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 CaveThe cave looked much like any otherfrom a little distance butas we approached, came almostto its mouth, we saw its walls withinthat slanted up into a domewere beating like a wild black lung—it was plastered and hung withthe pulsing bodies of bats, the organmusic of the body’s deepinterior, alive, the sacred cavewith its ten thousand gleaming eyesnear the clustered rockswhere the sea beat with the leatherwings of its own dark waves.Below the bat-hung, throbbing walls,an altar stood, glittering with guano,a stucco sculpture like a Gaudichurch, berserkBaroque, stone translated intoflux—murk and mud and the floralextravagance of wet sand drippedfrom a giant hand, giving backblessing, excrement—returnfor the first fruits offered to the gods.We stayed outside, superiorwith fear, like touristspeering through a door, whose hangingbeads rattle in the air fromone who disappeared into the diminterior; we thought of the cavesof Marabar, of a writer who enteredand never quite emerged—the caves’ echoing blackemptiness a tunnel in the Englishsoul where he is wandering still. Sothe bat cave on the Bali coast, not farfrom Denpasar, holds us off, and beckons …Standing there now, at the mouthof the cave—this time we enter, feelinside the flutter of thosemany hearts, the radiant heat of pumpingveins, the stretch of wing on bonelike a benediction, and the familiarfaces of this many-headed god,benevolent as night isto the weary—the way at darkthe cave releases them all,how they must lift like the foamon a wave breaking, how manythey are as they enterthe starlit air, and scatterin wild wide arcsin search of fruit, the sweet bitesof mosquito …while the great domes of ourown kind slide open, the eyethat watches, tracks the skies,and the huge doors roll slowly backon the hangars, the planespush out their noses of steel,their wings a bright alloyof aluminum and death, they roardown the runways, tear intothe night, their heavy bodies fueledfrom sucking at the hiddenveins of earth; they leave a trail of firebehind them as they scarthe air, filling the dreamsof children, sleeping—anywhere,Chicago, Baghdad—with blood,as the bombs drop, as the worldsplits open, as the mothersreach for their ownin the night of the fallingsky, madness inmethod, nature goneinto reverse …here, nearly unperturbed,the bats from the sacred cavefill the night with their calls,high-pitched, tuned to the solid worldas eyes to the spectrum of light, gnatsto the glow of a lamp—the batscircle, the clouds wheel,the earth turnspulling the dome of starsamong the spinning trees, blurringthe sweet globes of fruit, shapedexactly to desire—dizzy, we swingback to the cave on our stiff darkwings, the sweet juice of papayadrying on our jaws, hometo the cave, to attach ourselvesback to the pulsing dome, until,hanging there, sated and sleepy,we can see what was once our worldupside down as it isand wonder whose altarsthose are, white,encrusted with shit.
“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.