Grotte de Niaux

Labrosse de Toulouse, Grottes de Niaux, 1857

Why did you set out, that day in 1857,
To the caverns?
Were you equipped with desecrating hammer and chisel
To steal stalactites? A simple iconoclast, keen
To turn an easy sou in Foix,
peddling mineral memorabilia at the market.
Or were you just alone? Lonely? Love-lorn?
Crawling from the hot Pyrenean sun
Into the cool womb of the mountain
To soothe an unrequited ardour.
Such questions, lying forever unexplained,
Are numerous as the names, yours amongst them,
daubed on the caves’ walls.
You were there. That is all we know.
Labrosse de Toulouse 1857
As was I, this summer. (I saw your scrawl.)
As were they, fifteen thousand years ago or so, before.
They were nomads, surely,
More familiar with creatures of the plains,
Bison and horse, than the wild denizens of these mountains.
Why else would they choose to adorn the walls
With images of grassland animals?
How else, if not easily familiar,
Could their memory conjure
Likenesses so vivid they might be drawn from life?
Why else, if not from fond recollection,
Would they use the contours of the rock
To curve the haunch and swell of muscle
And let the torches’ flickering quicken
Their pictures to brief animation?
Deep into the darkest recesses they brought creation,
Carting pigment and tools to leave their art,
Revisiting, perhaps, each season
To view again the works within their gallery,
Like any tourist drawn to the latest unveiling.
These were people as like to you, to me
As any other homo sapiens,
Only their era, their environment, shaping their lives differently.
Were you, as I, drawn to their legacy?
Was it, in fact, that which took you deep within les grottes in 1857?
If so, you were not bound as I, guide-hounded, was bound,
To leave no trace not even to steady my progress
With a palm’s sweat left on a rock-face.
The only trace I leave are these:
Lines to tie me to you,
Labrosse de Toulouse,
And them.
We have each left a mark.
There will be others.

David Matthews, January 2017