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Lay for the Day 12th September

1940: while they are out exploring in the woods, four teenage boys from the village of Montignac, in the Dordogne region of France, come across the entrance to a cave. Even this simple story is already scribbled across with conflicting versions – the traditional one is that Robot, the dog belonging to one of the boys, had disappeared down a hole among the roots of an oak tree. A quick look showed that the entrance was something more than a foxhole, and the boys went home and returned next morning with a rope and a lantern. Other accounts claim that the boys had known about the cave for some time, that Robot the dog had nothing to do with its discovery, and so on. What is indisputable is that once they got inside with their light, they discovered within the hill of Lascaux the most spectacular collection of Stone Age art in the world. Great expanses of the walls of the cavern were decorated with paintings that appeared to be as vivid as the days when they were first made, more than 17,000 years ago.
This is the middle section of a sequence the first part of which appears on 19th December, and the last on 7th August.

Originals, iv–viii


Shimmer as long leather thongs
move on her knee, on her thigh
or are blown in the breeze;
slight continuous jingling
of the strings of ivory beads
over her shoulder, down on her breast
shifting as she breathes.

The bride stands ready,
the boy stands by.
His lance beside him
is twice his height,
worked from a single tusk.
The eagle feathers twist
and spin in the gust.

The bride-price displayed
on hides at his feet
is in amber, shell and beads,
delicate horses,
the carved-horn batons of healing.
The bands follow into the cave
of horses and bison,
under the slant rock.


There’s 2 per cent
between three chimps
in Arnhem Zoo and us,

the genetic difference
between horse and zebra,
which can be made to mate.

Nikkie and Yeroen plot
against Luit the boss.
Nikkie the younger

in the struggle for power,
the social chess
of reproductive success,

the pawn from time
to time of both,
accomplice to murder.

Three hours of surgery
couldn’t save him,
who might have lived

in sunny woods.
But a refugee’s
not a recognised species

in captivity,
no driving out
of the war-museum

world of the apes who kept him
for this old animal,
however political.


To the ringing flutes and the drums
they sway around like flames themselves.
The seer, armed with clays and ashes,
comes to lead them from sight of day,
where the darkness never changes,
the chilled, moist air never changes


An ape admired the sun,
the only constant ally.

An ape considered the stream,
always bringing more,
without whom home would not be.

The sun was eaten by shadow, its dead twin.
The stream was drunk to the dregs by its stones.

This is your portion, who lead on the hunters.
The smoke of the fat goes up to meet you.

This is your portion, who bring around
the moon of calves and the moon of foals.

These are your beries and the flowers
in your lap of water and your willow hat,
who suckle the stones and turn them to tenderness.

These are yours as the lovers give each other,
said the ape, as becomes the wise.


That’s natural religion
and where does that get us
in the natural aggression
of apes at war?

Were we pluckers of Paradise’s
fruit with our canine teeth
or was that before?
Did an animal ever stand up

to be guardian over others?
Then what ––


John Gibbens
from Three Histories


The Lay Reader: an archive of the poetic calendar