An Elemental Thing by Eliot Weinberger

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The Poetry-Transfigured Essay

The best book by our best living literary essayist, An Elemental Thing by Eliot Weinberger got scant attention when it was published in 2007. As is sometimes the case with significant American writers, Weinberger’s reputation may be greater abroad than at home. Certainly his work has been translated into umpteen languages (including Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Japanese, and Maori). I recently reread An Elemental Thing and was knocked out again and surprised by what I missed the first time.

The book’s sequence of short essays covers an astonishing range of subjects, from wind to rhinoceros to lizards, from Aztecs to Romans to Mandaeans. Empodecles and “the ox-herding boy” are presiding spirits of sorts, drifting in and out of multiple essays. Parallel essays elaborating the seasonal activities of a T’ang Dynasty Chinese court give structure to the book as a whole.

What makes the essays so remarkable, besides their astounding learnedness (James Laughlin, the editor of New Directions, once said that Weinberger was the most erudite person he’d met since Ezra Pound), is their formal innovation. Each essay is utterly distinct. Everything Weinberger has learned from a lifetime’s obsession with poetry he brings to bear on the essay. Laughlin’s comparison comes to mind in part because Weinberger has cracked open the essay form in as dramatic a way as Ezra Pound cracked open the poem in the early 20th century.

Precipitous juxtapositions, heuristic leaps, lists, anaphoric incantation, cultural rhymes, onomatopoeia, parallel structures, strong syntactical shifts, refusals of closure, kennings, textual patterning on the page, and merciless understatement characterize the essays. Also, Weinberger empathetically heaps our plate with the facts of life as they are perceived by non-Western cultures, and he does so without relying on those patronizing qualifications—“they believe,” etc.—so often used to distinguish non-scientific modes of experience and explanation. Thus, in “Muhammad,” we read: “He never soiled his clothes; whatever passed naturally from him was instantly received and concealed by the earth. He never smelled disagreeably, but gave off a fragrance of camphor and musk. At three months, he sat up; at nine months, he walked; at ten months, he went out with his foster-brothers to pasture the sheep….”

Often elements from one essay are swirled into the configuration of another. For instance, the reader is likely to associate an essay titled “Wind and Bone” with an earlier essay, “The Wind.” In “Wind and Bone,” an advisor tells a Chinese emperor that the wind he feels “is a wind for your majesty alone.” Any reader familiar with Pound’s Cantos will recall Pound’s “No wind is the king’s wind” and link this allusion to Pound references in other essays. Meanwhile, Weinberger goes on to mention Chang Hua, whose name connects him to an earlier essay, “Chang,” concerning (well, you have to read it) a bunch of men named Chang. The last line of “Wind and Bone”—“The metaphor for the ideal poem is a bird”—relates it to an essay called “Wrens.” This cycling of themes and references typifies the movement not only of the essays, but of the writing as a whole. Perhaps the book’s overriding compositional metaphor is the vortex; two of the most compelling essays, “Tree of Flowers” and “Vortex,” develop that image into a cosmogony.

It’s curious to note how ecstasy and carnage often mingle in the final sentences of these essays, despite (or not) that a number of them are concerned with creation. Weinberger tracks cycles of human violence and dreaming as, like huge vortical whirlwinds, they stalk each other across the widening desert tracts of human history.

Finally, though, it’s Weinberger’s attentiveness to particularity, to the particularity of our species, its dreams and literatures and landscapes, that makes the essays so rich. The brilliant net of details that Weinberger casts and recasts in his various inventive approaches to form is precisely what constitutes a superlative poetic imagination. And it’s what holds the essays—and us—trembling and raging and hallucinating together.

I’ll end with a beginning. These are the opening lines of the essay “The Stars”:

The stars: what are they?          They are chunks of ice reflecting the sun;           they are lights afloat on the waters beyond the transparent dome;          they are nails nailed to the sky;          they are holes in the great curtain between us and the sea of light;          they are holes in the hard shell that protects us from the inferno beyond; they are the daughters of the sun;          they are the messengers of the gods;          they are shaped like wheels and are condensations of air with flames roaring through the spaces between the spokes;          they sit in little chairs;