Reading: Bat Cave by Eleanor Wilner

Eleanor Wilner (b. 1937) has a clear poetic vision that she has expressed in many publications. She once said that “our culture has made us shallow and dreamless by inculcating the myth that the individual is defined and set apart by his or her own personal experience.” She is happy that poetry eludes attempts at generalization, and I think this involved yet existentially haunting poem about bats proves that point:

Bat Cave

The cave looked much like any other
from a little distance but
as we approached, came almost
to its mouth, we saw its walls within
that slanted up into a dome
were beating like a wild black lung—
it was plastered and hung with
the pulsing bodies of bats, the organ
music of the body’s deep
interior, alive, the sacred cave
with its ten thousand gleaming eyes
near the clustered rocks
where the sea beat with the leather
wings of its own dark waves.
Below the bat-hung, throbbing walls,
an altar stood, glittering with guano,
a stucco sculpture like a Gaudi
church, berserk
Baroque, stone translated into
flux—murk and mud and the floral
extravagance of wet sand dripped
from a giant hand, giving back
blessing, excrement—return
for the first fruits offered to the gods.
We stayed outside, superior
with fear, like tourists
peering through a door, whose hanging
beads rattle in the air from
one who disappeared into the dim
interior; we thought of the caves
of Marabar, of a writer who entered
and never quite emerged—
the caves’ echoing black
emptiness a tunnel in the English
soul where he is wandering still. So
the bat cave on the Bali coast, not far
from Denpasar, holds us off, and beckons …
Standing there now, at the mouth
of the cave—this time we enter, feel
inside the flutter of those
many hearts, the radiant heat of pumping
veins, the stretch of wing on bone
like a benediction, and the familiar
faces of this many-headed god,
benevolent as night is
to the weary—the way at dark
the cave releases them all,
how they must lift like the foam
on a wave breaking, how many
they are as they enter
the starlit air, and scatter
in wild wide arcs
in search of fruit, the sweet bites
of mosquito …
while the great domes of our
own kind slide open, the eye
that watches, tracks the skies,
and the huge doors roll slowly back
on the hangars, the planes
push out their noses of steel,
their wings a bright alloy
of aluminum and death, they roar
down the runways, tear into
the night, their heavy bodies fueled
from sucking at the hidden
veins of earth; they leave a trail of fire
behind them as they scar
the air, filling the dreams
of children, sleeping—anywhere,
Chicago, Baghdad—with blood,
as the bombs drop, as the world
splits open, as the mothers
reach for their own
in the night of the falling
sky, madness in
method, nature gone
into reverse …
here, nearly unperturbed,
the bats from the sacred cave
fill the night with their calls,
high-pitched, tuned to the solid world
as eyes to the spectrum of light, gnats
to the glow of a lamp—the bats
circle, the clouds wheel,
the earth turns
pulling the dome of stars
among the spinning trees, blurring
the sweet globes of fruit, shaped
exactly to desire—dizzy, we swing
back to the cave on our stiff dark
wings, the sweet juice of papaya
drying on our jaws, home
to the cave, to attach ourselves
back to the pulsing dome, until,
hanging there, sated and sleepy,
we can see what was once our world
upside down as it is
and wonder whose altars
those are, white,
encrusted with shit.
A very nice pretty post card she sent to us from her Bali vacation. She embedded political outrage in the penultimate stanza, which is a cri-de-coeur about the violence-hungry beast that our global civilization has become from Chicago to Baghdad. The stanza is connected to the rest of the poem because the bombers resembles the bats. The bats are a “many-headed god” who is released at night where the hunt.
“The sweet bites / of mosquito” is funny. How we dread the bite of a mosquito, but “A single little brown bat (myotis) can eat up to 1000 mosquitoes in a single hour, and is one of the world’s longest-lived mammals for its size, with life spans of almost 40 years. Bats are more closely related to humans and other primates than they are to rodents.” It’s a skilfull way of integrating humor in a poem, and she does it again with the writer who “doesn’t quite emerge”. So, the symbolism is pretty clear. The bats inhabit the old cave and cover the altars with their guano. The hang upside down, which connects them to the bombers, who are ‘nature in reverse’. The difference is that the bats in the end (I read it in such a sway that Eleanor and her travel companions have turned into bats) can ‘see’ the world (with their sonar senses, what they see is shaped exactly to their desire. They have gained a better perspective on our world, a sense of wonder about the altars, rather than blind obeyance to the gods. And those altars are covered with our shit, the shit of violence and bombings, the shit humans perpetrate in the name of a god.
Alright, I am not confident I understood this poem the way I am supposed to understand it. Any suggestions?

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