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Introduction: Juniper Fuse

Written by

Clayton Eshleman
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This is a book that envisions and examines some of the origins and development of imagination as recorded in cave wall imagery (for the most part in southwestern France) [1] during the last European Ice Age, roughly between 50,000 and 10,000 years ago. It will examine the theories of others as well as propose its own two-part thesis as to why such imagery occurred when and where it did. The metaphorical unfolding that can be traced back to a 30,000-year-old Aurignacian engraving of a horse head and neck across which a vulva of equal size has been superimposed is as startling and fresh as Allen Ginsberg's "hydrogen jukebox."

To follow poetry back to Cro-Magnon metaphors is not only to it real bedrock--a genuine back wall--but to gain a connection to the continuum during which imagination first flourished. My becoming aware of the caves led to the recognition that, as an artist, I belong to a pre-tradition that includes the earliest nights and days of soul-making.

This book is also an attempt to answer the first question that the science writer Alexander Marshack fired at me when he walked into our kitchen in the French Dordogne in the spring of 1974:

"What is a poet doing in the caves?"


In 1980, Gary Snyder wrote to me:

The '50s-'80s was the discovery of the depths of Far Eastern religious thought for Occidentals. The '90s should be the period of the beginning of the discovery of the actual shape of early Homo Sapiens consciousness: for both Occidental and Oriental seekers. A profound new step. Knowing more of the Paleolithic imagination is to know the "Palo Ecology" of our own minds. Planetwide human mental health in the twenty-first century may depend on arriving at these understandings. For it is in the deep mind that wilderness and the unconsciousness become one, and in some half-understood but very profound way, our relation to the outer ecologies seems conditioned by our inner ecologies. This is a metaphor, but it is also literal.


In 1955, Charles Olson wrote two letters to the young poet Ed Dorn that he then revised as A Bibliography on America for Ed Dorn. I read this compilation in the late 1960s. At one point, Olson argued:

PRIMARY DOCUMENTS. And to hook on here is a lifetime of assiduity. Best thing to do is to dig one thing or place or man until you yourself know more abt that than is possible to any other man. It doesn't matter whether it's Barbed Wire or Pemmican or Paterson or Iowa. But exhaust it. Saturate it. Beat it.

And then U KNOW everything else very fast: one saturation job (it might take 14 years). And you're in, forever. [2]

Olson's admonition is to Dorn as a novice, and rings with a certitude that at sixty-four I can only partially share. But it planted a seed in me for the writing of this book. My aim is not to know more than "is possible to any other man," but to make use of a pluralistic approach that may result in a fuller "reading" of Upper Paleolithic imagination than archaeological or literary approaches alone might yield. I don't want to engage the caves in an ahistorical void or to strip-mine them for "poetic" materials. Ice Age imagery, sealed off for thousands of years, re-emerges as a nearly disintegrated Atlantis in the twentieth century, offering a basis for the "hidden wealth" attributed by different cultures to the underworld. In a century rife with alienation and hopelessness, Upper Paleolithic imagination implies that we belong to an undifferentiated paradise, a primordial underworld of unchanging perpetuity.


Before leaving for France in 1973, I had attempted to bring my writing up to that point to a close in the following summation at the end of the poem "Coils," the last piece in the book Coils:

Yorunomado closed the left hand of my book.
From this point on, he said,
your work leads on into the earth. [3]

In retrospect, "the left hand of my book" becomes the first half of my life, and "on into the earth" points to our 1974 discovery of the Ice Age underworld.


After my wife, Caryl, and I began to visit the caves in the Les Eyzies area, our then neighbor, the translator Helen Lane, loaned us her cave book collection and I discovered something of equal importance in regard to anything I might write: no poet had taken on the Upper Paleolithic and done what Olson had called a "saturation job." There was the novelist and essayist Georges Bataille's 1955 monograph on Lascaux and that was it. [4] Henry Miller and Ezra Pound seem to have known of the existence of the painted caves discovered at the turn of the century, but neither of them, to my knowledge, visited caves or wrote about them. [5] T.S. Eliot appears to have visited a cave in the Pyrénées--Niaux, Hugh Kenner conjectures [6]--and on the basis of what he saw there to have determined that "art never improves." In his essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent" he writes:

[The poet] must be quite aware of the obvious fact that art never improves, but that the material of art is never quite the same. He must be aware that the mind of Europe-- the mind of his own country--a mind which he learns in time to be much more important than his own private mind--is a mind which changes, and that this change is a development which abandons nothing en route, which does not superannuate either Shakespeare, or Homer, or the rock drawings of the Magdalenian draughtsmen.

