by Gillian Clarke
This two-part poem (one of three in the collection) from the French journal refers to two of the famous caves (les grottes: the caves) of the Dordogne. They are magnificent, cathedral-like places, their walls painted and carved with images of animals by the people who lived in them and used them thousands of years ago. They were originally hollowed from the limestone millions of years ago by the force of rivers.
The contrast between the summer heat above ground and the icy cold of the underground caves is striking. In the first poem, the mammoth look as innocent as a ‘nursery frieze’, the parade of animals on a child’s bedroom wall, or in a circus. But the place is haunted with thoughts of the tribes who carved these images, the savage lives they lived, and, even longer ago, before mankind lived on earth, the long millennia when the rivers were cutting the caves out of ancient rock:
‘The Vezere is a ghost,/ its footprints everywhere./ Even the kitchen taps// run cloudy into the palms/ of our hands, fill our mouths/ with chalk.’
You can see and taste the chalk in water that flows out of limestone.
2. Font de Gaume
In this poem I am struck by human creativity, the one characteristic which distinguishes human from other animals. I am inspired to write a poem. 14,000 years ago early human beings were inspired to carve images. Imagination cries for symbols, for the means to create, for tools, a pen, a chisel, to rejoice, celebrate, lament, praise, remember, or to please the gods. Suddenly that artist from so long ago seems to be, not a savage, but my brother or my sister.