Lovers, Fingers in Dust: Jenny Grassl on Chalk Song, a poetry collaboration by Gale Batchelder, Susan Berger-Jones, & Judson Evans

Chalk Song animates word herds to run with animals to the brink of the unconscious, falling in with momentous consequences.  A collaboration by three poets responding to Werner Herzog’s film The Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a documentary about the discovery of Chauvet Pont d’Arc cave and its trove of Paleolithic art, the book dazzles with a plunge from the edge into turns and twists of the underground, both the physical and psychic space.

Three poems in the first section titled “Voice Prints,” illustrate this movement. The opening poem, “Chauvet Pont d’Arc,” presents the cave using the voice of a speaker heard from within: “I want you to tell only the light in my fur, / bright as fire.” Only what we can see. The next poem, “Mind in the Cave,” draws us deep within. We move from outward to inward, then ultimately onto the written page. In the poem “Paper Sky,” “Ink wounds the sky.” This poem is the drop into pure language, images cascading past their asterisks, across urban and natural elements, surreal and lyrical, setting us up for what is to come in waves.

The layering of voices creates poems like the drawings of the overlapping animals in the caves. The animals do not move in a landscape, they appear to float. The film and the archaeological reality of the preserved record anchor these poems. The contemporary nod toward internet, apps, turnstiles, and other phenomena, meets readers in time, if only momentarily. When we descend in free fall to the cave, with poetry resembling an end of life flashback, we are led, often miraculously, to pause somewhere to reflect.

Shown not only what has been lived, but also dreamed, we encounter poems of lovers, fingers in dust, lard, trade pillows, epoxy, and “whim from the throb.” Past, present, and future convolve. Arriving, we are met by animals we have dreamed since before we were born. We are then delivered into human hands we do not remember. The mystery of our feelings, when presented with ancient art, is projected through and guided by myth and spirit archetypes, sensual yet symbolic stars, sky, bow, arch, dust, song, met sympathetically with mysteries of the poems’ language.  

The poets join the cave artists and stir their stories in a great drum of chalk, blood, and fire —creating a matrix where images take shape and transform. Vivid passages on listening for and observing materials such as ochre and charcoal, offer them as signposts for the imagination traveling through time.

“I learn by being listened for, see / by being sought.”

“child’s rough footprints soothed by falling dust and charcoal, // the little hand placed through / to still the chorus of chalk hooves.”

“Mind in the Cave” is spoken in a lover’s language, addressed to a ‘you’ who can be multi-dimensional—filmmaker, beloved, and the mind itself. This depth of feeling is accomplished throughout the book by an empathic identification with Herzog’s film, the cave art, and the almost magical substances used in its rendering. Though no one may touch the drawings, the ‘I’ in various voices speaks about touch, even when going beyond it.  

“My skull’s pit organ / of heat-seeking doesn’t need to touch / to take samples / / or umbels deeper down / stung honey / and amber, sinuses beyond five fingers’ sense, / unstopped by anything held still // as you kneel to press thighs / and crotch into my contour, learn / my difficult dead language.”

“We would see through our skin     and couldn’t sleep // so much seeping into us     as we broke    into islands //

The speakers of the poems investigate how to experience the cave, leaving with a self profoundly changed. The descent, exploration, revelations, and the return become marks on the page. The film brings us through this cycle, and the book suggests responses.

“You’d forgotten the way out    chambers folded back in the score / to see what you might unleash from me    Swiss Army Knife / panicked    open.”

A thousand question marks silk the darkness. To respond, imagoes emerge, begetting more questions, winged stones always asking versions of Who are we? A poem asks,

“Why must the end always come quickly? And where would a question / remain? All remnants are orphan voice, red thrall, ice tundra psalm.”

Communicating across time, the poems continue along curved walls swelling into animal bodies sketched in the subsided fires of charcoal, over songs composed by time-distant sea creatures  (the composition of limestone). “There / not there,” close up or far away, we learn to see and ask. The words “We are,” “you are,” “I am,” ” play with the answers to questions never fully resolved. Light is hidden and leaks.

Poet and critic John Yau commented on the book’s  “…gorgeous music pulling you into its deep and fantastic crevices.” The voices in the cave call out to us in the present and the folded infinity of our minds. The cave reveals its sprawling chambers, and draws us deeper. This underground seethes with our most essential fears, thrown as shadows to comingle with the exquisite renderings of something that could be desire—inside the art on the walls. Poems flicker meanings into being or snuff them into unknowable dark. Does our presence as readers and second hand observers harm the pristine drawings as much as the real human presence, with just our fingerprint thought? “When I listen to you, / I place an ear to your unbearable mold.”

This book speaks a language of awe, associative. Subverting expected narrative sequencing, it is grounded in natural laws of word electricity. A word generates the next word.  Lines leap synapses and arrive in unexpected territories. “We pose with tulips—just to say tutu turtle, / to say slip-on swallow.” This is a joyful language capable of grief, imaginative enough to render in words the hand drawn beings—horse, deer, ibex, lion, and rhinoceros, lines of poetry rippling with chalk. Poems at once fable, philosophy, and grit, mark us.

The heady heights of the writing experiment require readers to let go of a sense of safe passage through what is known. The adventure demands squeezing the body through some tight spaces to arrive at a spectacular underland, again and again. This comes about by the writers’ juxtaposing daily life and its details grounded in objects with deep time and the song, the unknowable marvel of the cave. How do humans fit between? What language can be used? The stirrings of pre-language in both the cave art and the poetry evoke a memory both disturbing and exciting, like the child’s first inkling that they will be expected to speak. “By journey we have passed this way / of ceiling open to milkweed sky blown / into disk and cloud-dot, pressed spines / onto scaffolds, finger-fluted carbon stain / into daybreak we have passed this way, / embedding serenade into sediment.”

The theme of ‘Song,” set forth in the title, joins many references to music in the text: choruses, muzak, hum, sheet music, river music, a whole note, and silence. All recur as metaphors for communication, something unnamable understood by the body as well as the brain. Reason is not completely absent. As the film reminds us, science has the tools to uncover and preserve.

The collaborators appear to have literally dreamed together for the years of this project. Being present together within the dream brought forth three individual voices reverberating with shared verve. The varying points of view of the speakers of the poems are a challenge, a worthwhile one, to navigate. The polyphony reflects the many voices received by our contemplation of both the art and the film, within the poems. Who are we, if not a many?  Certainty is never guaranteed.

Jenny Grassl‘s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Boston Review, Tupelo Quarterly, Laurel Review,Green Mountains Review, The Massachusetts ReviewLana Turner, Bennington ReviewPuerto del Sol, and other journalsHer work was published in a National Poetry Month feature of Iowa Review.  Tupelo Press selected her manuscript DEER WOMAN IN THE DINING ROOM as a runner-up for its July open reading in 2021. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her poems were featured in a Best of American Poetry blog.