The Valley Below Shanidar Cave
Skeletal remains of Ned the Neanderthal
Indicate partial paralysis of his right arm
And leg resulting from a skull fracture
Incurred in his teens, a blinding blow,
Probably, that left his left eye drooping
And his left ear as deaf as a moon.
Ned also appears to have lost his right hand
For an unknowable reason, or no reason at all,
Which shows, with his lopsidedness, his life
Resembled ours in terms of providence
And fate, that is to say, his failure to appease
The star-beaded dark with talismans and prayer.
Ned lived brain injured twenty years or more,
His bones say, suggesting his group behaved
Like higher sapiens and kept him fed and warm,
Though as for that he might’ve begged scraps
At the fire’s edge and danced when ordered to
On nights when everyone needed a laugh.
2% of Ned’s DNA survives today in most of us,
Science says–in the baby pulling the universe
Through a nipple and the old man nibbling toast
And sipping tea, waiting for the nurse’s call;
The 98% difference may be why we imagine
Our bones one day will say our lives mattered.
Review by Joe Bisicchia
Understanding the past is more than just knowing it happened, more than just words in a report regarding a postmortem and DNA. It is why a good poet gets us thinking beyond the words of any particular poem or page. Way to go to Steve Hatfield for getting us thinking. He takes a “smart” scientific find and brings it to simple life. Granted, with poetic license, but that is what poets do. Erudite archaeologists can find the bones of a Ned or a Nandy or a Nancy, but not know the real name. A poet like Hatfield helps bring those bones to life by naming that spirit, and letting it breathe, largely because of the 98% of which he concludes we as thinkers presently have in our capability. The wonder of this poem is how he brings the past to the present. And pokes us to then question how we view ourselves.
Ironically, as we chew on that question, we might wonder whether we are the ones to think we have it all thought out compared to a Neanderthal who in our looking back to the past may possess only 2% of the magnitude of latter brainpower, having to fuddle in his own particular present. Quite the find to know that this nameless and unknown creature, this eventual star of a modern day poem was real, likely named and known despite our own limits in comprehension. And he surely exhibited some kind of admirable wherewithal to endure the pain of his particular time and still survive, apparently surrounded and supported by a tribe that seemed to care enough to know something about what matters about being human. In other words, as we evolve our advanced humanity in the valley far below, do we share the same 2% in what matters?
Review by Jared Pearce
The recounting of details related to the discovery of a Neanderthal corpse is fairly straightforward in the first nine lines of this poem, but on the tenth the theme of fate, of meaning, of not just what we do but why we do comes to the surface. The next portrait is more imaginative, allowing the corpse the possibility of a sociability, even personality, before turning again to the reader and drawing again the distinction between what we do and what we mean. While I’m not sure the poem is an overt condemnation of existentialism, its offering of a very long historical view helps me to reconsider what kind of philosophical stance might and might not lend to finding or creating the good life.