At about the same time that Bataille was visiting Lascaux nightly (after the crowds of tourists went home) for his monograph, Olson was reading Henry Fairfield Porter's Men of the Old Stone Age and Gertrude Levy's The Gate of Horn, taking notes and writing lectures for what he hoped would be an Institute in the New Sciences of Man at Black Mountain College, with the archaic as its basis. [7] This Institute never materialized nor did Olson work up his notes and lectures into a book or use them to extend the range of his epic, The Maximus Poems, into the Upper Paleolithic. However, in a 1946 poem, "La Préface," he struck a profoundly dissonant chord for our times with:

My name is NO RACE   address
Buchenwald   new Altamira cave [8]

Olson's presentation of Buchenwald and Altamira (shadowed by Odysseus's response to the Cyclops' question), with space rather than a verb between the two nouns, presents the reader with an overwhelming question: what do these two nouns have in common? The meaning that I draw from them is that the astonishing ancientness of the human creative impulse, which was discovered in this most inhuman century, may somehow offset total despair. Olson's choice of Altamira is slightly inaccurate for my meaning as it was discovered in 1879 (although its antiquity was not officially recognized until 1902). However, the majority of the known Upper Paleolithic caves were discovered between 1900 and 1940 (the year that Lascaux was penetrated). This represents a staggering synchronicity and argues contra Adorno that there can be poetry after Auschwitz. Jerome Rothenberg pulls Adorno's statement inside out in his long poem "Khurbn," written after visits to what is left of the death camps in the 1980s: "after Auschwitz there is only poetry." [9]

The Upper Paleolithic's resurfacing can be thought of as a retrieval of depth, of a bottomlessness that is not simply absence but one complexed with hidden presence and invisible connections. While cave stone might well be thought of as the tabula rasa par excellence, caves themselves are hardly tabulae rasae: each has its own character. For some, the caves' sensory isolational atmosphere is experienced as spirit-filled, even as hallucinogenic. For example, grotesque and hybrid cave images suggest a fusion between early consciousness and subterranean "entities." It is as if the soul of an all-devouring monster earth could be contacted in cavern dark as a living and fathomless reservoir of psychic force.

We see our present world of vanishing species not only against what we know of the immense and diverse biomass of Pleistocene Europe, but against the end-Pleistocene extinctions that eerily forecast our own. While climatic change, unaffected by humans, appears to have played a major role in early extinctions, there is credible evidence that from the late Upper Paleolithic on, especially in the New World, extinctions have been increasingly human-induced. So I'm haunted by the rock shelter's name where our ancient and direct ancestors' skeletons were first discovered: Abri du Cro-Magnon, or shelter of the Big Hole People. It seems that over the centuries our "big holeness" has increased in proportion to our domination of the earth. Today it is as if species are disappearing into and through an "us" that lacks a communal will to arrest their vanishing.


Concerning the book's title: wicks made of 1/4-inch juniper branches were used in many of the 130 hand lamps found in Lascaux. [10] Since the Upper Paleolithic, wick has become fuse as the conveyor of ignition for electrical purposes as well as for shells and bombs. "Juniper Fuse," then, as a metaphor connecting the flame by which cave imagery was made possible to its ignescent consequences in modern life.


  1. The global Upper Paleolithic is wrapped, as it were, in historical gauze. All our words for continents, countries, regions, areas, sites, caves, tools, weapons, techniques, and aesthetics are historically imposed, more often than not by modern history. While this may be obvious, it is a slippery matter: many a subliminal association has linked "France" to "the origin of art." In earlier drafts of pieces in this book, I had used the word "art" to refer to parietal and portable imagery. However, because "art" today implies transcendant values while cutting itself off from utilitarian, magical, and occult activities, I have dropped it, feeling more at home with "imagery" and "imagination"--other than when referring to cave art theory for the most part worked out before such archaeologists as Margaret W. Conkey, Olga Soffer, and Silvia Tomaskova began to challenge the applicability of the word. Their current thinking on this matter is to be found in Beyond Art: Memoirs of the California Academy of Sciences, Number 23 (San Francisco, 1997). [return to text]

