blackbirdonline journalSpring 2010  Vol. 9  No. 1
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Something of Us to Prove Our Afterlife: Notes on “Ochre”

Some 17,000 years ago a boy about twelve entered a cave in what is now the south of France—why he did so we do not know, for the entrance to the cave had been blocked with boulders for many thousands of years. But we can assume that the boy went there deliberately and not by accident, for he carried a kind of torch that archaeologists sometimes call a juniper fuse—juniper pitch burns long and efficiently. We know the boy was barefoot, for he left a set of footprints on the cave floor. We know, too, that he was on a kind of mission. He sought to view the cave walls, which were decorated with hundreds of painted representations of animals: lions, aurochs, red deer, elk. There were also handprints and abstract drawings, which may have been symbols or may simply have been doodles. We assume the boy did not know their exact meaning, any more than we today know their meaning. But he scrutinized the images carefully. We know this because, as his torch burned down, he would wipe its ash against the cave walls. For 17,000 years this boy was the last visitor to Chauvet Cave, which was the earliest and perhaps the most spectacular painted cave in Europe. The first of its paintings were executed about 31,000 BP and only rediscovered in 1994. When the boy visited the cave, the paintings were already unspeakably old, more distant from his time than we are from the Sumerians and the builders of Stonehenge, and no one had disturbed it for thousands of years. Did the boy stumble upon the cave and then revisit it with his torch to view its wonders? Or was there some ancient legend passed down by his clan or tribe that suggested that the cave existed? Could the boy have been undertaking some sort of initiation ceremony such as that which is often required of contemporary shaman, one that obliged him to descend to the underworld—to Rilke’s “deep mine of souls”? We know only that the boy was there, know only that he was barefoot and young, and know only the items he viewed—the torch wipe of his juniper fuse an Aurignacian equivalent to what would term his “browsing history.”

Let us move forward 16,900 years. Somewhere in the United States, between the Spanish- American and First World Wars, a photo is taken of a quickly assembled group—a Persian cat, a black lab, and a blonde toddler with a pudding-bowl haircut. The boy slumps in a slat-back chair, and a second chair is set aside it to permit the lab and the Persian to pose. The dog and cat, for an instant at least, are still, and a woman who we might presume to be the boy’s mother crouches behind the boy’s chair, peering from between the slats. We see perhaps a third of her face: the nose, an eye, some hair piled atop her head. Her long white skirt drapes the back of the chair. The effect is disconcertingly cubistic, not just because of the fragment of the mother’s face we’re offered, but also because the perspective is awry; we see nothing of the photo’s background, only sepia shadows, and the chairs rest upon an oriental runner carpet, whose snaking rosette patterns lead us to the grouped figures in a way that subverts Renaissance perspective; the pattern of the carpet leads us to think we’re viewing the picture from multiple angles, an effect that is furthered by the position of the boy’s outstretched stockinged feet, which do not run parallel with the angle of the rug. Finally, the left edge of the photo is jagged and frayed, which seems to further the disjointedness of the image itself. Someone—the woman’s husband? another relative?—snaps the photo, which must have required some intricate stage management: how do you pose a cat, especially if it’s being made to sit peacefully next to a dog? And the boy, who looks distracted and lethargic, surely he is not easy to pose either, especially during an era when Kodaks had impossibly lengthy shutter speeds. All of these challenges (and they seem to me artistic challenges as much as practical ones) are suggested after the photo has been processed and returned to the mother, for she has written this on the back: This is our boy, dog, & cat & I Am sticking my nose through the back of the chair. Burns just woke up so he looks kind of messed up. It is an image, to my mind, of astonishing beauty. And it is surely an image of mystery.

