Sunday, February 07, 2010

`Not a Place to Stare Into'

Knowing of my debt to Guy Davenport, a reader alerted me to “The Shaft,” a poem Charles Tomlinson dedicated to the author of The Geography of the Imagination:

“The shaft seemed like a place of sacrifice:
You climbed where spoil heaps from the hill
Spilled out into a wood, the slate
Tinkling underfoot like shards, and then
You bent to enter: a passageway:
Cervix of stone: the tick of waterdrops,
A clear clepsydra: and squeezing through
Emerged into cathedral space, held-up
By a single rocksheaf, a gerbe
Buttressing-back the roof. The shaft
Opened beneath it, all its levels
Lost in a hundred feet of water.
Those miners—dust, beards, mattocks—
They photographed seventy years ago,
Might well have gone to ground here, pharaohs
Awaiting excavation, their drowned equipment
Laid-out beside them. All you could see
Was rock reflections tunneling the floor
That water covered, a vertical unfathomed,
A vertigo that dropped through centuries
To the first who broke into these fells:
The shaft was not a place to stare into
Or not for long: the adit you entered by
Filtered a leaf-light, a phosphorescence,
Doubled by water to a tremulous fire,
And signalling you back to the moist door
Into whose darkness you had turned aside
Out of the sun of an unfinished summer.”

A few notes: “clepsydra” is a water clock (thus, “the tick of waterdrops”); “gerbe,” “a firework throwing a shower of sparks”; “adit,” a horizontal entrance to a mine. “The Shaft” is the title poem in Tomlinson’s 1978 collection – a date relatively early in Davenport’s writing career, three years before he published The Geography of the Imagination. This is a tentative exploration of a poem I have only just read and found intriguing, one that echoes with a story, “Robot,” from Davenport’s first fiction collection, Tatlin! It describes the discovery of prehistoric cave paintings in France in the early days of World War II:

“Next morning they found the figure of the hunter in the shaft at the back of the cave, a mere stick of a man, bird-headed, ithyphallic, childish. Beside him is a carved bird on a staff. His spear has gored a bison, whose bowels are spilling out. To the left of the hunter is a rhinoceros.”

A clue to Davenport’s link to Tomlinson’s poem “Cervix of stone.” Davenport returned often in his fiction and nonfiction to the epochal discovery of the cave paintings. He characterized modernism as the rediscovery of the archaic and argued that Picasso, Pound and Joyce were unimaginable without it. They were “artists who were performing the great feat of awakening an archaic sense of the world.'' Ancient culture is “the great archeological midden of history,” and the modernists are its chief archeologists. In “The Symbol of the Archaic” Davenport writes:

“The archaic is one of the greatest inventions of the twentieth century.”

In Tomlinson’s poem, one enters not a prehistoric cave but an abandoned mine, and returns to the subterranean birthplace (thus, “cervix”) of art. There’s a suggestion of religious ritual – “a place of sacrifice,” “You bent to enter,” “cathedral space.” A place of birth, ritual, death. Not a place to linger. The pleasing echoes of “vertical” and “vertigo.” Tomlinson suggests we enter the cave for “grounding,” a shaded place to stand, but we must return to the “unfinished summer.” Near the conclusion of the essay cited above Davenport writes:

“The nearest model for a world totally alive was the archaic era of our own culture, pre-Aristotelian Greece and Rome. From that world we began to feel terribly alienated, as the railroad tracks went down and the factories up, as our sciences began to explain the mechanics of everything and the nature of nothing.”

[On another level Tomlinson’s poem also reminded me of this song.]

1 comment:

ghostofelberry said...

i can't access the youtube clip, perhaps because i'm in Germany. However, the poem reminds me of another song:

i think Davenport was right about the ancient Modernists - Joyce, Eliot, Pound, and also Wittgenstein strike me as archaic types, which is why they see the modern world with such shocked, fascinated clarity. Pound especially looks like something from 5th Century Athens in his old age.