Bat Cave

By Eleanor Wilner b. 1937 Eleanor Wilner
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.

Eleanor Wilner, “Bat Cave” from Reversing the Spell: New and Selected Poems. Copyright © 1997 by Eleanor Wilner. Reprinted with the permission of Copper Canyon Press, P. O. Box 271, Port Townsend, WA 98368-0271,

Source: Reversing the Spell: New and Selected Poems (Copper Canyon Press, 1998)

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Poet Eleanor Wilner b. 1937

Subjects Nature, War & Conflict, Social Commentaries, Animals

 Eleanor  Wilner


Eleanor Wilner was born in 1937 in Ohio. She earned a BA from Goucher College and a PhD from Johns Hopkins University, where she completed her dissertation on the imagination, a work later published as Gathering the Winds: Visionary Imagination and Radical Transformation of Self and Society (1975).  Active in civil rights and peace movements, Wilner is known for writing poetry that engages politics, culture, history, and myth. . . .

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SUBJECT Nature, War & Conflict, Social Commentaries, Animals

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