Prehistoric Cave Art II

In the summer of 2006 I visited the Cave of Pech-Merle, near the village of Cabrerets in the Department of Lot-Célé, in the south of France.  This was my first opportunity since visiting the Cave of Niaux in the Pyrenees in 1999 to visit another prehistoric painted cave in France.  At least some of the paintings in this cave are approximately twice as old as those in Niaux.  The spotted horse on the right below, for example, has been carbon dated at 24,640 years (Paul G. Bahn and Jean Vertut, Journey Through the Ice Age (Berkeley: U of California P, 1997, p. 197).

Needless to say, it was a thrill seeing the cave, though as you can tell from the poem that came from it (in contrast to my poem about the Cave of Niaux), my experience was rather different from what I experienced in Niaux.

Spotted Horses, Pech-Merle

The Panel of the Spotted Horses, Cave of Pech-Merle.

Visiting the Cave of Pech-Merle

Children are impatient.
They fidget, they chatter,
they squirm along the barrier bars.
Their parents restrain them.

One thinks of Disney: bear
hollows, stalactite droppings,
stalagmite cylindrical mounds,
remarkable white phalluses.

Electric lights create shadows,
highlight heights, sharp contrast
of gold, brown, red, black, white,
concrete steps, stones, rails.

Then the Chapelle des Mammouths.
No 20th-century entertainer
would have thought to etch these
mammoth, these oxen, bison, horses,

to paint them in charcoal, to mark
a mammoth in bold red strokes
of ferric oxide, irregular lines,
of red that signify--what?

The cave would have been
worth seeing for its natural beauty
alone, a stupendous oyster whose
floor creates calcite pearls

to this day, and a top
spun around such a pearl
in a miracle of calcium carbonate
spun in a waterlogged hole.

Turn off the lights and
you get dense dark,
stuff of nightmares.
Turn them on--enchantment.

A Zen-like miniature antelope and a hand
outlined in red.  Red dots along the right
cascade like drops
that form pearls & dripstones.

Outline of a bear's head
etched in stone, bear claws
in deep parallel lines, linear
manmade shapes that mean--what?

Now the guide, a young woman,
points her red laser beam
at what anyone would have missed
had she not done so.

On a rock above us and way
out of reach: the outline
of a skull--or a man's head--
his body drawn lightly

as a child would draw it,
and spear-like projectiles
wounding him as if he were a sacrifice,
a wounded healer or a priest.

Now surprise startles me,
though I expected it:
my first glimpse of the spotted
horses: the shape of the rock

is the shape of a horse's head,
yet the artist chose to paint
his horse's head into a fine
stylized terminus and to make

black dots surround the mane
and the slopes of the body,
the body itself dotted as well
like the horse facing opposite, both

punctuated with red dots that signify--
what?  These are not horses one would ride,
unless, transcendent, one
leaves one's body and enters

a spirit realm, for these are
dots of desire to see what's on
the other side, beyond the wall.
To see is to know.

Here spirit has legs, sacred,
to gallop into healing regions.
Six hand prints--outlines of hands
in black--surround as if to signify--

what?  "I made this"? Or is it we?
And one of the children, silent now,
stretches out his hand
to connect to ancestors

seven thousand generations ago;
just a few years younger than
the adolescent boy who left
his footprints on the muddy floor,

this boy child will not forget
Pech-Merle, nor the live oak root
penetrating into the cave, twelve
meters to the floor, the solid floor.

Copyright © by Clifton Snider, 2007.  All rights reserved.

My poem was first published in the Arabesques Review, along with two other poems, "Watts Towers" and "Family Bones."  All these poems may be found in my new book of poems, Aspens in the Wind.

Go to Art and Poetry for some of my poems inspired by paintings.
Go to Art and Poetry II for a poem on The Beguiling of Merlin, also in The Age of the Mother.
Go to Art and Poetry III for "Epithalamion," by Gerard Manley Hopkins, and The Bathers (1867), by Frederick Walker, two examples of nineteenth-century homoerotic poetry and art.
Go to my poem about Christina Rossetti.
Go to my poem about D. H. Lawrence.
For another poem in The Age of the Mother, go to New Age.
Go to Native Themes in Art and Poetry.
Go to The Shalako in Poetry and Art.
Go to a poem on a Zuni mountain lion fetish carving.
Go to Poetry and Criticism.

Go to a poem on The Cave of Niaux.
This poem has also been translated into French by M. Patrice Fauchier
and by Jean-Claude Frachon; see Jura Spéléo.

Go to "St. Anthony's Church".
Go to a poem on  Le Mont Saint-Michel.
See my poem for Selena.
Read about my early books of poems before The Age of the Mother (1992)
and The Alchemy of Opposites (2000).
Read about my novels, Wrestling with Angels: A Tale of Two BrothersLoud Whisper, and Bare Roots.
See also A Poet Against the War.

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Page last updated: 1 April 2009