In his first collection of poems since From Scratch (1998), Clayton Eshleman presents another masterly set of variations on his signature themes: the origins of consciousness as traced in Upper Paleolithic cave art (“Ah, the early imaginal chewing, breaking / down worlds, extracting their fusional juices”) and the collective early-human consciousness that underlies all our thoughts (“I disappeared,” says a 90,000-year-old hominid skull, addressing the reader—”I disappeared into you”). Here are topical poems of protest and resistance; also timeless lyrics of descent, regeneration, and rebirth—poems of a piece with the vast, glittering web of personal myth and imagery that Eshleman has been spinning for almost four decades.
But the great surprise of My Devotion is how tender and elegiac many of Eshleman’s recent poems are, among them a sequence documenting the life, work, and final illness of the late Ann Mikolowski, a painter of land-, sea- and skyscapes. Most moving of all are the many lyrics about the courage, beauty, humor, and desire of the poet’s wife, Caryl; also her growing fragility, and the poet’s first intimations of a life without her.
In My Devotion, we see one of our great mythmakers taking new possession of the everyday world, a world of things, persons, and relationships he is only too reluctant to abandon.
An Eshleman poem is unmistakable from the first glance. Image jams against image, not impressionistically but in service of a passionately argued line of reason, a line in which an idea, before completion, turns into another idea, and then another.