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Ovid: MetamorphosesPaul Muldoon
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Vol. 15 No. 4 · 25 February 1993
Poem

Ovid: Metamorphoses

Paul Muldoon

659 words

Book VI Lines 313-381

All the more reason, then, that men and women
should go in fear of Leto, their vengeful, vindictive numen,
and worship the mother of Apollo and Artemis
all the more zealously. This last tale of the demise
of Niobe brought others to mind, inspiring no less zeal
among the storytellers. ‘On the fertile soil
of Lycia,’ one began, ‘the peasants, too, would scorn
Leto and pay the price. Since these Lycians were low-born,
the remarkable story of what happened
is scarcely known, though I saw with my own eyes the pond
where the wonder took place. My father, being too frail
to travel far himself, had sent me on the trail
of a string of prime bullocks he’d turned out
in those distant parts. He’d given me a Lycian scout
whom I followed over the rich
pasture till we came on a lake in the midst of which
stood an ancient altar, its stones blackened
by many sacrificial fires, set in a quicken
of reeds. The scout stopped in his tracks and said in a quiet
voice, “Have mercy on us,” and I echoed
him, “Have mercy.” When I asked my guide
if this was a shrine to the Naiads or Faunus or some such god
he replied, “Not at all, son: no common hill-god or genius
presides over this place but the one whom Juno
sentenced to wander round and round,
never to set foot on solid ground;
the goddess who dwells
here was the one to whom even Delos
gave short shrift,
though Delos itself was totally adrift;
on that unstable island, braced between a palm and a gnarled
olive, she brought her twins into the world,
then, clasping them to her breast,
set off again with Juno in pursuit.
By the time she touched down in Lycia, the bailiwick
of the Chimera, she was completely whacked
from her long travail; the intense heat
had left her drained; her breast-milk had run out.
Just then she stumbled upon a fair-to-middling-sized pond
in which some locals were cutting osiers and bent
and sawgrass and sedge.
Leto knelt by the water’s edge
and made to cup her hands. But these local yokels
shook their reaping-hooks and sickles
and wouldn’t let her drink. ‘Why,’ she begged them, ‘why
would you deny me what’s not yours to deny
since water, along with air and light,
is held by all in common, as a common right?
It’s not as if I’m about to throw
myself headlong into your pool. My throat’s so dry
and my tongue so swollen I can barely utter
this simple request for a life-giving drink of water.
If not for mine, then for my children’s sakes,
I implore you to let us slake
our thirsts.’ At that moment, the twins stretched
out their little hands. Who could fail to be touched
by such entreaties? These begrudgers, though, were moved
only to renew their threats and foul oaths:
then, to add insult
to injury, they began to stomp about and stir up the silt
on the bottom of the pond, muddying the water
for no reason other than sheer spite.
That was it: that was as much as the Titan’s daughter
could take. ‘Since you’ve shown,’ she cried, ‘no soft spot
for me, in this soft spot you’ll always stay.’
And stay they have: now they love nothing more than to play
in water, giving themselves over to total
immersion or contentedly skimming the surface: they dawdle
on the bank only to dive back in; now, as ever,
they work themselves into a lather
over some imagined slight; since they continually curse
and swear their voices are hoarse
while their necks, in so far as there’s anything between
their heads and shoulders, are goitred; their yellow
paunches set off by backs of olive-green,
they go lepping about the bog-hole with their frog-fellows.” ’

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