What the footprint of the Chauvet boy and the photo share, despite the immensity of time that divides them, is a testament to our persistence. We may not endure beyond our lifetimes, but traces, clues, and enigmas remain of us. Remain to surprise, to rise suddenly out of the ether—as footprints seen by spelunkers in 1994, as they descend to the grotto of Chauvet for the first time in countless millennia; or as an image culled from a pile of old photos on sale in a flea market or at an estate sale and purchased by the great collector of anonymous early photographs, Robert E. Jackson (many of whose discoveries—including the shot of Burns and his mother and pets—now rest in the National Gallery). Ars longa, vita brevis: these lines of Horace have endured in our cultural imaginations because they state one of the most crucial predicaments in the making of any art: transience is our fundamental state, and cave paintings, poems, shots of Burns’s stocking feet, a Cornell Box, The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Children of Paradise, Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier,” and the Johnny Burnette Trio’s cover of “Train Kept A-Rollin’,” among endless other examples, aim to extend our lives—a little or a lot—beyond the seventy-six years that is the current average life expectancy of U.S. citizens. This is, to be sure, a quixotic longing. “We are designed for the moment,” notes Robert Lowell in one of his final poems, a line that is uttered partly in awe and partly as lament. My colleague the poet Mary Ruefle once defined the poetic tradition as “dead people talking about being alive.” In the masterful title poem of her new collection, Secure the Shadow, Claudia Emerson describes nineteenth-century America’s highly popular practice of photographing dead infants, a ritual that seems macabre to us today, especially because the itinerant photographers who specialized in this practice would often need to travel for days in order to photograph their already deceased subjects—who, unlike living infants, would at least be sure to sit still for the long exposure times. The term “secure the shadow” is a brilliantly unsettling metaphor, but Emerson did not invent it; it is, in fact, an oft-used slogan that photographers of the dead employed in their advertisements. Yet the phrase is eerily durable, and it reminds us that all ekphrastic poems are a variety of elegy. We do not write ekphrastic poems in order to describe and praise a painting or a photograph; we write them in order to conjure the dead back into being, which has been the purpose of elegy at least since the time of Callimachus and his fellow poets of the Greek Anthology. Here is Lowell again: “We are poor passing facts, / warned by that to give / each figure in the photograph/his living name.” And here is Roland Barthes in his great study of the photographer’s art, Camera Lucida:

The photo does not call up the past (nothing Proustian in a photograph). The effect it produces upon me is not to restore what has been abolished (by distance, by time), but to attest that what I see indeed existed . . . Always the photograph astonishes me, with an astonishment that endures and renews itself, inexhaustibly. Perhaps this astonishment, this persistence reaches down into the religious substance out of which I am molded; nothing for it. Photography has something to do with resurrection: might we not say of it what the Byzantines said of the image of Christ which impregnated St. Veronica’s napkin: that it was not made by the hand of man.

It is astonishment, for Barthes, that gives each figure in the photograph a living name. It is the chemical that secures that shadow, the catalyst for some alchemical process that causes Dr. Frankenstein’s creation to quicken and twitch as the bolts of electricity sizzle through his suddenly awakened consciousness. We know, too, as Mary Shelley so tirelessly warned us, that this action is the product of hubris, of the arrogance that is on one level intrinsic to the creative process; there is something, “strictly scandalous,” as Barthes puts it, about our desire to forge the graven image and replicate it through either photography or ekphrasis. Indeed, this is part of the image’s appeal; we know all too well that the resurrections we contrive are temporary—but they are not chimerical. And we know, furthermore, that when these images—so momentously but fleetingly quickened—stare back at us, they do so, above all, to remind us of our own mortality, not with the crude obviousness of the various forms of memento mori so popular in the Renaissance and Middle Ages, but with that gaze that elicits a further astonishment. I think of the heartbreaking closing of Rilke’s “Portrait of My Father as a Young Man”—”O quickly disappearing photograph / in my more slowly disappearing hand.”