  2. Charles Olson, Additional Prose (Bolinas: Four Seasons Foundation, 1974), p. 11. [return to text]

  3. Clayton Eshleman, Coils (Los Angeles: Black Sparrow Press, 1973), p. 147. [return to text]

  4. Georges Bataille, Lascaux or The Birth of Art (New York: Skira, 1955). Bataille associates ancient man, including Neanderthal, with work (tool-making) and being hedged by prohibitions. Cro-Magnon, or in Bataille's phrase, "Lascaux man," breaks with the vast continuum of the past, inaugurating the world of play and transgression. Bataille considers Lascaux to have been painted during the Aurignacian period, around 30,000 B.P., that is, Before the Present or 1950, when absolute radiocarbon dates were first obtained. For Bataille, 30,000 B.P. is curiously at once the dawn and the pinnacle of prehistoric art. While his dating and theoretical approach are not relevant today, Bataille's description of the cave itself (interspersed with excellent color photography by Hans Hinz and Claudio Emmer) is well-written and moving. Bataille places the art of Lascaux in a wider context, including concepts of taboo, sacrifice, transgression, and sexuality, in his Eroticism (San Francisco: City Lights, 1986). [return to text]

  5. Miller's stirring evocation of the prehistoric Dordogne occurs in his book on Greece, The Colossus of Maroussi (New York: New Directions, 1958), pp. 4-5. He seems to have known about the caves, but in the evocation itself there is no evidence that he had visited any:

    A few months before the war broke out I decided to take a long vacation. I had long wanted to visit the valley of the Dordogne, for one thing. So I packed my valise and took the train for Rocamadour where I arrived early one morning about sun up, the moon still gleaming brightly. It was a stroke of genius on my part to make the tour of the Dordogne region before plunging into the bright and hoary world of Greece. Just to glimpse the black, mysterious river at Domme from the beautiful bluff at the edge of the town is something to be grateful for all one's life. To me this river, this country, belong to the poet, Rainer Maria Rilke. It is not French, not Austrian, not European even: it is the country of enchantment which the poets have staked out and which they alone may lay claim to. It is the nearest thing to Paradise this side of Greece. Let us call it the Frenchman's paradise, by way of making a concession. Actually it must have been a paradise for many thousands of years. I believe it must have been so for the Cro-Magnon man, despite the fossilized evidences of the great caves which point to a condition of life rather bewildering and terrifying. I believe that the Cro-Magnon man settled here because he was extremely intelligent and had a highly developed sense of beauty. I believe that in him the religious sense was already highly developed and that it flourished here even if he lived like an animal in the depths of the caves. I believe that this great peaceful region of France will always be a sacred spot for man and that when the cities have killed off the poets this will be the refuge and the cradle of the poets to come. I repeat, it was most important for me to have seen the Dordogne: it gives me hope for the future of the race, for the future of the earth itself. France may one day exist no more, but the Dordogne will live on just as dreams live on and nourish the souls of men.

    Based on his notebooks kept during a walking tour of southwestern France in 1912 (A Walking Tour in Southern France / Ezra Pound among the Troubadours [New York: New Directions, 1992]), we know that Pound passed through towns that put him within walking distance of a few of the caves discovered around the turn of the century. [return to text]

  6. Hugh Kenner writes: "The exchange value of the pound sterling in 1919 made that a good summer for the impecunious to travel, and Ezra and Dorothy, after five years cooped up in England, met Tom Eliot near Giraut de Bornelh's birthplace, Excideuil. The three headed south, the Pounds finally to Montségur but Eliot on a divagation of his own to inspect nearby cave drawings. That may have been at the Grotte de Niaux. We are to imagine him, rucksacked, deep inside a mountain, individual talent confronted by the Mind of Europe, satisfying himself that art never improves ("but the material of art"--here, bison "d'un pureté de trait étonnante" drawn with magnesium oxide in bison grease--"is never quite the same"), while twenty kilometers eastward by crows' flight the Pounds, fortified with chocolate, were climbing the southwest face of Montségur to the white walls that ride its summit like a stone ship." (The Pound Era [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971], pp. 333-335).

    Kenner also mentions that Picasso visited Altamira in 1902. [return to text]

  7. For Olson's lectures and notes, see Olson #10, The Journal of the Charles Olson Archives (Storrs: University of Connecticut Library, 1978). [return to text]

  8. "La Préface," The Collected Poems of Charles Olson (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987). [return to text]

  9. Jerome Rothenberg, Khurbn & Other Poems (New York: New Directions, 1989), p. 14. [return to text]

  10. For additional lore and mythology on juniper, see pp. 245-246 of Hans Peter Duerr's Dreamtime (New York: Basil Blackwell, 1985). [return to text]