Wuyi Mountain Cave
At the cave mouth,
our guide said, "A god and goddess
lived happily here under the sun.
When Darkness discovered this,
it covered the sky with stone.
But the gods, with their passion,
pried a slit of light open
and to this day, it gleams
through a ceiling crack, lifting
the spirits of those who pass through."
I was bored with myth—each cliff
or cave resembled another Chinese dragon
or human form fashioned from some golden time.
I was hungry for hard science, precise
terms in my mouth—calcite, stalagmite—
to temper the ancient wonder.
But there was only the Chinese guide,
speaking through an interpreter,
"This trip is not for the fearful.
It requires half an hour, a steep climb
up crumbling steps of sandstone, wet
underfoot and wet overhead, and just
a crack of light to squeeze through.
Now we will study the Chinese cliff poems
for strength." And I turned to the ancient
characters carved high overhead on sheer
rock walls. Waterfalls sprayed a curtain
of mist in the air, and behind it, T'ang poems
preserved in red and ochre. I couldn't read a word.
But far off, I could see stone steps carved
into the mountainside, and thousands of Chinese
pilgrims ascending to the ancient temples,
moving vertebrae on an endless spine.
Four of us entered the cave slit
and five minutes into darkness
we were soaked and scraped
with wet clay and limewater. The crack
narrowed to the size of a small child's
frame, and the light above seemed no larger
than an infant's fist. Another slippery minute,
and I heard myself gasp: "Does it get narrower
than this?" "No, worst moment," said the guide
and translator, their voices strained through mist
and limewater falling on my fontanel.
Twenty minutes we gasped for air.
A woman whimpered behind me,
a man whistled ahead of me.
And then the fault line widened,
the seam stretched and delivered us
in twos from the cave mouth. Air
seemed to rush into my lungs. As we stumbled
out of the darkness, there were others
awaiting us, laughing and applauding
our blood clay coloring. And I did feel
returned to the world, the poems on Wuyi
Mountain freshly scrawled above me,
like prophecies on the living, the dead,
and the newly returned.
Copyright © 2011 by Neil Shepard
All rights reserved.
Reproduced by Poetry Daily with permission