"The Old Ones."
A Poem by Loren Eiseley.
Loren Cory Eiseley (1907-1977) is best known for his wise and attentive autobiographical essays. However, in an unusual convolution of a scientifically trained mind, he was also "a poet-shaman, a wizard-alchemist who adopts the disguise of a changeling and call his reverence and compassion for life 'scientific' for the sake of his professional reputation.”(1) Although his celebrated prose avoids the pitfalls of the scientific method that has for centuries practiced a Cartesian split between observer and observed, it is in his poetry that Eiseley sheds his human skin and dons a shaman's integument, "in which he can fly into all worlds."(2) As E. F Carlisle wrote, “He has never quite fit the neat cages we have built to separate animals, people, and gods, the past from the present or scientists from poets, and he has always deliberately fled from such confinement." (3)
Born in Lincoln Nebraska, his father, a hardware salesman and amateur Shakespearian actor, died when Loren was 20. Eiseley attended the University of Nebraska, but left for the Mohave Desert of eastern California after being diagnosed with tuberculosis and told by a university doctor that his chances for survival were "not much." These were years "of loneliness and pain and of severe emotional and intellectual, as well as material, impoverishment."(3) Restless, like many other men during the Great Depression he rode and rails around the American West. But it was the Great Plains, the vast prairie between the Rocky Mountains and the Mississippi River, that imprinted the horizons of what was his soul's dark night. "I had come from the world of the night," he wrote in his autobiography. "I was not criminally inclined, though I might have become so in a city ghetto environment."(4)
Eventually, he returned to university, where he received undergraduate degrees in English and Geology/Anthropology. After earning a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania, Eiseley launched a distinguished career as teacher, writer—at least twenty books of prose and three collections of poems—and scientist, receiving thirty-six honorary degrees.
When first reading many of Eiseley's poems, I had a feeling that his words were uncomfortable with where they were placed on the page: the length of the lines made no sense to my ears, Since free-verse has become the norm, every poet is challenged with finding a unique voice in a storm of visions and ideas. Most give up and take sanctuary at the left-hand margin, with the result that the majority of contemporary poetry looks and sounds the same. It takes that rare unique voice to overcome this. With someone like Eiseley, whose prose “open a space for the return of the idea of the soul of nature and, consequently, our erotic relationship (for this was how it was conceived of by both Plato and Ficino) with the anima mundi,”(5) the question, it seems to me, is: Why not make prose poems instead? However, “The Old Ones,” a poem that “feels more at home in the forests with animals or deep in the past among the ‘old ones’ of prehistoric cultures than in the modern world of orthodox science or contemporary poetry,”(3) feels at home on its two pages.
Who are the Old Ones? They are not human, but are indigenous to the human psyche in its dreams and imagination. They are not alive, but live in stories passed down through countless generations. They were conceived in ancient times, yet are essential to our time. Eiseley calls them gods, but they are not gods in which one should have faith. The Old Ones are not faithful. They are "tricksters in all cultures, / laughing at man, at themselves, flinging the penis to / become a snake."
Eiseley knew of Tewa Indian Paiakyamu clowns, whose "mystical liberation from ultimate cosmic fears brings with it a liberation from conventional notions of what is dangerous or sacred in the religious ceremonies of men;"(6) and of Quetzalcoatl, the Aztec "feathered snake a god, laughing, laughing / even while drinking blood." Because the gods are naturally generous, they've given us many tales about ourselves—
The stories of cosmic creation, of emergence, of our relationships to other species, continue to be theorized and poetized.
Although it wouldn't be formally named until the decade after Eiseley passed away, he knew of the Anthropocene, the geologic era in which human hubris declared its hegemony over every form of terrestrial life and every square inch of the Earth, above and below; and in which "The old ones, the old ones who knew and laughed and shared / thieves' knowledge of the sun," have retreated deep into our psyches, perhaps biding their time while warring monotheistic ideologies extinguish each other.
Shape-shifting into a cornucopia of beings, calling out "the vanished trickster behind the bush," Loren Eiseley, anthropologist/alchemist, philosopher/shaman, scholar/poet, never deserted the “unseen gods, the powers behind the world of phenomenal appearance, (who stalked) through his dreams.”(7)
References and Notes:
1- Angral, A.J. (1983) Loren