Before the Pyrenees


Already snow forms lint on distant ranges
while here we can’t decide between shorts and the shawl
of a woolly mammoth. We have seen the caves, of course,
and sent home postcards of the simulacra.

In the Gouffre de Padirac the guide punting our boat
down a subterranean Styx tries to imprint our skulls
on embroidered rock. Ne touchez pas! he bawls,
and I feel wronged by stalactite imperatives.

But I like the French for having hair as unleashed as mine
and I succeed in driving on the right and so prove
the social contract behind all human endeavour.
A galaxy of roundabouts, unsure where to fling the Skoda.

We find Rocamadour, a star best viewed from afar, where
weeping pilgrims climb the staircase on their knees;
jag north to dine at Martel’s fourth-best restaurant,
our route a cave painting abstract.

At Cahors’ tiny resistance museum, photographs, pistols
and the striped suit of a deportee catalogue the inconceivable.
Later, we trace the warped lines of the surréalistes en vacances
at Saint-Cirq-Lapopie, where our room is decrepit, as it should be.

Now in the Ariège, past fields of corn for animal fodder,
come shooters with their dogs and guns and shouts, hounding
the deer we glimpsed, fragile and coltish. There are caves here too,
our host says, and we imagine them nosed out by boys and their lost mutts,

like they all were. On our circuit of the nearby castle,
owned by an American investment banker
and his artist wife, we meet their dog, Omar, huge and loping,
his great paws clasping our shoulders, as if recognising ancestral past.

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