This brings me to my poetic sequence, “Ochre,” a series of twenty-five sonnets, which happens to close with a poem modeled on Rilke’s great sonnet, inspired by a photo of my own father taken during World War II—you see his corporal’s stripes; he wears a military cap. His features are uncannily both like mine and like the two grandsons whom he never knew. The sonnets of “Ochre” make up one section of my new collection of poetry. The book is entitled World Tree, but at one point I half-seriously considered entitling it Dead Formats. Again and again, almost unintentionally, the poems seemed to be about modes of communication and art-making that now seem lost to the dustbin of history: cave paintings, anonymous Kodak and Polaroid snapshots, shamanic rituals; 78, 33⅓, and 45 rpm records; spirit photography, cassettes, IBM Selectric typewriters; WordPerfect, WordStar, printed books. The subject of the collection was not so much the stories we tell ourselves or the elegies that console us—although these always compel me—but a kind of archaeology of astonishment, our collective amazement at discovering, if one can read the ruins and the shards correctly (and poetry is an immensely useful tool for interpreting them), that there can remain, as the opening section of “Ochre” insists, “something of us to prove our afterlife.”

“Ochre” was inspired by two complementary forms for visual art: cave paintings and other examples of Paleolithic and Neolithic artifacts; and anonymous photographs from the early part of the twentieth century, many of which were gathered by the great collector of such work, Robert Jackson, and displayed at the National Gallery in a breathtaking show entitled “The Art of the American Snapshot, 1888–1978.” These two varieties of work made for a kind of thematic rhyming that I initially tried to express by alternating sections about the photos with sections about cave art. I decided to make the sequence a series of sonnets because it is a form especially congenial for expressing this alternation and juxtapositioning—rhyming words to compliment the rhyming of the two kinds of subjects that inspired the sequence. As the sequence progressed, the juxtapositions became more troubled and fraught. A poem on one of the earliest depictions of the human figure, the “Killed Man” on the walls of Cougnac Cave, who is depicted bristling with spears, summoned up for me those sadly indelible images of Abu Ghraib Prison. Photos of exquisitely worked Clovis spear points—the technology which likely caused the mastodon and the wooly mammoth to go extinct—brought to mind a comic but chilling image of Robert Oppenheimer’s toddler son with his father’s pipe in his mouth. (Los Alamos and the site where the Clovis spear points were first discovered are only a stone’s throw away from one another.) As the sequence continued, I also found myself writing about personal photos from my own childhood, images that now seem as distant and strange as the Kodak snapshots or the cave art images. I thought it fitting that a sequence which tries to evidence our collective afterlives should end with the hope or suggestion of some sort of personal afterlife in the form of generational continuity—thus the sequence ends with sections devoted to sonogram images of my sons and the aforementioned military photo of my father, who died in 1990.

Why does a person seek to write a longer poem or sequence? And what distinguishes a sequence from a long poem in sections? These are questions that have always perplexed me, although I might flatter myself by claiming the answers to these questions lie within the text of “Ochre” itself. A twenty-five-page poem is a little on the long side, certainly, but is pretty puny in comparison to The Cantos, The Maximus Poems, or Paterson. And I, for one, find the behemoth modernist epics of this ilk mostly impenetrable. Yet there is a genre of what might be called “medium-long” contemporary poems and sequence which I find immensely compelling, poems in the ten- to fifty-page vicinity, among them efforts such as Larry Levis’ “The Widening Spell of the Leaves,” Lorine Niedecker’s “Paen to Place,” George Oppen’s “Of Being Numerous,” Theodore Roethke’s “The Lost Son,” James McMichael’s Four Good Things, James Schuyler’s “Hymn to Life,” and Anne Carson’s “The Glass Essay.” This is a list of poets who have very little in common aesthetically, but their poems differ from the compulsive grandiosity of the modernists’ epic. The poems on my list seem to derive from something other than the Poundian compulsion to explain every damn thing or Stevens’s desire to formulate a secular theology. Instead, the poems on my list seem to arise from an obsession and a wound, from a realm where ideas and some irretrievable loss seem impossible to distinguish. Thus, Roethke in “The Lost Son” knows only that he must find his father, and must descend to some loamy underworld and be reborn in order to find him; thus Oppen must doggedly survey the streets and boroughs of New York City in order to heal the rift between our isolated selves and the alienated masses; thus McMichael must tell us about the history of home architecture in Pasadena and the industrial revolution before he can fully and finally mourn the death of his mother. Thus Niedecker in her Collected Works must examine unceasingly that Wisconsin river and flood plain where she was “born / in swale and swamp and sworn / to water.” I have long loved such poems, and they have inspired my own long sequences, among them a thirty-five-sectioned opus called “Mystery Train,” which is about recent American history as seen through the lens of rock and roll music; and a twenty-five-page sequence called “Crayola,” in which childhood memory is explored partly though a series of slightly hyper-thyroidal sonnets and partly through various rubrics, notes, sidebars, and even cartoon balloons. But these sequences, unlike the sequences and long poems I have spoken so admiringly about, seem to have sprung from intention rather than necessity and obsession.

