Way Back in the Paleolithic by Liz Lochhead
Way back in the Paleolithic was published in Gutter 13 (Autumn 2015). Liz Lochhead is an award-winning poet and playwright. She was appointed as the National Poet for Scotland in 2011. Her most recent poetry collection, Fugitive Colours, was published in June 2016.
What do you know
In them Caves of Lascaux
Thirty seven thousand – thirty seven long thousand! – years ago
Way back in pre-history
This was already the essential mystery
Art, art, what is it for?
To create is to bring into being what never existed before.
It’s that elemental
That binds us together as part of the tribe –
Every last sister, brother, father, mother,
Every born child,
Every man and every woman
Needed them animals on the cave walls
To define them as human.
Way, way back and long ago
In the caves of
Chauvet, Altamira and Lascaux
Those first – not-yet artists – had to face
That blank wall that only Nature had so far had a go at
And somehow put it in its place.
So they bravely turned their hand to it,
Stencilling in its outline with the spatter and the spark
Of the spat and blown pigment
That drew so clearly where their hands both were and weren’t
And they made their mark.
In the Cueva de las Manos
In the caves of Chauvet, Altamira and Lascaux
Already this fundamental inclination
That irresistible drive pro creation
Forcing those folk to fashion
Some form of ritual and religion
To carve and cut and gouge for hours and hours,
To laboriously smooth
And fashion the first art
In their fetishes of priapic phalluses,
In their amulets of big-bellied round-hipped split-vulva-ed Venuses
Of clay, bone, antler, stone
For they knew man could not
Live by meat alone.
No they were
Not just hunters
Tasked with bring home the bacon
With a mammoth undertaking!
Being human meant they
Must, they must, the must
Make images of aurochs, bulls and bison,
Fierce felines, fleet equines,
Bear and deer
From ochre and oxides and charcoal and mineral pigments,
From the life, from observation
And from imagination’s figments.
Because their truest impulse was
To capture something
Soon running wild on the walls were
Hordes of realer-than-real magical creatures
The flickering torches in the firelight
Transformed to the first motion pictures.
And did they dance?
Dance? They danced themselves to trance.
How do we know?
The bone flutes we found, the stone drumsticks tell us so.
In the firelight, in the cave,
All the other ordinary passing glories
Were the fugitive music and the stories
Art, what was it for?
To bring into being what never existed before.