The image makers


The image makers,

enter the hill and long passage inward.

They bear torches soaked in beeswax

and pine resin, tallow lamps lit with the wicks

of dried whitewood and juniper twigs.

Since waking to read their dreams as spoor,

these creators have bowed before

lichen-browsing bison; solitary cave

and brown bear; the arc-tusked mammoth,

snow-lashed musk-oxen; herds of reindeer

swimming summer rivers, grazers of beechnuts,

moss, and mushrooms; the skittish and serene,

the rut-singers, these potent and dangerous kin.

Those most skilled in shaping stone etch images

with the careful blows of burins, the smoke of rock dust

drifting up in miniature bursts through torchlight.

The painters of dream evoke beasts out of the black

of bone charcoal and manganese, the white clay,

shading the belly-hollows with shadow, raw sienna

and umber. Already alchemists, some heat yellow

ochre in fire to summon the cardinal hues of blood

and grind pigments to powder, blending paints

from quartz, talc, pigment, cave water, and gypsum

to spread on palettes of vertebrae and oyster shell; colors

worked into walls that arc high into domed sanctuaries.

Our ancestors wear necklaces strung from the incisors

of wild, fat-bellied ponies, whose bone cores drip

sweet marrow. Pale yellow stallions and mares,

with hides dappled an Isabella-blue, feed the lamps

a clear-burning fat; give thread

from their stiff, jet manes—hair plaited into cords

to bind the artists’ high scaffolds. A day's work,

a week's—time suspends at the shivering

boundary between flame-light and ricocheting shadow.

As if the stone writhed, drew breath, and shook off

long hibernation—bison (like flames shuddering),

falling horses, and a great black leaping bull.

Once sanctified, what music must have risen from this hall

of flint and limestone: diatonic bone flute, oak

handle rapped on resonant calcite drapery, xylophones

of bear skull and hip bone, bullroarers, and ocarinas

of pierced conch, joined finally by the human cry

and song: voices that reverberate, rise and speak,

make essence from imagination at that empty center:

I, clan, and the otherwise still secret earth.