Poetry Sunday: Creation

The third installment of Daylight Atheism’s Poetry Sunday is some time overdue. Once again, I’d like to welcome back Philip Appleman, whose contribution this week is the poem “Creation”. (I will feature other poets – but Professor Appleman has written so many beautiful works, I can’t resist sharing them with my readers.)

The Lascaux cave complex of southwestern France is famous for its cave paintings: hundreds of strikingly lifelike depictions of horses, cattle, bison, stags, and other animals. Painted during the Upper Paleolithic period, over 15,000 years ago, these images are testament to the fact that our distant ancestors were human beings like us, with rich, inner mental lives like our own. Though vast gulfs of time separate us from them, and though we live in a world almost unimaginably changed from that of the Lascaux artists, these people, too, sought to represent their world through symbols and imagery. What thoughts were going through their heads when they dabbed ochre and charcoal onto the stone? Were they seeking success in the hunt through the power of sympathetic magic? Were they trying to understand the world through representation, creating a microcosm of the things they encountered every day to better study them? Or were they, as Philip Appleman imagines in this poem, creating a sort of time capsule – a message about who and what they were, left for the benefit of their far-distant descendants?

Professor Appleman is the Distinguished Professor Emeritus of the Department of English at Indiana State University, the author of seven volumes of poetry and numerous fiction and nonfiction books, including the widely used Norton Critical Edition, Darwin. His poetry has won many awards, including a fellowship in poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Castagnola Award from the Poetry Society of America, the Friend of Darwin Award from the National Center for Science Education, and the Humanist Arts Award of the American Humanist Association. His work has been published in Harper’s Magazine, The Nation, The New Republic, The New York Times, and elsewhere. His latest book is New and Selected Poems, 1956-1996, from which I take today’s poem. It is reprinted here by permission.

Creation
for the discoverer of the Grotte de Lascaux, Marcel Ravidat, 1923-1995

On all the living walls
of this dim cave,
soot and ochre, acts of will,
come down to us to say:

This is who we were.
We foraged here in an age of ice,
and, warmed by the fur of wolves,
felt the pride of predators
going for game.
Here we painted the strength of bulls,
the grace of deer, turned life into art,
and left this testimony on our walls.
Explorers of the future, see how,
when our dreams reach forward,
your wonder reaches back, and we embrace.
When we are long since dust,
and false prophets come,
then don’t forget that we were your creators.
So build your days
on what you know is real, and remember
that nothing will keep your lives alive
but art – the black and ochre visions
you draw inside your cave
will honor your lost tribe,
when explorers in some far future
marvel at the paintings on your walls.

Other posts in this series:

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    So build your days
    on what you know is real, and remember
    that nothing will keep your lives alive
    but art

    Sweet — but — it cannot be anything but poetic license, surely, to suppose such early paintings to have been humanist in nature. It’s a nice thought, but it could never be more than an unlikely possibility.

    I suppose you could consider it, not as a descriptor of the message given, but as a descriptor of the message taken.

  • http://aloadofbright.wordpress.com tobe38

    This poem is wonderful – one of those you can just read over and over, like playing a song on a loop.

    Lynet said:

    I suppose you could consider it, not as a descriptor of the message given, but as a descriptor of the message taken.

    I agree. While I don’t subscribe to the “postmodern” view that the author of the poem is dead and that the reader is the true artist (any more, I was spoon fed that rubbish as a literature student), art is a lot to do with the message taken, as you say.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    I don’t think it’s utterly implausible that early humans created cave paintings and other works of art as a message to their descendants. Unlikely, yes, but far from impossible. People of every culture throughout history have sought to leave tangible evidence of themselves that would persist after their lives had ended – even the stone walls of Pompeii had graffiti carved into them. It seems as if the desire to be remembered is a near-universal aspect of the human condition.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    I don’t think it’s utterly implausible that early humans created cave paintings and other works of art as a message to their descendants. Unlikely, yes, but far from impossible. People of every culture throughout history have sought to leave tangible evidence of themselves that would persist after their lives had ended – even the stone walls of Pompeii had graffiti carved into them. It seems as if the desire to be remembered is a near-universal aspect of the human condition.

  • anti-nonsense

    it’s a beautiful poem. Thanks Adam.


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