Cave Art

Early March sun hot on the coffee table and my stocking feet, I’m

looking at photos of iron oxide and charcoal paintings someone made

in near darkness on the walls of Chauvet Cave near the Rhone River

32,000 years ago. Minus ten degrees Celsius outside, but the light

swells on the snowy yard before flooding the window. Jean Clottes’

book, Cave Art, open on my lap. It’s strangely easy to think in

thousands of years. For 25,000 years we told the same stories,

engaged with the same gods, the great animal rivers, the obdurate alien

fellows, stacked-up dense and barging, rhinos, lions, bears, bison,

aurochs, mammoths, in the tundra’s slopes and valleys, never far from

ice. For 25,000 years. Used the same kitchen utensils, answered our

children’s questions with the same words. The herds of thick-bellied

horses, the reindeer, red deer, ibex flowing north and south, upland

and downland, always pursued by the poor sun. We watched and

adored them, filling ourselves like ticks with a drop of their vast

life. We were sticks, we were zigzags, we were eyes only, drinking in,

swallowing images to build ourselves, lines and words to hold the

animals inside our limbs. No stars or sun. The reindeer were the sun.

No plants or rivers. The horses were the plants and rivers. No human

faces. Only animals. We were invisible. Bottomless. Witnesses.

And when the ice began to melt and forests crowded the tundra plains,

some of us followed what was left of the deer and the ice north-east

into America, to Perth where I sit with photos of Chauvet Cave, and

some of us stayed in the warming forests and raised sheep, pigs and

wheat, made carts and explosions and portraits of ourselves as the sun,

and soon sailed west here to Perth where we didn’t recognize our

cousins from only a few thousand years ago, had forgotten all our

shared stories, our old gods, except in sorrowful turbulent dreams.

John Steffler is the author of six books of poetry, including The Grey Islands, That Night We Were Ravenous, Helix: New and Selected Poems and Lookout. His novel The Afterlife of George Cartwright won the Smithbooks/Books in Canada First Novel Award and the Thomas Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award and was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award and the Commonwealth First Novel Award. His poetry awards include the Atlantic Poetry Prize and the Newfoundland and Labrador Poetry Prize. Lookout was shortlisted for the 2011 Griffin Prize. He has served as writer-in-residence at Concordia University, Saint Mary’s University and the University of New Brunswick. From 2006 to 2009 he was Parliamentary Poet Laureate of Canada.