’s “nomadic poem of exile,” fulfills all the requirements of Deleuze’s and Guattari’s  (and by extension, of Joris’s) literary rhizome: “recognizing intersections and engagements between seemingly disparate ideas and things… a branching that has no ‘center’… Any segment broken off from the rest may serve as a new starting point… it brings all manners of materials into productive contact with one another.” The fact that Pound wrote most of the Pisans while he was in a tent (“gripped by hoar frost” he writes) is a fascinating if minor aspect of that journey. As for Joris’s call for the poet to write in foreign languages, Pound writes in Greek, Latin, Provençal, Italian, French, Spanish, and Portuguese in the Pisans. Sieburth again: “Unlike the motif of descent in the earlier Cantos, however, the anamnesia enacted by the Pisans is far more internalized or subjective, turning as it does on the poet’s free-associational excavation of the various buried strata of his own personal past.” And: “it is a particular feature of Pound’s schizopoetics (as Deleuzians might call them) that the positions of self and other, subject and object, remain ever unstable, ever convertible.”

There are of course some significant differences between what is to be found in the Pisans and Poasis.  Joris is a sharp liberal thinker with no manic hatreds to expunge. Joris’s Poasis is also, if not exactly dominated by theories of others, constantly aware of what he has made of them and, to my reading at least, never transgresses against what one might call a rhizomic viewpoint. He writes not as an expatriate prisoner (who in 1945 feared for his life) but as a free intellectual who has been based in America for decades.

Any reader aware of Charles Olson’s “Projective Verse” essay may by now have realized that one of its primary commands—“ONE PERCEPTION MUST IMMEDIATELY AND DIRECTLY LEAD TO A FURTHER PERCEPTION”—attributed by Olson to Edward Dahlberg, could be formed based on a careful reading of the Pisan Cantos which Olson read in manuscript in 1946. I read such a command as an attempt to keep poetic movement in an appositional swiftness and away from description and narrative tied to memory. There is a fine example of the fruits of such a practice in a late Maximus poem, “As of the Parsonses or Fishermans Field or Cressys Beach or Washington, the Capital, of my Front Yard?”  I have in mind the following sequence:

        fate to
     I FA—to
      s-i-n-g the
               root of
               the Well of the
                         Liquid of the
                             Eagle’s mouth:
                                  Teonanacatl is also
                                               God’s body…

Gassire is the hero of a folktale from Niger who is told that his lute will only sound when it absorbs his pain, blood, breath, and the lifeblood of his son. In Dahomey, a man seeking to see into the future visits a sorcerer who “draws the FA”—fruit stones are thrown like our dice and the way they fall enables the sorcerer to make a prediction. The Well of Mimir is located beneath the Nordic World Tree, Yggdrasill. Odin, turned into an Eagle, let fall from his mouth drops of magic mead and in this way humankind received the gift of poetry. “Teonanacatl” is the Nahuatl sacred mushroom and means “God’s flesh.” So here we have a kind of metonymic syncretism utilizing four mythic systems, a brief rhapsody of “stitched song.” The risk here is Poundian: if the nodes do not light up, the dramatic presence will be weak, and the reader’s only thoughtful response will be to turn to the reference texts.

After reading the Olson Selected Letters in 2002, I wrote to the editor, Ralph Maud: “One of the things that struck me, with some of the intellectual letters, is the way Olson’s mind acts when it gets excited. It reminds me of watching a stone being skipped across a pond—hit hit hit pong! The associations come in so fast that each is touched upon, struck, followed by a ricochet, and so on. This is one version of ‘one perception must lead directly to the next,’ but in a version that often seems to me to work against thinking.

In contrast, some of the best poems seem slower than the above procedure, with quick decisive moments, but with enough of the image or material offered for the reader to grasp before being taken forward. ‘The Librarian,’ for example, or ‘In Cold Hell…’ I am wondering what if anything accounts for such speed. Is this vertical thought (as Olson once proposed)? An attempt to discharge a contellational moment so that all nodes are present at once?”