My friend Clayton Eshleman died last week. He was 85 and I knew he had been in declining health for some time.
Clayton was an enormously successful and prolific poet, translator, writer, editor, and most of that is captured on the Wikipedia page about him. He published hundreds of chapbooks and books of his own poetry, a couple dozen translations, a couple more dozen books of prose and other writings, the best of which (IMO) is probably Juniper Fuse, and lots of collections and anthologies of previously published works. He won a ton of prizes and recognitions, he and his wife Caryl were editors of a couple of important literary magazines, Caterpillar and then Sulphur, he published other peoples’ books and chapbooks in different venues, and people have written books about him too. Like I said, that’s all there on Wikipedia.
We were only kind of colleagues because I started at EMU in 1998 and he retired from EMU in 2003, and while I do have an MFA in Fiction Writing, my PhD and work at EMU has been in composition and rhetoric. So our paths really didn’t cross much professionally. I did know he was a “presence” in the department, so to speak, the kind of senior colleague/older professor/important writer who was quite capable of striking fear in students and younger faculty– probably a few older faculty too. He was challenging, difficult, practiced radical honesty far too often, etc. But I really have no memories of him in any sort of committees or other work things at EMU.
Mostly, our relationship was about food, wine, and web sites.
As far as I can tell from looking at some old journals/calendars of mine, the first time I interacted or talked with Clayton in any detail was at the 2001 department Christmas party, and I am sure we mainly talked about cooking. Somehow, he floated the idea that we should have a dinner party where I bring a dish or two and he makes a dish or two. I thought he was just trying to be nice after we’d each had a few glasses of wine, but several months later in spring 2002, that’s what we did at Clayton and Caryl’s house. I want to say it was close to twenty people over there total.
For many years after that, Annette and I would get together with Clayton and Caryl for dinner, usually a couple of times a year, usually at their house. Looking back at it now, I realize that while I was back then already a pretty decent cook, Clayton and Caryl introduced both Annette and me to a different level of sophistication with food. The meals he served weren’t showy or gimmicks of any sort– just really good and classic food, usually with a turn toward the French. He had a fantastic dish of rabbit stuffed with prunes. I think the first time I had duck confit ever was at Clayton’s house.
On the one hand, because Annette and I are so much younger than them (Clayton was five years older than my father), a lot of these affairs felt stiff and formal. If the evening’s events were to begin at say 6:30 pm, you were there at 6:30 pm– and whenever we had a party and invited them, they were always the first to arrive. The Eshleman’s house was an eclectic and eccentric space, and I often felt like a little kid just staring at all the stuff: all the paintings from notable artists they actually knew, an enormous wall of books in a case that filled half the living room, some preposterously giant decorative wine glasses on top of the sideboard in the dining room, an inflatable pterodactyl hanging from the ceiling. They had a teeny-tiny powder room tucked under the stairs, the kind of space where it took some careful maneuvering to use the toilet. The walls were completely covered with decades worth of snapshots of Clayton, Caryl, and all sorts of various friends usually sitting at large tables covered with empty bottles of wine: pictures from France, from New York, from trips to the caves he wrote about in Juniper Fuse and where he used to lead tours of classes studying the ice age paintings. So these dinners were often strange and intimidating affairs.
But mostly these dinners were fun and we kept going back because Clayton and Caryl both had such fantastic stories of decades of life as wholly committed to art and poetry and writing. I think my favorite Clayton story was the one he told about essentially stalking Allen Ginseberg in the early 1960s (or possibly late 1950s) in New York City. I never quite understood how that happened– did he just look him up in the phonebook?– but Clayton said he found him and he knocked on Ginsberg’s door and asked him to tell Clayton about poetry. Ginsberg said he would if Clayton bought him a hamburger, and so they had hamburgers and talked about poetry.
When Juniper Fuse was published in 2003, I volunteered to set up a web site for him. I did it as a friend, but also for some additional experience in making web sites– I teach this stuff so I need to stay up with the technology. Clayton did “pay me” in a matter with bottles of very good wine I would have never bought for myself and by taking me out to lunch once in a while. We went different places over the years, but we tended to always circle back to a Mexican place in Ypsilanti near campus, La Fiesta. The food was pretty good (it frankly isn’t as good as it used to be, unfortunately), but I think he liked it most because the owner would always dote on Clayton when he came in. We gossiped about EMU academic politics, about whatever events, and about the web site and what new things he wanted to put on it– new books, new chapbooks, another interview someplace, a series of readings in New York or wherever. One of the really extraordinary things about Clayton’s productivity as a writer is it actually increased after he retired; I think he wrote something like another 20 books in his last 20 years.
Annette and I did go out to some restaurants with Clayton and Caryl, but it was very tricky to find a place in Ann Arbor that satisfied them. Some of Clayton’s favorite restaurants didn’t strike me as very good– there was a Chinese place he was fond of in Ann Arbor I remember as mediocre, and it closed down years ago now. The last place I remember going with them that they liked a great deal was Mani Osteria, which is probably my favorite place still open in Ann Arbor. But even though he was a harsh critic and demanding customer, most of his restaurant recommendations were correct. On one trip through Chicago, we had a splurge of a meal at Rick Bayless’ Topolobampo which Clayton had recommended– he liked going to it when he had a visiting teaching gig in Chicago. Still haven’t made it to The French Laundry, but I learned from him about Thomas Keller’s cookbooks and his other more affordable restaurants like Bouchon. When Annette and Will and I went to Paris for about 10 days for a sort of working vacation, Clayton suggested some reasonably priced but more upscale bistro kinds of places that were fantastic.
In the last five or six years, we saw each other less frequently. I think Clayton’s energy and enthusiasm for making elaborate meals had understandably declined as he got into his eighties. As I got better as a cook, I would sometimes bring him some of the molé I had been trying to make (based on a Rick Bayless recipe), and he always seemed happy for those gifts. We talked less about what to put on the web site because Clayton wasn’t writing as much or giving as many readings as he had a few years before, but he still had good stories up until the last time I had lunch with him, which I think was about a year and a half ago.
So rest in peace, Clayton. You were a difficult, interesting, sometimes angry, eccentric, brilliant, and often a surprisingly kind friend.