—a white creamy substance found inside limestone caves. Being soft, cave milk was
frequently the medium for finger fluting, a form of prehistoric art.
How can it be Tomaz? How is it
We find ourselves within this landscape
Of dead & snow-pocked grasses,
& labor uphill through a labyrinth
Of lichen-speckled outcrop, boulders
Jagged as enormous wasps’ nests, the yurt
Where the Great Khan sits enthroned?
Winter sky, the promise of snow,
The call in the distance of an arctic bird–
Snow goose, raven, tundra swan.
Not much farther, he whispers, flashing
That elfin-shaman smile. Bone-chilling cold
& here a cairn where he bends
To disperse the stones, as if sowing them,
Relentless, flinging them all to the four winds,
Until the opening is exposed & his face
Now glistens with sweat. Hoo! Hoo! Hoo!
He is summoning, I know, the spirits
Who reside beneath & when he turns to me
He smears his sweat, chilled now,
Against my nose & forehead, palms
Rubbing hard along my ears, down the neck
To the Adam’s Apple. & now, he says,
We are permitted to descend—for the spirits
Will not be frightened by my unfamiliar scent.
Down through the aperture he slithers,
Down like a swimmer, tunnel slick,
Ensilvered with damp, claustrophobic as CT scan,
Down with our arms before us
& my flashlight out of reach. We are two
Blind fish. Tomaz’s labored breathing,
Scrape of his knife-sheath along the stygian limestone.
& then he is gone completely. For minutes,
Only the drip of distant water, its tintinnabulating echo.
A sudden flicker & he conjures himself,
A pine-pitch torch within each hand. & I rise
To a domed room, vast in the torch-light waver,
A limestone Sistine. Auroch, cave lion, a bison
Horned & charging, Red blossoms
Of a legion of hands, stenciled in negative.
He offers me my flame. He bids me follow.
He bids me. He points again to a tunnel & as we
Bend to enter, he turns & blows through a hollow reed
Red ochre upon my face & hands. & for
An instant I am blind to all but crimson.
In the windings we bend, we squeeze, we snake,
Cavewalls beaded wet. & before us yet another room,
No larger than a shed, an apartment kitchen.
The walls & ceiling are lather, are cream
Skimmed from milk that is sloshing in
An earthen flagon. He guides my hand.
Within this luminescence, the handiwork of hundreds
Who have come before—maze & spiral, digit-
& thumbprint etched serpentine. He guides my palm,
Bears it down against the fetid ceiling–the ooze
& give of putty. At first, a tentative circle,
Then long four-fingered arcs. Then arrow, bird-shape,
Dots in triangle, dots in square. So much space to fill.
He frees my hand; his torch now flickers. He turns away.
He does not bid me follow. & now these images: bright,
Candescent, singular. It is time for the work to begin.
–Tomaz Salamun, in memory
David Wojahn‘s ninth collection of poetry, FOR THE SCRIBE, was published earlier this year by the University of Pittsburgh Press. His previous collection, WORLD TREE, was published by Pitt in 2011, and was the winner of the Academy of American Poets’ Lenore Marshall Prize, as well as the Poets’ Prize. The University of Michigan Press released a new collection of his essays on poetry, FROM THE VALLEY OF MAKING, in 2015. He teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University, and in the low residency MFA in Writing Program of Vermont College of Fine Arts.