Sunday, December 06, 2009


Cave paintings, Sharon Doubiago memoir, and other news

Sometime back when I was looking through back issues of American Poetry Review at the library, I found an essay by Clayton Eshleman, "The Backwall of Imagination," about his researches into prehistoric cave paintings and his visits to cave painting sites in southern France, through the 1970's, 1980's and 1990's. Eshleman did the research in part as background work for what became his long poem Juniper Fuse. I've never read Juniper Fuse, but I found Eshleman's account of his cave painting research fascinating.

The essay mentioned above, "The Backwall of Imagination," is available now in Archaic Design, a collection of Eshleman's essays published in 2007 by Black Widow Press. (This link is to the main page of the publisher's website -- I couldn't find a page for the book in their website, and someplace they mention they'll be publishing the book -- the information may not have been updated for a while. The book was definitely published, I have a copy in front of me as I write this. You might try the "Contact" link in the website and ask the publisher about it, or order through a bookstore.)

Here are a couple of excerpts from "The Backwall of Imagination," to give a little sense of it. The first excerpt is from a visit Eshleman and his wife Caryl made to France in 1974; Movius (mentioned in the passage) is H.L. Movius, an archaeologist then working in France.

"It turned out that Movius's secretary (a 'liberated' English woman who answered the door naked to the waist) lived on the first floor of our building. She told us she would ask Movius to arrange a visit to Lascaux (closed to the public since 1963; in 1974, groups of up to five people were allowed in the cave for forty-five minutes, four days a week.) Caryl's sister, Jayne, and the painters George Herms and Margaret Nielson, joined us for our May visit. The guide, Jacques Marsal (one of the original discoverers of Lascaux in 1940) made us all wait in total darkness at the entrance to the Rotunda (having passed through steel doors and cleansed our shoe souls in a formalin solution tray). He walked away and after a minute or so, turned on the muted lights. Four immense aurochs, at once moving swiftly yet static, appeared, occupying nearly sixty feet of a curving, crystal-white wall space. Across and below them, as if sprinkled there, moving in different directions, were small horses and deer. All of us were spellbound. I think that it was that "moment of moments" that sounded something in me that I could only respond to and realize through the writing of a book.

"On occasional drives north from St. Cyprien down into the beginning of the Vézère Valley, I had a strong sensation of being released from all earthly constraints. The third time this happened, I tried to see what about our location might explain this extraordinary feeling. As we descended, we entered a narrow, pretty vale on the far right side of which was a limestone wall which increased in height and massiveness as we drove further into the vale. I knew that the Font-de-Gaume cave was at the far end of this rock formation and that the path leading up to the cave's entrance could be glimpsed right before our road dead-ended into a road that, were one to turn right, would pass by the trail leading to the Font-de-Gaume's entrance. Was it the magic of this particular composite that made me feel that I was passing through a hallowed place? Had files of deer come down this vale to drink at the Vézère? Were they hunted here? Were the reindeer depicted in Font-de-Gaume based on such deer? I intuited that the extreme ancientness of the cave's imagery acted as a kind of roving, ensouled wiring that I had abruptly plugged into. The landscape I was passing through received and reflected its charge."

The other excerpt here is from a visit to the same region in 1976:

"We will never forget our first visit to Niaux. We approached the cave via the one-lane, hairpin, curving road that leaps up a limestone spur rising more than one thousand meters above the Vicdessos, a small river that runs along the road below. We rounded a bend to suddenly face a one hundred and fifty foot high triangular cavity seemingly clawed out of the rock. It looks like either the entrance to, or the exit from, the world. In a postcard photo of this teepee-shaped entrance, the visitor cars parked out on the porch seem to be the size of tiny bugs.

"Most of the hundred or so animals depicted on the walls of Niaux are in a single large circular chamber called the Salon Noir, seven hundred meters inside. Bison and horses have been painted in black manganese over charcoal sketches. Unlike the trotting, frisking, and leaping animals of Lascaux, those in Niaux hover the walls like suspended pelts -- they seem to be absolutely still. Some appear to have been rapidly sketched (I thought of Franz Klein's intersecting black strokes), while others have a lot of detail: the texture of animal coats is indicated, now heavier, now lighter. Certain hooves are beautifully handled. S. Giedion, author of The Eternal Present: The Beginnings of Art, compared them to sketches by Rafael.

"Back in Los Angeles, I came across a book-length essay by James Hillman, 'The Dream and the Underworld,' which, while not concerned with the pre-Grecian past, helped release me from the traditional viewpoint that cave imagery was primarily a response to hunting anxiety, or involved "sympathetic magic" for successful hunting. Hillman proposed that dreams were not merely the reflection of daytime activities, but autonomous psychic stations, as it were, with a mythic geography that constituted what some cultures have called the underworld. Perhaps, I conjectured, cave images painted or engraved 25,000 years ago, via dreaming and imagining, transformed cave 'insides' into an underworld construction."

Most of the other essays in Archaic Design are about various writers, artists, and literary and artistic movements; in a couple of them, Eshleman writes about some of the poetry translation work he has done. I don't remember now which issue of American Poetry Review had the essay "The Backwall of Imagination" in it -- it may have been Jan./Feb. 2006, though I'm not positive about that.


I recently finished reading My Father's Love: Portrait of the Poet as a Young Girl, Volume 1, by Sharon Doubiago, published this year by Wild Ocean Press. Doubiago has written a devastating and riveting account of her childhood, dealing centrally with her father's sexual molestation of her as a child. The range and reach of her memoir are wide and vast, drawing in the history of her family going back several generations, mingled with the broader history of the United States and the world, as well as the political and economic conditions and daily life during the 1940's and 1950's in Southern California where she lived.

Sharon Doubiago's website includes links to excerpts from My Father's Love that are available online: in the main page, click on the link to the book title in the right-hand column: that will go to a page with an excerpt from Doubiago's Introduction to the book; and in the right-hand column of that page are links to sample chapters that have been published in various online literary magazines.

I can't recommend My Father's Love highly enough.

In the main page of Doubiago's website there are also links to sample poems from two of her books of poems. I've loved Sharon Doubiago's poetry since I first read some of her work in 1981. She's also a long-time friend.


One other note -- the Fall/Winter 2009 issue of Great River Review includes a feature section of writing in tribute to the 20th century Greek Communist poet Yannis Ritsos, compiled by poet and Ritsos translator Scott King. The Ritsos ribute section features short essays, poems, translations of Ritsos, and a short interview with him, by poets and writers including Peter Constantine, Dale Jacobson, Thomas McGrath, Rachel Hadas, Edmund Keeley, George Kalamaras, Chrisa Prokopaki, Lyle Daggett, Fereydoun Faryad, Angéliki Kotti, and others.

Yannis Ritsos was born May 1, 1909, and died in 1990. The Ritsos tribute feature noted above was done in observance of the 100th year since his birth; many commemorations of his life and work have been taking place in Greece and elsewhere around the world during the past year.

If you're not familiar with the work of Yannis Ritsos, a good introduction is Selected Poems, 1938-1988 edited and translated by Kimon Friar and Kostas Myrsiades, published 1989 by BOA Editions. Ritsos was a massively prolific poet, even in the face of long years of imprisonment by military governments and his sometimes poor health; even a selection as large as the one noted above covers only a fraction of his work, and new translations of his poetry continue to appear in English.

I've written a little about Yannis Ritsos previously in this blog, here.

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