Erisychthon

James Lasdun

After Ovid

I

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 ...

Let’s say a million bucks apiece
Which isn’t much considering
How good you’ll feel just living there and saving
The earth, in fact it’s cheap at the price.’
So to the zoning board
Whose members could be seen
Later that year at choice resorts abroad

Sunning themselves, expenses paid.
Then to the S & L, a boardroom lunch
To pitch for funds: ‘My friends I have a hunch
That one day on our children’s lips Cascade – ’
(His name for the project)
‘ – Will be a word for hope;
A word for how we didn’t self-destruct,

A word for courage, for the best
In our great nation under God, the true
Spirit of enterprise, get-up-and-go, can-do;
Call me a bleeding heart, an idealist,
Call me a renegade
Liberal, but my friends
I have a hunch that history wants Cascade –

I have a hunch that one day we
Who built it will have built a paradise
Sung with our fruited plains and spacious skies
Praised with our purple mountains’ majesty ... ’
And so on till the air
Filled with directors’ sobs.
‘We’re in,’ they cried, ‘we’re green, we really are.’

II

High above town a first-growth wood
Fanned out from a crease in the mountain
Where waterfalls churned a mist like pile-driven
Marble dust; a sparkling quarry cloud
On which a rainbow played.
This was the lucky site
Our hero had selected for Cascade,

Though to a certain sect in town,
Keepers of a certain mystic flame,
The wood had long been known by another name:
The White ami Blue. In spring the waving crown
Of dogwood and hawthorn trees
Formed a while cumulus
Of blossom above, while like a tapestry’s

Mille fleurs background, an undergrowth
Of cream-coloured wildflowers spread below –
Featherbells, sweet white violets, moonseed, yarrow,
Trembling wood-anemones – till the earth
Foamed like a breaking wave
With living surf. And then,
As spring passed, blue, the blue of a chapel nave

Under a blue rose-window rose
Like a blue-blooded blush into the white;
Wild hyacinth, hyssop skullcap, aconite,
Blooming over the ground while buckthorn sloes
And juniper berries
Hung ripening above.
Here our sect, a sisterhood of Ceres –

White witches mostly – assorted
Healers, herbalists and hierophants
Of Wicca – came each month to gather plants:
Cohosh, lobelia roots, enchanter’s nightshade,
White milkweed for the heart.
Emetic gentian; raw
Matter for every magic or mystic art.

Needless to say the White and Blue
Was precious to them, and when the word
Of Cascade reached their ears, they flew to the wood,
Arriving just as Erisychthon’s crew
Were unloading chainsaws.
Circling a central stand
Of ancient trees they cried, ‘This wood is ours,

Sacred to our goddess: touch it
And our curse be on your heads.’ The crew
Hung back: in this uncertain era few
Had quite the rashness not to admit
At least a vague belief
In most things spiritual –
Curses, auras, Atlantis, an afterlife

On other planets; however,
Our hero, drunk on his rhetoric
Had lathered up an almost messianic
Zeal for his project, and a quiver
Of indignation shook
His great bulk as he learned
Of this pious protest. Jumping in his truck

And barrelling up to the wood,
Where he found the women hand in hand
Stalling his men, he bellowed: ‘This is my land,
Let me get at those trees or you’re as good
As lumber yourselves. I paid – ’
(Grabbing a chainsaw here)
‘ – My money now I’ve come to build Cascade.’

And holding out the saw, he strode
Towards the protestors. One of them,
A grey-haired, soft-spoken woman by the name
Of Gendenwitha (Iroquois word
For Day Star), gently stepped
Out of the ring and spoke
Of her own ancestors who’d worshipped

In this very spot; of how each
Tree was once thought to contain a soul
‘So that to chop – ’ but with a contemptuous snarl
Erisychthon cut her off mid-speech,
Giving the starter cord
Of his chainsaw a yank,
And revving the engine till the big blade roared

Violently into life; and so,
Wielding it wildly in front of him,
He cut through an iron-hard hornbeam, lopped each limb
Of an oak from its trunk, and as though
The mutilated stump
Woke some demon in him,
He rampaged through the wood; slashed out at a clump

