Thursday, May 20, 2010

Cave Story (Poem)

"Auroch", Lascaux, France
(Public Domain Image)

Cave Story

Older than the quarried travertine
of the Colosseo, its predictable fall Rome's own

Eons before the rising of the Preseli Bluestones,
the fitted Sarsen stones of Merlin-magic renderings
into earthworked horseshoes and circles of Stonehenge

As famous as the Pyramids of Khufu and Giza,
holding a darker secret than the twenty-storey temple-steps
in the jungles of the Mayans' Teotihuacan

Are the hands of the nameless who drew
in the absence of God's own light,
their art discovered by four boys looking for a dog.

A bestiary in a cave in southwestern France, marching
along engraved and painted walls, on once pure-white
ceiling, in profile, broadly and rhythmically stroked

Abstract and representational, line stylized
and lively, masterly if rudimentary,
graceful, emotive, fully confident head-on

This plenitude of cows and horses, of bison
and mammoths and bears, of wolves
and cats, deer and lion, ibex and aurochs

The hunted and the feared, the eaten and the fought,
the Paleolithic, the pre-historic,
the very rare, a stick of a man with a bird

A cavalcade in reds yellows and browns
ochres and black and — yes, this surprise — a violet
raw colors, strong colors, mysteriously made colors

Applied, perhaps, with mats of hair, clumps of moss,
maybe blown directly from mouths,
through hollowed-out bone, by hands without brushes.

September, 1940, and four boys in Dordogne — Marcel
and Jacques, Georges and Simon — give chase and
the little dog Robot suddenly stops in its tracks.

Inside, on elbows and knees, down a shaft boys terrified slide
into the dark of 17000 years B.C., 20000 years B.C.,
and see for the very first time

Painters' deliberations of contours in The Hall of the Bulls,
outlines black-sketched of swimming deer,
ponies angled in a close-up frieze
of narrative we will never hear that yet made memory

In shaped-by-hand beauty, imprinting a pulse
like the boys' own oath of secrecy too soon given up to a line-up
charged forty cents per head per admission.

Sought out, old schoolmaster Laval advised "Don't touch"
and "Guard from vandals" and the boys, they tried,
but awe released in thousands and thousands of breaths

Exhaled on the property of the Count of LaRochefoucault
left Abbe Breuil's Sistine Chapel of Prehistoric Times ailing,
a bas relief of condensation, brown tears, a colony of stains.

Carbon dioxide was the killer, its first signs of Green Sickness
a lichen growth on walls, its next the White Sickness
of calcite on paintings, its next the attacks of fungi,
the algae and molds unstoppable

In the whir of compromised air conditioning, unsterilized shoes,
the suffocation by quicklime of cave floor, the invasive mechanics
of applied antiobiotic compresses and extracted bacteria roots.

Jacques the boy of 14 who first guarded Lascaux by day and night
turned chief guide and lived to see the cave he loved dying,
his menagerie of leaping stags and charging bulls
and galloping horses come to ruin.

© 2010 Maureen E. Doallas. All Rights Reserved.


Known as the "Father of Prehistory", Abbe Henri Breuil was a French priest and famed archeologist. One of the first persons to learn of the boys' discovery, he confirmed the authenticity and era of the Lascaux paintings and during his studies at the cave uncovered bone fragments and other evidence of humans' presence there.

The four boys who discovered Lascaux were Marcel Ravidat, Jacques Marsal, Georges Agnel, and Simon Coencas. They at first thought they had found a tunnel that local Montignac legend held would lead to a secret cavern containing hidden treasure.  (The story of the legend is told in the Curtis book noted below; see page 81.) Jacques Marsal was employed as chief guide until his death in 1989.

The French Government has been vilified for failure to act properly and appropriately to the problems besetting Lascaux, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The International Committee for Preservation of Lascaux, based in Oakland, California, is documenting the preservation crisis.

Lascaux has been closed to the public since 1963. 

The Cave Painters: Probing the Mysteries of the World's First Artists, by Gregory Curtis, on GoogleBooks

Lascaux History at Sacred Destinations

Official Site, French Ministry of Culture: 3D Virtual Tour (English)

Adaptation of Article by James Graff, "Saving Beauty"
* * * 

This prose poem is my response to High Calling Blogs' call for a Random Act of Poetry. The prompt was, simply, "take us to an ancient place". Not one to follow a crowd, I took the hint to "play around" and went to a time before the great civilizations in Egypt, China, India, Rome, and Greece. 

HCB will be highlighting a selection of contributors and providing a list of links on Friday. If you want to come along, drop your own link in the comment box here at Seedlings in Stone by Thursday, May 20.


tfgpoetry said...

You took me there, to the time the boys found the cave, and back so much further again.

M.L. Gallagher said...

"narrative we will never hear that yet made memory"

Not only a lesson in history, a lesson in humanity.


Kathleen Overby said...

Interesting digs. Hadn't heard this story. I'm glad you uncovered it for us. :)

Glynn said...

Older than recorded time, then vandalized by recorded time. It's a beautiful poem, Maureen.

L.L. Barkat said...

That last stanza.


S. Etole said...

There is so much to ponder in this ... so much.

n. davis rosback said...

"...don't it always seem to go, that ya don't know what you've got 'till it's gone?..."

i agree with joni.

Joyce Wycoff said...

... the powerful unintended consequences of our actions ... if we could only see them ripple into the future, what would we do and what would we not do? Thanks for this powerful piece.

The Storialist said...

I loved the story here. And the end made me feel so sad...the cave is being ruined by time and exposure, and there is nothing to be done about it.

Excellent detail: Robot!

Robin M Arnold said...

I love these caves and that our ancient ancestors made art there. Time and again, history makes me weep.

sarah said...

it's always great to read a new poem from you.

Kelly Langner Sauer said...

I love how we're all not crowd-followers so we all do the same thing and try for something original... ;-)

Your poetry is all grown up. I feel as though mine is just dirt-play. *grin* It's on my face, isn't it, the dirt?

This is really, really good writing, Maureen. And you made it educational too. I learned so much just reading the poem!

Laura said...

This is so fascinating. Sometimes, when these mysteries are discovered, it overwhelms me to imagine how they came to be.

We must protect these places. Thank you for this story, Maureen. You are an excellent teacher....make me want to know more.

jenne said...

This is a startling poem, a pastiche of imagery and history, somewhat, to me, like a cave painting itself; visual woven with narrative and bits of history, summoning up a sense of the ancient; you convey how remarkable it is that these paintings exist/existed as well as our moral failure across time to value things and protect them when we can-- the works of art by nameless hands and the price we pay when we don't pay attention and sacrifice our own children.

Somehow it makes me think of the striations over the Gulf of Mexico of the oil slick, an unwelcome visual feast for the eye in its own way, something with a life of its own that is claiming other life.

One thing that strikes me about your work is that you put heart and soul into these epic statements, invoking the past and bringing up buried treasure-- you did this with your "monster" poem, informing each piece with the things that resonate for you. This takes relentless artistic commitment and the craft that I think is your hallmark-- bringing it all together, into a tapestry. It is a great thing when an artist working in other genres and dimensions brings this to bear in a poem. I would love for you to post it on SW in our group as well. All of us need to be reminded of what it means and takes to write something great. xj

Ami Mattison said...

Thank you so much for writing and sharing this, Maureen! There's so much going on in this story, such rich visual images, concrete and specific details, and the mystery of it all. You really take us there to each moment in time and make us feel it!