Cave Milk

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.

 

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