Poetry | June 01, 1998
Mammoth is a grand, gloomy and
peculiar place, not soon to give up its
last, darkest secret.
Stephen Bishop was the slave of Dr. John Croghan, owner of Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave from 1839 to 1849. Bishop served as a guide at the cave from 1838 until 1857. His daring explorations, which led to the discovery of miles of cave passageways, were covered in newspapers and books. His fame drew visitors from all over the world. By smoking their names onto the walls of the cave, he learned to read and write. Stephen Bishop died in 1857 at the age of thirty-seven. Oddly, the cause of his death was not recorded and remains unknown.
Childhood was a mapless country, a rough
terrain of sinks and outcrops. Not once
did I suspect the earth was hollow, lost
as I was among the fields and shanties.
I remember the wind and how the sounds
it carried were my name, meant me, Stephen . . .
called out over the cornfield where I hid.
There was no sound when candlesmoke
met limestone-just this: seven characters
I learned to write with a taper on a stick.
What have they to do with that boy in the weeds?
Am I the letters or the hand that made them?
A word I answer to and turn from, or the flame
that holds the shadows, for a time at least, at bay?
Once, the Doctor spoke to me at length
of stars and prognostications, how,
when we observe the waxing of the Moon,
everything cognate to her nature-marrow
in bones and in trees, flesh of the river
mussel-increases also. He told of tides
and how the ocean is affixed as with a chain
to moonlight. I think it must be different
in the Cave, where no light penetrates.
There, I have lost hours, whole cycles of the sun.
At Star Chamber, I control the spheres-
a lantern hung just-so will produce the night sky
as if seen from a gorge; wobble it, and a comet,
smoky, pestilent, streaks across the Ether.
There came to us, Tuesday last, a man
of most peculiar visage. The Doctor,
to whom we turned for insight, muttered
of abominations, dismissed our questions.
And yet I did not hesitate to show the Gentleman
as far in the Cave as his leisure and his pocket
would allow. For, there, to the faltering
glow of a greaselamp or candle, throng
shadows far more monstrous than he.
These I do not fear. It is the women
on the tours that give me pause, delicate,
ghost-white, how, at night, I’m told,
they wake to find themselves in unfamiliar
beds, and lost, bewildered, call my name.
Before I crossed it on a cedar pole, legs
dangling into blackness, here the tours
would end: a loose and shingly precipice.
From my pack I would produce a scrap
of oiled paper, set fire to it, and send it
twisting and sputtering into the abyss.
I never saw it land, a flicker of light
on the fluted cistern. Soon I had found
the rivers beyond, their strange inhabitants
that emerged into the circle of my light
as if from another world, then vanished
at the least agitation of the water. Touched,
they said, fish with no eyes! until I sloshed
a pailful into light, reveled in their silence.
Soon we had fashioned a rude boat,
and with lanterns affixed to the prow,
were ferrying tours across the smoky waters:
Styx, Lethe, Echo River, the host
of wonders I had found. By slapping
the water with the flat of my paddle,
there comes a sound like the ringing of bells,
a mournful, hollow melody-waves lap-
ping and beating under the low stone arches.
The voice, too, will reproduce in myriad;
often I have led a tour in song, shouts raised
or pistols fired on the dark, deep water.
Children of a clanging, squeaking world,
we cannot bear the silence.
I am speaking of the shade of walls
and woods, the half-light on the dark side
of groves and fences-a region nearer
to the source of things, but always close at hand.
I have felt, of late, my shadow as an other
person there. Behold how the shades in the Cave
gather and deepen, extend in darker zones
from the center of the flame where I stand.
It was in such light that first my Charlotte came
to me. For a week I’d half expected her, until
at twilight, a shadow at the door, the sky waiting
a long time, pale and still, for the Moon
to rise. And afterwards, even the pitch pines
seemed foreign, their scent and turpentine.
At Locust Grove, Great House, I pass days
in the garden-a stone bench, ornamental
cherries, August’s dappled light. Once, a hawk’s
shadow crossed my paper, startling me
from the dark rooms and corridors of my map,
an eye-draught of the known Cave passages.
The mind moves and the hand follows, as if
by torchlight on a moonless midnight, inking.
The Doctor is himself engaged in certain nightly
observations, plotting, by aid of lenses and tubes,
an atlas of the Moon, that distant, yellow orb,
yet closer, he says, than our own dark Continent:
its map made up of fringes and waterways, a dense,
vine-thick interior left blank. Uncharted.
Safe from the withering glare of daylight,
a stone arbor, stone clusters of grapes.
I have heard more than one traveler
proclaim these encrustations coral-like.
Was once this place the bottom of a sea?
I think it must be so. How else explain
the salts that grow from joints in the rock:
Epsom, Glauber. Or what of the eyeless fish?
Stranded, perhaps, when the ocean vanished,
never again to join their kindred tribe
in that great salt realm. Who better to conjecture
on these matters than I? Theories I have learned
to keep from other, educated men,
lest they, like bats, fly shrieking at the torch-bearer.
The Doctor draws the world to him by dint
of much imagination, fortunes spilled
to bring the rudiments of culture to this
poor backwater. At his bidding, oxcarts
bearing crates of wine will leave the coastline
of Virginia, clinking. The latest books
he brings that this place too might shine
as a center of learning and enterprise.
I have watched his projects grow, consume him-
hotelier, surgeon, gentleman farmer-
days when the light drains out of him,
and irritable, distant, he walks into
the orchard but finds, it seems, no peace
among the trees, his dream of ordered rows.
