Clayton Eshleman: 'Chauvet. First Impressions' (a new poem)

The depth of body.

The depth    of a hollow

     animal belly

imagination fills out to an agreeable convexity, &

the tenderness in a bear drawing

like a loom within stone.

Seesaw pitch of breath & stasis:

my heart pounding   Take Heed   halfway

up the mountain to Chauvet’s entrance.

Frightened to almost be stopped within minutes of the cave.

(Olson in Hotel Steinplatz feeling

the World Tree give way in his giant frame).


Is that why Chauvet’s interior was tinged for me

   with the rust of farewell?

Coffee outside the equipment nook

after the 40 minute climb:

4000 people, the guide Charles told us, have visited,

about 400 a year, or did he mean

about 400 will visit this year?

So I’m not that special —

   photo of the Methodist Hospital window

   in the room where I was born, X’ed by my father

   in his “Baby’s Book of Events.”


Cradle of art?

Roar of images cascading the wall,

rows of larger-than-life lion heads voracious for

a vertical totem pole of bison heads.

90% of Chauvet is virgin floor.

One bear skull is enveloped in stalactitic casing,

a polished white sarcophagus of sorts,

with a stalagmite a foot high “growing” out of

     the cranium dome,

as if the skull sends up its opaque

     shaft of words.

10% of Chauvet appears to be metal walkway.

“charter’d Thames” Nice to keep that much floor virgin

but it is as if this primordial labyrinth has been

     jigsawed with streets. Meaning:

no wandering, no “lost at sea” in being’s immensity.

Like a huge solitary hanging fang, near the cave’s end:

a Minotaur, with a drizzle of fingers,

drawn on a large feline body drawn there earlier.

Some panels boil with activity,

as if they magnetized Cro-Magnon soul,

sucked animal through Cro-Magnon bodies.

The 32,400 year old male rhino

in horn clash with maybe a female

has a fat, pointed erect phallus.

A chaos of animals, like “a paradise of poets,”

one masterly horse finger-painted in wall clay,

     shaded so carefully

to pull the outline boundaries in,

the limestone shows through —

as if nothing that special has happened since!

As if man were an afterthought of a humanimal brew

     still beating in my chest

like a wedge of lions crafting a kill.

Asking why certain spots were chosen for figures,

like asking why lightning here, not there…

Here-not-there coalesces into hermetic knots of

     wiggling anti-cores,

as if a solid helix were, this instant,

bursting into univocal lanes

(the metal walkway puns upon).


Why are you here

right up my nose,

as if a tweezer carbon-dated, on the spot,

     a bit of my brain &

came up with the abyss’s

invisible but definite bottom:

death, as a feline gush of misericordia,

beauty & affinity, lined within the notion of being.

How did I manage to walk that last 20 minutes

     up the mountain?

Why can’t I get over that pounding halo of

     serpent breath,

haruspex enigma …     Breathe &

     be grateful for

the various ranges quilted within, &

the many years with Caryl.

Thought of her on that mountain side, panting …

Did her devotion & utter decency

     lift me on?



NOTE: See also the poem “Chauvet: Left Wall of End Chamber” in Reciprocal Distillations (Hot Whiskey Press, 2007) reprinted in CE / The Essential Poetry (1960–2015). With James O’Hern, I visited Chauvet Cave with Jean-Marie Chauvet (one of the 1994 discoverers) on January 8, 2004. My gratitude to Dominique Baffier for arranging our visit. Excellent color photographs of the wall with the paintings addressed in my poem may be found in Chauvet Cave / The Art of Earliest Times, directed by Jean Clottes (The University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City, 2003).