On the 16th of June 2007 I walked with artist and friend Paolo Inverni, for an hour, inside an underground cave at Rio Martino in Piemonte, North-West of Italy. The cave stretches into the core of a mountain in the Alps, along two levels of underground tunnels, for about two miles, in total darkness. The local council lists the following characteristics of the cave, to be considered by anybody who might want to walk in it: humidity 100%, temperature 5.5°C, an underground river, walkways without handrails on both sides, relatively low ceilings in some places, jagged outcrops at head level on the sides of the walls.
The underground river can be a route to follow or a hindrance. In the points where the water level is low, the riverbed is a guiding path. When the water does not allow you to walk in the riverbed, you are forced to clamber along slippery edges on the sides.
Inside the cave, darkness looms and one false step could be fatal. The sense of danger is not only physical. Only once did I stop walking and felt overwhelmed, although I’m unsure as to why: was it the darkness that the lights on our helmets barely disrupted, the awareness of being so out of reach, the lack of living organisms around, the uncanny reverberations of our voices, the oppression that engulfed me as soon as I entered? To quote Jules Verne in Journey to the Centre of the Earth: I felt lost. ‘As long as you stay close to the walls you’re safe’, my friend said. But the walls are slippery. We could only walk and keep walking. Long stretches of silence were only interrupted by brief communications, episodes of strange play and remoteness.
At the end of the cave, after walking for an hour between the river and the walls of rock, a sudden change: a sudden blast of cold air, countless drops of chilled water against my face, and a roar amplified out of proportion. This is what we came here for: an underground waterfall, one of the highest in Europe, cascading from a height of fifty-five meters. In the darkness of the cave, I could not see the waterfall: I could feel it, and hear it.
We could barely talk. And there was no way to do an audio recording of the experience of encountering the waterfall after the hour-long walk underground, we’d have come up with shapeless noise anyway. Better to listen. And think of another type of recording, in the words that would follow the waterfall.
Then we had to get out of the cave. Another hour-long walk through a tunnel of black and silence faintly measured by tiny water drops. In the walk back did the afterlife of the waterfall, and perhaps its sense for us, begin to form: not just because we had been there but because we had walked away from it, with no actual recordings to bring back, and yet still hearing it reverberating in the tunnels of our recollections. We didn’t have an audio file with us, but that didn’t mean the experience would vanish.
The first thing I noticed once I walked out, after adjusting to the blinding light of the mid-afternoon, was a patch of lichens. I thought of Camillo Sbarbaro, an Italian poet who wrote broken verses of small utterances at the beginning of the 20th century. He also collected lichens. Often he would write of his words becoming mineral, and himself too. At the end of the thirties, after a visit to a cave, he wrote, in a collection called Wood Shavings: ‘What remained inside me of what I’d felt, was what is left of a whispering; something incredible, which I seemed to “hear through”; the wonder it gave me dwells on. And if that place is vague to the memory, as the place pointed at by the Sybil’s reply, then the fear of not capturing the place sharpened my yearning.’ I want to dwell in this state of sharpened yearning and ‘hearing through’, and write of caves and voice Sybil’s words; to dwell in these transitions between being in a place and the premonition of its absence, when it has not reached me, yet I can feel its chill.
Sbarbaro speaks of the Sybil. Only a few months ago, while choosing the cover of my book En abime, I opted for a picture of the Sybil’s cave in Cuma near where I was born, in Southern Italy. A cave, an abyss, a Sybil, a poet. A poet, a Sybil, an abyss, a cave, also animate a poem which I always enjoy reading aloud, it’s entitled Spelt from Sybil’s Leaves and it is by Gerard Manley Hopkins. It’s got cavernous spaces, black, lost words and broken utterance, and I have nothing more to say to you about this poem which is so close to what I want to say. I’d rather let these words break into mine. So: