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UD takes sections of Judith Thurman’s marvelous 2008 New Yorker essay about paleolithic art caves, changes a word here and there, and makes a poem.

(There’s a new 3D Werner Herzog film about one of the caves.)



As the painters were learning
to crush hematite, and to sharpen
embers of Scotch pine for their charcoal
(red and black the primary colors),
the last Neanderthals were still living
on the vast steppe that was Europe.

The scratches made by a standing bear
have been overlaid with a palimpsest
of signs or drawings, and one has to wonder
if cave art didn’t begin with a recognition
that bear claws were an expressive tool
for engraving a record — poignant and indelible —
of a stressed creature’s passage through the dark.

“As we trailed the artists deeper and deeper,
noting where they’d broken off stalagmites
to mark their path, we found signs that seemed to say,
‘We’re sanctifying a finite space in an infinite universe.’ ”

Halfway home to the mortal world,
we paused and turned off our torches.
It takes the brain a few minutes to accept
the totality of the darkness — your sight
keeps grasping for a hold.
Whatever the art means, you understand,
at that moment, that its vessel is both a womb and a sepulchre.

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