i think that at the beginning of consciousness,
of human consciousness,
our understanding of the visual was the same,
of its representation the same, and had
the same parts, but the parts
had different meanings.
we recognize old signs as signs
but what they signify
or, the perceiver is lost, something
lost in us that once knew what an image
was made to mean when first
it was made.
consider the painted caves–
assumption in presumed simplicity
among the glittering rocks or rocks
that could be said to glitter, if there were light
to make that refraction
where there is no light, where light
has and has always had to be made.
there we identify representation–
animals on the walls
look like animals.
the unanswerable, the story-making question
seems to be the why, why then, there
and what, if anything, came before.
look in the humbling walk
that is descent into a cool dark
which you imagine
was wet and full of live smells
of cave bears and kills
as if the painting, its canvas
required of the painter
the experts say we didn’t live in the caves
didn’t hunt the beings we painted
and went into the dark to make images
at great cost and without probable gain
–an impulse not unknown but also then
a bottle set forth from a careful hand
lands a century later on a distant shore,
too many waves or languages apart
to be understood but as a sign.
the eye like a shiftless light
on the rock face that sings and sings
and will not speak.
Katie Kinkel is an MFA candidate in poetry at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She is a teaching assistant of creative writing at the University of Iowa, and currently lives in Iowa City.