Sunday, September 27, 2009

Why Speleology? In Answer a Poem by RPW


At cliff-foot where great ledges thrust, the cave
Debouches, soil level and rank, where the stream,
Ages back, had come boiling forth, and now from alluvial earth
The last of old virgin forest trees rise to cliff-height,
And at noon twilight reigns. No one comes.

I must have been six when I first found the cave-mouth
Under ledges moss-green, and moss-green the inner dark.
Each summer I came, in twilight peered in, crept further,
Till one summer all I could see was a gray
Blotch of light far behind. Ran back. Didn't want to be dead.

By twelve, I was bolder. Besides, now had me a flashlight.
The whole night before couldn't sleep. Daylight. Then breakfast.
The cave wandered on, roof lower and lower except
Where chambers of darkness rose and stalactites down-stabbed
To the heart of my light. Again, lower.

I cut off the light. Knew darkness and depth and no Time.
Felt the cave-cricket crawl up an arm. Switched light on
To see the lone life there, the cave-cricket pale
As a ghost on my brown arm. I thought: They are blind.
Crept on. Heard, faintly, below

A silken and whispering rustle. Like what? Like water--so swung
The light to one side. I had crawled out
A ledge under which, far down, far down, the water yet channeled
And sang to itself, and answered my high light with swollen
White bursts of bubble. Light out, unmoving, I lay,

Lulled as by song in a dream, knowing
I dared not move in a darkness so absolute.
I thought: This is me. Thought: Me--who am I? Felt
Heart beating as though to a pulse of darkness and earth, and thought
How would it be to be here forever, my heart

In its beat, part of all. Part of all--
But I woke with a scream. The flashlight,
It slipped, but I grabbed it. Had light--
And once more looked down the deep slicing and sluicing
Of limestone where water winked, bubbles like fish-eyes, a song like terror.

Years later, past dream, I have lain
In darkness and heard the depth of that unending song,
And hand laid to heart, have once again thought: This is me.
And thought: Who am I? And hand on my heart, wondered
What would it be like to be, in the end, part of all.

And in darkness have even asked: Is this all? What is all?

--Robert Penn Warren (1979)

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