But because “Ochre” is newer and more militantly elegiac, I would like to harbor the notion that it somehow does spring from necessity and obsession—not least because writing its poems helped to partially cure me of a mysterious malady. In the summer of 2009 I began to experience a series of mystifying and terrifying panic attacks; during every one I feared that I was about to die. These episodes would arise without warning or explanation: nearly every night I’d wake drenched in sweat and certain I was perishing of a heart attack or a cerebral hemorrhage. For weeks on end I could not leave the house. Clinical depression, the affliction that so hobbled my father and grandmother, and which hospitalized them many times, is a condition I know all too well, and over the years I’ve been treated for it with a panoply of medications and by scores of shrinks. But the panic and anxiety attacks were immensely different from the lassitude and fog of depression. I was not outside myself or indifferent to myself in the way that depressives so often complain of being; I was mercilessly, terrifyingly inside myself, watching with alarm as my body revved up to the red zone—my heart raced; I’d dizzily try to stand before needing to sit down; I’d often feel unable to speak. And nothing seemed to quell the attacks. A combination of my wife, my children, my friends, my shrinks, and Xanax helped in time to end these events. But my writing, which had been sporadic in the previous two years, seemed also to have an essential role in my recuperation. When my symptoms dragged on and showed no sign of abating, I suddenly went on a writing binge—lots of individual poems, but most importantly I began the poems of “Ochre.” No, “Ochre” did not save me, resurrect me, or transform me. But working on the project helped me to explain myself, even though whatever the “self” of David Wojahn may be was by no means the subject of the poem. As I wrote the individual sections, I felt, in some small but resonant way, that the record of our species will persist, that our vanishing, however inevitable, can at the very least be slowed if not arrested, that our works will be erased not in an instant, but through a slow and perhaps even glorious erosion that will allow us to linger if not endure. At several points the momentum of the poem stalled; I’d find myself bereft of images, of ideas, of whatever might pass for inspiration. But always some new image or inspiration would arrive to spur me forward—the bizarre “thoughtography” Polaroids, which Ted Serios seemingly inscribed by mental energy alone; a Kodak of my father and me, circa 1959, fighting with plastic swords and fencing masks beside our summer cabin as our Welsh Terrier barked and lunged at us; Jean Valentine’s majestic poem about our distant ancestor, “Lucy,” and “February 15—Dordogne”; Jody Gladding’s wise and searching poetic sequence about the Paleolithic cave art at Bernifal.

Human experience in the twenty-first century is made up of a terrible and relentless onrush of images and sensation; consciousness, as Ashbery’s poems so brilliantly remind us, is a white-noise blur, a madly kinetic jumble of insight and absurdity, of song lyrics, slogans, outdated slang, of pop culture references that are helplessly affixed to our memories, of the heaped detritus of experience—and consciousness, above all, is rarely linear and it is never sensible. How bewildering it is, and how suddenly it ends. The poems of “Ochre” are finally about a different sort of consciousness, one that derives from an earlier stage of human development, a stage when stillness and contemplation were perhaps more fierce and more comprehensible. The poems—and this is why to write them was in some small way consoling and restorative—are twenty-five pilgrimage sites, twenty-five altars to unknown deities, twenty-five vigils of astonishment. They are something of us, and perhaps something of me, formed to evidence our afterlife—in this they are like all poems, be they good, bad, or indifferent.  end

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