Of hazels that leapt like soldiers
Blown from a trench ... Pines and birches fell
Under the swipe of his blade, a sour smell
Of sap rose into the air, loud cries
From the scattered women
Running from tree to tree
Vied with the chainsaw roar, and seemed to madden

Their enemy into a state
Of apoplectic outrage ... Up ahead
He saw a great blossoming tree, a dogwood
Held by some to house the wood’s own spirit;
Gashing it with his blade
He sprang back in surprise:
Out of the wood poured sap the colour of blood:

A scarlet banner unfurling
Into the White and Blue ... and then the tall
Glittering dome of the tree began to fall;
Twisting, the leaves and blossom swirling,
Trunk splintering like a bone,
And as it crashed, the whole
Wood and hillside echoed with the groan.

III

Meanwhile Gendenwitha came
To the waterfall, where on her knees
She prayed out loud: ‘Demeter, Ishtar, Ceres,
Papothkwe (to use my people’s name) –
Life force of every plant;
You whose reality
We’ve honoured to this day in blind faith, grant

Some token of yourself, and if
Our love can’t bring you into being
Then let this man’s brutality.’ So saying
She looked up at the foam-curtained cliff
And in the rainbow glaze
Saw suddenly the bright
Voluptuous shimmering figure of the goddess.

Trembling, dazzled, she heard a voice
Close in her ear like a rush of wind
Whisper: ‘Daughter, follow this stream till you find
A cinderblock shack. This is the House
Of Hunger. Go inside,
Tell Hunger to visit
Erisychthon.’ With which the vision faded.

So the woman set out along
The twisting stream that led through the wood
Where its pure waters took on a tint of blood
From the sacred tree. From there the long
Fall past fields and quarries,
Cities, suburbs, thruways,
Stockyards and junkyards, strip-mines, foundries, factories

Added a number of other
Interesting tints to the stream – spilt oil,
Solvents, pesticides, slurries, lead – until
Nothing was left for Gendenwitha
To follow but a thin
Ooze of mud-coloured sludge
That crawled across a desolate moonlike plain

Of exhausted farmland; barren,
Skeletal orchards, rusting silos,
Dry irrigation pipes criss-crossing meadows
Of dust, with here and there a warren
Of crooked-chimneyed huts,
Slumped trailers where old cars
Sank in the mud out front, and starving mutts

Skulked by trashcans; till at last
A little cinderblock shack appeared:
Doorless, derelict-looking ... The woman peered
Into the shadows. There in the dust
Sat a hollow-eyed child
Dressed in rags, neglected;
Over her wizened, listless face hung soiled

Clumps of thin hair; her lips were cracked,
Sores crusted her throat, her brittle bones
Stuck out under her scooped-out shoulders and loins,
And long claws seemed to have gouged the racked
Furrows in her ribcage.
This was Hunger. A spoon
Dangled from her hand, and a look of reproach,

Ancient and unappeasable,
Glistened in her eyes. Without a word
She listened to Ceres’ commands and followed
The woman back up the stream until
They reached the road that led
To Erisychthon’s house.
Night had fallen. The great man lay in bed

Snoring too loud to hear his door
Creak open and Hunger slip inside.
Climbing onto the bed, she squatted astride
His chest, then down through his gaping jaw
Inserted her long spoon
And in one deft movement
Emptied him out, then pressed his lips with her own.

Breathing herself into his blood
Till famine blazed there ... Then out she crept
Back to her hovel. As Erisychthon slept
He started dreaming vividly of food:
Hunks of succulent meat,
In pungent sauces; pies,
Pastries, ripe cheeses; raising a forkful to eat

He ground his teeth on air, and woke
With a strange fierce hunger in his guts ...
Down at the fridge he rummaged for cold cuts,
Then called his daughter and had her cook
A breakfast of waffles,
Homefries, bacon and eggs,
And wolfed it down. Within an hour or less

He was hungry again, and called
For another breakfast – ‘And this time
Don’t skimp on me. Let’s see, we’ll start with a prime
Rib of Black Angus, then a nice grilled
Turkey and Swiss on rye,
Then I think apple cake
With maple whipped cream ... No, make that pecan pie,

Or both in fact.’ The girl obeyed.
He gulped down the meal, went off to work
Up at Cascade with his men, where hunger struck
Once again with a pang that made
His flesh pour sweat like wax
From a melting candle:
So about turn, stopping off for Big Macs

And cheese-steaks ... Back at home he ordered
His dumbstruck daughter to cook him up
‘Something substantial. None of this diet crap.
Give me some corned beef hash, some breaded
Pork chops. I want meat loaf,
Donuts and marshmallows,
Bake me some shrimp ... Don’t stand there gaping. Move!’

