By Tim Pfau
Perusing a National Geographic article about cave pictures in France and Spain, poet Tim Pfau read that the Stone Age artists sometimes signed their work with outlines of their hands, and that the shapes of these hands suggest that most of the artists were female.
This finding intrigued Pfau, leading his imagination from bison and horses and hunters’ arrows to the delicate hands of the artist.
How to share this image in a poem? The antiquity and venerability of the subject led Pfau to consider a formal poetic structure. He decided to try terza rima, the form that Dante Alighieri introduced to the world in the Divine Comedy.
The pattern is notated as aba, bcb, cdc, et cetera. The rhymes, so fluid in Italian, often give way to near rhymes in English. For an example of the form, here is a tense moment in the hunt in Canto XIII of the Inferno – Robert Pinsky’s translation:
A hunter mindful of the wild boar and the chase
Suddenly hears the beasts and crashing brush.
There on our left came two at a desperate pace,
Naked, torn, so hard-pressed they seemed to crash
Headlong through every tangle the wood contained.
The one in front cried, Come now, come in a rush…
Pfau explains his choice of terza rima: “Dante’s form lends itself to stories that tell a chain of events, sometimes even to the point of causation. The rhyme pattern demands the reader follow along – a series of raised and rewarded anticipations.”
First published in the Arts Journal Canopic Jar
by Tim Pfau
The cave paintings, you see, were rare features
composed over time. Perhaps two hundred
paintings went to walls in ten thousand years.
Each generation a woman ochered
bison, or horses, a rhinoceros,
bear, a dark wooly mammoth that lingered
as visions of hoof and horn, auspicious
promises of life, meat, hide and marrow,
imagery of sustenance, delicious.
Memories and dreams lit by burned tallow,
were flickering visions crawled into earth
pushing light ahead of her to follow.
A contemplation of walls and the girth
of her infant world’s deep uterine heart
commenced, without sun or moon cycles, dearth
of motion or sound but rhythm’s of art,
slow breathing and blood throbbing in her ears.
Then anima rose on limestone rampart.
So her people’s memories survived years
signed in stone registers’ silhouetted
hands, small in size, but with wide spread fingers.
Tim Pfau’s poem, at our far-out date in human time, has helped the artist pull us back into her young feminine studio. Here a closed-in space opens a panorama on the world that sustains life.
Tim Pfau is a retired EMT, Auditor and Union Organizer who now watches grandchildren and tells stories in Salem. His poems have appeared in journals, papers, mixed media shows and anthologies in the U.S., England and southern Africa. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
Review by Vere McCarty