Thanks to Clayton Eshleman and the Ringling School of Art, Penelope and I had chance this past June to go along on the tour of the caves in Dordogne, best described at this site: http://ecfans.com/ringling.htm. My action as “guest lecturer” was altogether improvised, just that I know very little of such materials and Clayton a great deal indeed. Therefore I spoke of the parallels of “knowing,” of what the imagination has seemingly as function and directive — and how that might be felt to correspond with what our predecessors left us as presence. It was altogether a fascinating time — the “outside” so hauntingly lovely in the freshness of early summer, and the “inside,” with its womblike enclosures, so humanly familiar. In any case, this sequence is fact of the experience, written then and there, a very personal testament.
So much of my childhood seems
to have been spent in rooms —
at least in memory, the shades
pulled down to make it darker, the
shaft of sunlight at the window’s edge.
I could hear the bees then gathering
outside in the lilacs, the birds chirping
as the sun, still high, began to drop.
It was summer, in heaven of small town,
hayfields adjacent, creak and croak
of timbers, of house, of trees, dogs,
elders talking, the lone car turning some
distant corner on Elm Street
way off across the broad lawn.
We dug caves or else found them,
down the field in the woods. We had
shacks we built after battering
at trees, to get branches, made tepee-
like enclosures, leafy, dense and in-
substantial. Memory is the cave
one finally lives in, crawls on
hands and knees to get into.
If Mother says, don’t draw
on the book pages, don’t color
that small person in the picture, then
you don’t unless compulsion, distraction
dictate and you’re floating off
on wings of fancy, of persistent seeing
of what’s been seen here too, right here,
on this abstracting page. Can I use the green,
when you’re done? What’s that supposed to be,
says someone. All the kids crowd closer
in what had been an empty room
where one was trying at least
to take a nap, stay quiet, to think
of nothing but oneself.
Back into the cave, folks,
and this time we’ll get it right?
Or, uncollectively perhaps, it was
a dark and stormy night he
slipped away from the group, got
his mojo working and before
you know it had that there
bison fast on the wall of the outcrop.
I like to think they thought,
though they seemingly didn’t, at least
of something, like, where did X put the bones,
what’s going to happen next, did she, he or it
really love me? Maybe that’s what dogs are for,
but there’s no material surviving
pointing to dogs as anyone’s best friend, alas.
Still here we are no matter, still hacking away,
slaughtering what we can find to, leaving
far bigger footprints than any old mastadon.
You think it’s funny? To have prospect
of being last creature on earth or at best a
company of rats and cockroaches?
You must have a good sense of humor!
Anyhow, have you noticed how everything’s
retro these days? Like, something’s been here before —
or at least that’s the story. I think one picture is worth
a thousand words and I know one cave fits all sizes.
Much like a fading off airplane’s
motor or the sound of the freeway
at a distance, it was all here clearly enough
and no one goes lightly into a cave,
even to hide. But to make such things
on the wall, against such obvious
limits, to work in intermittent dark,
flickering light not even held steadily,
all those insistent difficulties.
They weren’t paid to, not that we know of,
and no one seems to have forced them.
There’s a company there, tracks
of all kinds of people, old folks
and kids included. Were they having
a picnic? But so far in it’s hardly
a casual occasion, flat on back with
the tools of the trade necessarily
close at hand. Try lying in the dark
on the floor of your bedroom and roll
so as you go under the bed and
ask someone to turn off the light.
Then stay there, until someone else comes.
Or paint up under on the mattress the last
thing you remember, dog’s snarling visage
as it almost got you, or just what you do
think of as the minutes pass.
Hauling oneself through invidious
strictures of passage, the height
of the entrance, the long twisting
cramped passage, mind flickers, a lamp
lit flickers, lets image project
what it can, what it will, see there
war as wanting, see life as a river,
see trees as forest, family as
others, see a moment’s respite,
hear the hidden bird’s song, goes
along, goes along constricted, self-
hating, imploded, drags forward
in imagination of more, has no
time, has hatred, terror, power.
No light at the end of the tunnel.
The guide speaks of music, the
stalactites, stalagmites making a
possible xylophone, and some
Saturday night-like hoedown
businesses, what, every three
to four thousand years? One
looks and looks and time
is the variable, the determined
as ever river, lost on the way,
drifted on, laps and continues.
The residuum is finally silence,
internal, one’s own mind constricted
to focus like any old camera
fixed in its function.
Like all good questions,
this one seems without answer,
leaves the so-called human
behind. It makes its own way
and takes what it’s found
as its own and moves on.
It’s time to go to bed
again, shut the light off,
settle down, straighten
the pillow and try to sleep.
Tomorrow’s another day
and that was all thousands
and thousands of years ago,
myriad generations, even
the stones must seem changed.
The gaps in time,
the times one can’t account for,
the practice it all took
even to make such images,
the meanings still unclear
though one recognizes
the subject, something has
to be missed, overlooked.
No one simply turns on a light.
Oneself becomes image.
The echo’s got in front,
begins again what’s over
just at the moment it was done.
No one can catch up, find
some place he’s never been to
with friends he never had.
This is where it connects,
not meaning anything one
can know. This is where
one goes in and that’s what’s to find
beyond any thought or habit,
an arched, dark space, the rock,
and what survives of what’s left.
Robert Creeley (b. 1926) is a New Englander by birth and disposition although he has spent most of his life in other parts of the world including Guatemala, British Columbia, France and Spain. In the 1950s he taught at Black Mountain College and also edited the Black Mountain Review, a crucial gathering place for alternative senses of writing at that time. Charles Olson, then rector of the college, Robert Duncan and Edward Dorn are among the company he met there. Subsequently he taught at the University of New Mexico and in 1966 went to the State University of New York at Buffalo, where he was the first director of the Poetics Program, begun in 1990 with colleagues Charles Bernstein, Susan Howe, Dennis Tedlock and Raymond Federman. In 2003 he joined Brown University’s Graduate Program in Literary Arts as a Distinguished Professor of English.
Although most identified as a poet (For Love, Pieces, Windows and Selected Poems are examples of his many collections), he has written a significant body of prose including a novel, The Island, and a collection of stories, The Gold Diggers. His critical writings are published in The Collected Essays of Robert Creeley and his correspondence with Charles Olson is now in ten volumes continuing (The Complete Correspondence).
He is also known for the diversity of his collaborations with artists outside his own authority. For example, he has records with two decisive jazz composer/musicians, the bassist Steve Swallow (Home) and the late saxophonist Steve Lacy (Futurities). Most recently he collaborated with the alternative mix rock group Mercury Rev (“The Hum is Coming from Her/So There” and “I Dreamt”). Otherwise he has worked for more than four decades with visual artists — Robert Indiana, Jim Dine, R.B. Kitaj, Francesco Clemente, John Chamberlain, Alex Katz and Susan Rothenberg among them.
Despite he has been emphasized as a master of formal possibilities, his art has no impulse to enclose itself in the literary solely, or to move apart from the common terms of the given world. Coming of age in the years of the Second World War, he feels his world has been one insistently involved with the unrelieved consequence of being literally human–the cultish “existentialism” of his youth grown universal.
The painting of Robert Creeley is by Francesco Clemente.