Poem: ‘Erisychthon’

James Lasdun

After Ovid


The scene: a town under mountains;
Clapboard, shingle and brick, the usual
Straggle of shopping malls, post-colonial
Factory outlets and fast-food chains
Thinning upward through scant
Cattle pastures then woods
Where the hulk of a disused chemical plant

Drips and leaks. This was built by one
Erisychthon, who as it happens
Also built the malls and the fast-food chains,
Outlets too – in fact who’d built the town,
Downtown at least; who owned
A piece of everything,
And several pieces of the board who’d zoned

Or rather rezoned certain lands
Once listed ‘Grade A Conservation’
As ‘Grade E, Suitable for Speculation’,
Placing in their benefactor’s hands
The local beauty spots
Which he, magician-like,
Tore to pieces and turned into parking lots,

Malls, outlets, chains, et cetera.
This is our hero, Erisychthon;
Ex-boxer, self-styled entrepreneur, ex-con
(Wire fraud, two years in a white-collar
‘Country Club’) after which
The town received him back
With open arms. Why not? He’d made them rich,

Some of them anyway, besides
He had a certain big man’s swagger
People admire; a cross between an ogre
And Father Christmas: three hundred pounds,
Bearded, built like a vat,
With a great booming voice
And a cuff on the chin that could knock you flat.

He and his daughter, a shy girl
Who doted on him in a perverse
Return for his neglect, abuse or worse,
Lived in a ramshackle gothic pile
With its own pool and grounds
Planned by himself, put up
By his own men, and just as he cheated friends,

So he’d managed to cheat himself:
Cheap timbers warping, shoddy brickwork
Damp on the plastered insides, outside a murk
Of crooked-lined mortar; not a shelf,
Door or cupboard nailed straight,
The skimped-on pipes bursting
Every winter ... Yet over this second-rate

Botched-up construction seemed to float
A yearning, an almost palpable
Dream of grandeur and splendour, of epic scale –
Vintage cars on the drive, a power boat
Dry-docked in the garage,
Barbecues big enough
For hogs and oxes on the tilting acreage

Of the rear porch: pure appetite
So strong at first glance it seemed to change
Will into deed, so that briefly by a strange
Hypnotism you transformed the sight
Into its own ideal,
Pinnaced and shimmering,
As if he’d tripped you up on some hidden zeal

You yourself harboured for excess ...
This was his secret; to sell his clients
On their own luck-rich dreams. The plant for instance
(Electrolyte for capacitors) –
He’d lured the company
Less by the usual talk
Of tax breaks, kickbacks, et cetera, than by

Some potent, invisible
Spume of unlimited confidence
That reached them from his squat bulk like the hormones
By which certain animals compel
Others to roll over
And get shafted, which was
Precisely what they did. Within a year

The concrete floor had fissured. Waste
Seeped through the cracks. Teratogenic
(Lit: ‘monster-breeding’) PCBs and toxic
Potions to suit every other taste
Were found in a nearby
Spring-fed pool where hunters
Told of seeing at twilight an unearthly

Fluorescence in the reeds, of strange
Deformities in local creatures:
Web-footed mice, snakes with fur in patches,
Dropped antlers with a bluish mineral tinge ...
True or not, the place shut
And for a while our man
Was banned from the trade. But genius will out,

And in his retreat from the world
(This was how he preferred to term it)
He had a vision, as befits a hermit:
Before him a spread of trees unfurled –
A radiant, flower-filled wood
With a clearing in which
Clusters of brand new sunshot houses stood.

Luxury homes; but more than just
Luxurious (and this is what we mean
By genius); he’d design the whole thing green!
What? Erisychthon turned ecologist?
Apparently. No scam
Surely could bring such pious
Tears to his eyes; ‘I’m green, I really am,’

He said out loud as a swell
Of righteousness filled his heart: ‘I’ll build
Windmills and solar panels, use recycled
Paper for prospectuses, and sell
Not houses but ideals
Carved in organic forms
From eco-friendly natural materials ...

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