Ruben de la Vialle, 1660

by David Barber

Graffiti found amongst the prehistoric paintings
of the Niaux caves

You laugh, you laugh, but I have made a mark
which will outlast your lacy ruffs and sharp
investment in this vineyard or that mill.
L’âge aux limites floues, the middle years
were nothing to a gallivanting youth
impatient to make his way in the world.

You know the Aurienne, on the shoulder
of the Pyrenees? Tavern talk there pricked
my interest in the caves at Niaux.
A good Catholic, my guide crossed himself
and would not enter, though the Underworld
bodes no more than shadows and forgetting.

It is not blasphemous to liken it
to stepping from the noon glare into church:
The same coolness and quiet, the echo
of a cough. It grew colder further in,
the rock slippery, just a swaying light
parting the dark ahead from that behind.

Do not picture a mine dug out by men
but a black bowel coiled inside the earth;
near half an hour of stooping and splashing
and squeezing through fistulas in the rock
to that last cave, where on the roof and walls,
in the wavering glow of the lanthorn

animals stampeded all around me.
There, by some conceit of chance, the rock swelled
to flesh out the hump of a bull’s shoulder;
and here, the cold handprint of the dauber
of pagan beasts fit my palm like a glove;
where I left my mark, with steel in the stone.

Thus a blade can prove a man’s existence
as well as ending it. You mock, you mock,
but I have bent the knee in Notre Dame
and seen that gravestones fall and grass grows long
on greater names than ours. Posterity
alone will know if words are enough.

Niaux bisons
Niaux bison

Copyright © 2013 by David Barber

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