A hot night, and the first breeze through my window
carried with it the whinny of a horse.
It had been so still, and suddenly the night
was restless, cocking its ear to a distant crackling,
a light, as of dawn, across the valley. To walk
abroad, and toward its source, was to swim
against a river of game, flushed from their roosts
in the oldest stands of timber, or from dens
in the tangled underbrush. By dawn,
forty acres had been consumed, the Hotel saved.
How strange when a party emerged from the Cave
at daybreak, blinking into the blue, smoke-
filled ridgetop of embers-unaware
of the flames that all night raged above them.
If, as the Doctor believes, putrefaction
is the work of unquiet spirits hastening
to congregate with the air, she must have died
at peace, little Indian. Still dressed
in cloths of woven hemp, preserved,
she was displayed for a time in the Cave
where I found her. I will never forgive him
for selling her remains to a Mr. Nahum Ward,
purveyor of traveling curiosities,
oddments, a renowned Wonder Cabinet.
As I predicted, she never returned-lost,
they say, in a burning Museum,
a tiny spirit freed in ash and smoke . . .
safe at last from looters, learned men.
How soon the Cave forgets their worshipping,
a preacher and his flock, the great vault quiet.
Surely their God was here as he was not
in their sermon, words that have dissolved unheard.
I have stood at Pulpit Rock and felt the Cave
grow thick around me, as if for having
once been broken, it here became the essence
of itself. Nothing remains of their scattered
lights, of what they said or did. Nothing.
Where once the faithful came, a congregation
of bats, faint stirrings from the pews.
Gods too will be forgotten, exiled
to the pages of books. The Cave is praising them:
from the Organ Loft, vast chords of silence.
The Bengal Light is the most effective means
we have of driving darkness from the corners
where it lurks-a quick, blue flare that brought this day
a single drop of water to my gaze. Globe-like,
suspended, it held the scene about me in reverse:
a grotto glistening with nodules and globules.
Though not of the vegetable world, these
live and grow, and when struck, produce
melodious tones, liquid and wavering.
Mat and I had gone in search of specimens
for the Doctor’s collection. How sad I grew
to see the changes wrought in them by sunlight.
How lusterless they appeared under glass,
their sparks extinguished, their music fled.
A taper burned at night, two stearine lights
by day-no way to gauge the weather here.
Such was their hope, distinct and inseparable
condition of the disease, that even when
reduced to shadows, they refused to quit
the Cave, insisted on their imminent return
to health. From the Doctor’s monograph
on the curative virtues of the Cave, came
stone huts, black drifts of smoke from cookfires,
their dry, hollow coughs. A colony of invalids.
I smuggled them plants against the Doctor’s
commands that they should take the cure
beyond the solar influences-that grave
experiment. Unmentionable now.
The services of a guide cannot, as a rule,
be dispensed with; we alone can disentangle
the winding passageways. I will admit
the tours for me grow burdensome.
How long must I endure their need to fill
with talk the natural silence? I have heard
it all before, their proposed improvements:
Widen the trails so that two carriages
may pass abreast . . . here, a capacious ballroom.
Mere fancies. And yet beneath their words
I have discerned a kind of rough-hewn fear.
From drawing rooms and formal gardens
they come to me, from sunlit lives they enter
the chill, grand and instantaneous night.
The river is a wondrous machine. Haunt
of the Moon’s changing face, it drifts among
the knobs and foothills: there, deep and fluid;
here, rippling over gravel beds. The water
swims with flesh-walleye, minnow. From nights
foggy and indeterminate rise mornings
when the sun burns like a scald. On its banks
frogs pipe, the grass bends and rustles. It is
the singularity of chance and the shuffle
of things, stone basins where the chaff I’ve cast
on waters in the Cave emerged some several
hours hence. From the high stone bluffs nearby,
the water shines with an inner light-
makeshift, shifting, a candle in the current.
Thus far I have explored into the bowels
of the earth without impediment.
Others too would try-Materson, Nicholas,
those injudicious and eager for fame.
I’ve heard it said that yesterday, our Nick
was lowered by rope into the Maelstrom,
a pit of unknown depth. Those present claim
such shouts arose then from the chasm, the rope
was pulled until it fired by friction. A comedy.
I have seen the eyes he casts at her, and she
at him. This year I hardly note the seasons’ turns:
first spring, and now the woodlands are awash
with summer. My thoughts remain unquiet,
here: low arch of the Netherworld, brooding.
It was the night before the night before last
when I sat so deep in thought by the fire.
The Doctor boasts I was the merest germ
of a man when he bought me. Through him,
I was able, in time, to acquire a knowledge
of science, a considerable degree of culture.
Through him, my fame-the subject of articles,
my map distributed widely. But fame,
like the fire in the hearth, must be fed:
a bundle of twigs soon needs a log to stay
alight. And then full thirty cords of oak.
I am ever in search of exploits, discoveries.
Some nights I wake in darkness to know
a greater darkness waits. A hillside. A mouth.
Above me even now the hills are bristling
with pine and cedar, dark branches shifting
in the rays of Sun or Moon; there, deep pools
receive their cave-cooled water, the Entrance
breathes its mingling airs, and, surely, somewhere,
Charlotte-stepping, perhaps, to the back porch
door at twilight. Absently. By habit.
I have felt the legend almost leave me.
Elbows, rucksack. No one has ever come
this far-a dusty, Hell-bent crawl, past pits
and keystones, to find myself deep in the ridge.
I was drawn to wonder, the margins of the map.
Breath and a heartbeat. A fading lamp.
I was coffled to the light.
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