Cave Paintings

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Cave Paintings
Cantabria

Who painted these pictures on the walls of night’s cave?
This grayish hand, fingers flexed, outlined in black soot,
that deer dancing, those bears, horses, bison, running?


Did they come from nowhere, plucked from nothing but
the artist’s memories of what he saw as the ice age faded
and heat and warmth returned to warm his world? Drawn
from life, without doubt. Unless these Neanderthals were
truly creating art from a literal vacuum with nothing new
invented since according to Picasso. And he should know.

Imagine them as sounds, as letters from distant relatives,
as colored vowels scored on the blocks of a child’s first
alphabet set. Sit and stare. Watch flames flitter over
sharp shapes. See life enter the drawings as flimsy
light flickers over the cave walls’ dips and bumps.

Once seen, never forgotten. Not just the paintings, but also
the clammy cave damp, the red hanky draped over a pocket torch
to imitate firelight, the drip of water, slow growth of limestone
deposits growing into stalagmite and stalactite. Such things
flit in and out of my mind like owls or bats, drop in on my sleep
wake me with predatory beaks and claws, calling for my skull’s shut
doors to open wide, to let them in, and to bring them back to life.

Comment: The picture comes from an ash-tray my parents bought at the Cuevas de Altamira, in Santillana del Mar (Cantabria, Santander as it was known then) in 1963. We visited many cave sites in Cantabria including Puente Viesgo, where we saw the sooty hands. Back then, the caves had only just been opened. At Altamira, a young lady came to greet us. We asked her if we might view the caves and she whistled loudly. Her husband came down from the fields where he was working. He took a large iron key from his pocket, opened a huge door set in the rock, and in we went. One light bulb illumined the inner chamber. Only a small segment had been dug out. We reclined on a rocky bank. He doused the electric light, took a torch from his pocket, and covered it with a red pocket handkerchief. He moved this back and forth to imitate firelight and immediately the whole wall came to life and the animals moved in the flickering light. Pure magic. Unforgettable. We were the only people there. Four of us. A few years later, you had to book an appointment and a place. Within six years, the caves were closed as the heat of human bodies raised the cave temperatures and caused the paintings to deteriorate. I was so fortunate, so privileged, to see those paintings in what was almost their pristine state. In 1991, I visited the facsimile of the caves built in Madrid. I paid my money, went in, sat down, and came out crying for all those things we had lost, for all that beauty that had been denied.

Time

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Time
A Theory of the Absurd

I wonder what I’m doing here, so far from home, sitting
at the bar, with my beer before me, my face distorted
in half a dozen fairground mirrors, surrounded by
people half my age, or less, all smoking, cursing, using
foreign forms of meta-language, gestures I no longer recall:
the single finger on the nose, two fingers on the forehead,
the back of the hand rammed against the chin with a sort
of snort of disapproval. It’s way beyond my bedtime, yet
I am held here, captured, body and soul, by foreign rhythms,
unreal expectations of a daily ritual that runs on unbroken
cycles of time: morning brandy, pre-lunch wine and tapas,
home for the mid-day meal, a brief siesta, back to the café
for a post-prandial raising of spirits, more blanco, then back
to work at four and struggle on until seven or eight when
the bar routine begins again with pre-supper tapas and tinto.
Time, comprehended in this new life-cycle, lacks meaning.
Time, in a cycle I have long abandoned, is absurd as well.

On the beach

On the beach

 

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Comment:

A daylight photo and a moonlit poem: I wonder how that came about? I guess we must have been beach-combing in the moonlight. It’s so long ago that I have forgotten the links between photo and poem. That said, Clare and I had spent a couple of weeks together in Santander (Spain) the previous summer, when we got engaged.

‘O bahía de Santander: tan bella bajo la luna’ / “oh Bay of Santander, so beautiful beneath the moon” as the Santander poet Gerardo Diego writes. And yes, Santander under a full moon: Mataleñas, the Segunda Playa, Jardines del Piquío, La Magdalena, the Bay of Santander itself, with Peña Cabarga in the background … there is something about beaches and midnight and moonlight which transcends the warmth of a summer’s day. It’s a sort of Midnight Magic that creates a madness of wonder in the blood. Imagine: all those silver fish, swimming their underwater roads, and rising to the surface, to ripple softly along the moon-path. Wander-lust / wonder-lust: sometimes buried words will not rise to the surface and those oh-so-precious moments of supreme poetry are lost among street lights, advertisements for this and that, street signs and the sort of stop signs that stop you and numb your mind into the dumb acceptance of daily reality: la vie quotidienne.

Memories: will they all vanish with us when we go? Of course they will. Many are fading now as we sit here at our desks, in our offices, before our computer screens. The grey screen hustle and bustle pushes memories, light and bright, back into the darkest corners. Where do I get off the bus, the train? Which number is it? Where is the office? Who am I meeting today and at what time? Did I shut the door behind me? Did I pack the children’s lunch? Did I let the cat out? And if so, out of which bag?

passionless not meaningless
the way I take your hand
tomorrow night not even we
will ever understand
the conflicts of this moonlit beach
the warmth of this sea-licked sand

PS. There, see, I told you I couldn’t read my own handwriting. Kiss / take; night / sand. Oh dear, the old grey cells are playing chess with my mind again: P-K4 / e2-e4 … whatever next? Well, I warned you!!!!

 

Moon Walk

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Moon Walk
Friday Flash Fiction

Full moon over the Bay.  For the second time this month I walk along the wharf and watch the moon’s perfect disc as it creates over the bayside mountain its miracle of geometry: a golden circle balanced on a high triangle of rock.  Moonlight carves its golden pathway across the waves. I want to walk that walkway and end my earthly existence.

At night, in my boarding school, that grey stone prison where I spend interminable days and fearful nights, lying awake, I watch the moonlight as it moves across the dormitory walls.  I lie awake so I will not be caught napping by those stealthy footsteps followed by the rough, punishing hands that still haunt my dreams.

Is that a face I see in the moon?  Is that the grinning visage I see in the beer glass on the Guinness advertisements that adorn the railway tracks behind my parents’ house where I am sometimes permitted to eke out my existence? In boarding school, the masters observe me. The prefects and monitors observe me. The school bullies observe me.  But in geography class, they have never taught me that the lunar body observes me with its unwinking eye.

I watch the moon as it swims in the water.  I sense the movement of the night fish as they shimmer beneath the waves and a shiver moves a chill finger up and down my spine. The moon is the other, the other that faces me, speaks to me, reasons with me, the unfathomable other. But what am I other than one of these cold fish swimming silent beneath the waves?

It’s very quiet tonight down here by the docks. I have been in this city for six weeks now and I still have no friends. There’s always a glass barrier into which I bump at various intervals. I do not leave for another six weeks, that’s what my tickets say anyway, but I am thinking of changing that.

Here, on the wharf I stand in the shadow cast by the Customs House. I taste the bitter salt of homelessness and I know that I will never belong in this world.

I look across the water. How beautiful is the bay beneath the moon.  I look up at the hills from whence cometh my salvation.

My grandfather walks towards me over the waves. He helps me choose stones and pebbles, helps me to fill my pockets with them. He takes me by the hand and gives me courage. He and I walk down the slip way, hand in hand, and then we walk out across the moon path and into the sea.