So it continued, day and night;
Daughter cooking while her father ate,
Breaking off only to breathe and defecate
Then only to breathe: his appetite
Was such that he was soon
Obliged to take his meals
(Or rather his one endless meal) on the throne,

Where like an upturned alchemist,
He steadily turned his gold to shit:
Cash, vintage cars, then the yacht, then bit by bit
The land, the house itself, till the last
Dollar slid down the drain
And he and his daughter
Found themselves abruptly out in the rain

Without a penny. What to do?
Beg on street corners? The nickels fell
Like a few useless waterdrops in hell
On the flames of his appetite, which grew
Livelier and hotter
Every minute till sheer
Pain brought inspiration: ‘I’ll sell my daughter!’

So for ten bucks he pimped the child
There on the street (this touching detail
Is taken straight from Ovid’s original,
Just in case the reader thinks we’ve piled
It on a bit too thick);
But while the girl was gone
A sudden pang of hunger like a mule-kick

Stabbed his belly ... He had to eat
Something, anything, without delay:
Smashing a butcher’s window, he grabbed a tray
Of sirloin slabs and fled down the street
Tearing off lumps of steak
With his teeth as he ran
Up out of town to the woods, where like a shark

In a feeding frenzy, he lost
All distinction between what was food
And what was his living flesh: with a jagged
Blade of slate he hacked a plump red roast
From his own arm; the bone
Soon glistened white, stripped bare;
And just as he’d mauled the trees, he mauled his own

Limbs and trunk in a consuming
Fury of hunger and pain until
He’d eaten half his body. A certain pool,
Mentioned before, lay quietly fuming
In the damp air close by:
Here, as Erisychthon
Staggered onward, reeling from tree to tree

Deranged, blood-spattered like a bear
Savaged by wolves – himself both victim
And pack of predators tearing at each limb –
He paused, and lapped the potent water,
Then limped off upward, drawn
By a stumbling instinct
Back to the scene of his desecration.

A sewage ditch now crossed the bulldozed
Building site: he tumbled in, and here
His mutilated shape began to alter
Into its own double-orificed
Essence of greed and waste;
Mouth and rear end opening
To two huge O’s; stomach and barrel chest

Hollowing out from rim to rim,
Hardening as his limbs disappeared
And nothing was left of him but a yard
Of concrete pipe. And there we leave him,
Soon to be delivered
From his own emptiness
Forever, or at least until the wood

Reclaims Cascade.
                                  Meanwhile beyond,
Much remains still to be spoiled: in Fall
Hillsides still assemble their unsaleable
Red and yellow mosaics; on every pond
Floats the same old mottled
Surrealist carpet; green
Globes of foliage dip themselves in gold

For no discernible purpose.
Then come dustier colours; ochres,
Tawny oranges, browns of bracts and burrs,
Bristly asters, leafless trees like patches
Of worn plush in a once
Sumptuous court’s faded
Velvet upholstery, where skeletons

Gemmed with crab-apples breathe a sour
Musk of cider ... Then winter arrives:
Pathos of moulting angels, arthritic leaves
Gloved by hissing snow that in an hour
Fashions a scrupulous
Translation of each tree
Into a bright new language, and then blows

Its work to pieces, as doubtless
Every translator should. Then springtime’s
Mint of glinting coinage – a billion dimes –
Tumbles out of dry twigs; superfluous
Miracle we cherish
Each year more anxiously
As if the very notion of a fresh

Beginning has begun to fray
And seem implausible; as if
Against life’s optimistic faith in life
Too much evidence has come to weigh,
And almost everything
It liked about itself
Suddenly seems autumnal, even spring.