Tuesday, July 26, 2022

The vault of light as the sun goes down

Philip Terry is an academic at Exeter specialising in the Oulipo and experimental writing - he recently edited The Penguin Book of Oulipo and described the experience in an article for The Irish Times. Carcanet have recently published his new book The Lascaux Notebooks, which they describe as 'the oldest poetry yet discovered, as written down or runed in the Ice Age in Lascaux and other caves in the Dordogne, and now translated – tentatively – into English for the first time.' 

In his introduction, Terry claims to have come across the name of a local poet, Jean-Luc Champerret, while on holiday in the Charente. He was given a box of the poet's papers, which took some opening but were found to contain a set of notebooks. In these he found what appeared to be modernist poetry derived from 'diagrams reminiscent of Chinese calligraphy.' Champerret, Terry learned, had been sent into the Lascaux caves soon after their discovery in 1940 by his Resistance cell, in the hope that they might prove a good hideout. Getting there before the archaeologists, he noticed that some of the marks on the walls resembled a kind of code. Speculating that they were a form of Ice Age poetry, he noted them down and then over time managed to produce translations them by imagining the signs' likely meaning. Initial versions were simple grids of words but, like a translator from ancient Chinese, he added some connectors and imaginative interpretation to render them as French poems.



If Ice Age people had poetry, there would probably have been frequent mention of their landscape in it. The extract above from the list of Lascaux signs used in these poems includes markings interpreted as meaning forest tracks, rivers, mountains and caves. They are of course reminiscent of Chinese ideograms, which were so important for Ezra Pound and which I've discussed here before as natural signs - see 'Climbing Omei Mountain' and 'Water falling, drop by drop'. They also reminded me of the poetry many of us find in studying the legends of Ordnance Survey maps! 

I'll give one example here of a Lascaux poem, but Terry's books is pretty long - 400 pages - so I can't really do his whole project justice. The 3 x 3 grid poem I've reproduced at the start of this post is rendered as follows:

                                light              sun             night

                                birdsong       birdsong     waterfall

                                track             river           mountains 

This is turned initially into simple sentences with the addition of a few words, e.g. line two: 'the song / of the birds / by the waterfall.' The text then undergoes two more transformations (which it is tempting to describe as Oulipian). First a version is made with slightly extended vocabulary - 'the bright song / of the birds / by the waterfall'. Finally, inspired by this, a more recognisable poem is presented: 'The vault of light / as the sun goes down / before nightfall // suffused by the song / of the birds / by the waterfall's torrent // the twisting track / following the river / winds into the distance.' 

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