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Lascaux

Lascaux Cave Art Bison

I watched Werner Herzog’s new film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, about the 35,000 year-old cave paintings in Chauvet, France, today and was reminded of the experience of writing this poem.

In a poetry workshop we had read W. H. Auden’s Musee des Beaux Arts. The assignment was to write a poem, as Auden did, that expressed the experience of contemplating a work of art. Even when I found a coffee-table book as thick as a phone book titled History of Art on a shelf in the prison day room, I didn’t know where to start.

I opened the book in the middle, about at the European Renaissance period. I turned over the pages and studied the pictures for an hour, hoping for inspiration. Nothing I saw made me want to write a poem.

I remembered that feeling from the years when the nuns tried to teach us Art Appreciation, scratchy slides of frescoes, Giotto this, Fra Angelico that. I was a miserable student, unmoved and unable to memorize by rote.

I was about to give up on the assignment, maybe go look at the latest Scientific American instead. But then I happened to open to the very first pages in the art book. I saw, for the first time, the cave paintings from Lascaux, animals that were alive, the way things in the world are alive. I knew that there was nothing else in that book that I could write about.

It isn’t tools that made us human. Chimpanzees and elephants use tools. Neanderthals made tools as sophisticated as ours. We became the humans that we are when our brain evolved the capacity for abstraction, the ability to nest one model of the world inside another one, maybe as long as 75,000 years ago. We have been making art ever since.

Lascaux
You knew—
You knew and you drew on rock wall
by guttering lamplight
the true shape of beasts in flight.

You knew
Hunter who had for life itself to know
as no modern day effete with oils and detail can know
That shape-in-motion and being the beast
and desiring the beast and painting out that desire on rock
in fervent prayer
is art.

I tour museums.
I wander through room after room of schools
and movements and monuments,
Gaze upon the sacred paintings of the Longed-for of newer ages
and feel stupid.

I come at last to the cool dim cave of Lascaux
I press my face to your rock
Place my hand on your pigment beast
and rest.

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About Katherine Power

I didn’t set out to be a terrorist. As a student activist, I moved from protesting the war in Viet Nam to waging guerrilla war to overthrow the government….

Recent and Upcoming Appearances and Publications
1/15/2014 Complexity and Social Change, Occupy Radio
10/31/2013 Surrender, Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR
10/25/2013 Surrender, Taos Community Theater, Taos, NM

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