Pygmalion

Derek Mahon

(Ovid, Metamorphoses, X, 243-277)

... Pygmalion watched these women, hard-
featured and cynical, as they led
their shameful lives and, sickened by
the wickedness so generously
given to their sex, he lived alone
without a wife to call his own.
Meanwhile, ingeniously, he wrought
a maiden out of ivory, one
lovelier than any woman born,
and with this shape he fell in love.
Alive, she seemed, and apt to move
if modesty did not prevent –
so did his art conceal his art.
He gazed at her in wonderment
and felt her limbs to be quite sure
that she was bone and nothing more.
Her skin responded to his stroke,
or so he thought; and so he spoke,
seized her, imagining his thick
fingers sank into her back,
and looked for bruises on the work.
He whispered gentle, loving words,
brought presents, shells and pebbles, birds
and flowers, things that please young girls;
he clothed her, putting diamond rings
on her white fingers, ropes of pearls
about her neck and breasts. These things
were gorgeous, certainly, although
the naked statue even more so.
He laid her down on a bed spread
with sheets dyed a Tyrian red,
called her his lover, propped her head
among soft, feathery pillows as if
a statue might have sensuous life.
  Now Venus’ feast-day was the date
and Cyprus thronged to celebrate.
Heifers, their spread horns freshly gilt,
had felt the death-stroke to the hilt
in their soft necks, as white as snow,
and the air smoked with incense. Now
Pygmalion, having devoutly laid
gifts on the altar, shyly prayed:
‘Gods, if it’s true that you can give
anything, grant I may make love –.’
Too shy to say ‘the maid’, he said,
‘– to someone like my ivory maid!’
But Venus, there in person, knew
what he intended and, to show
that she approved, the altar flames
shot up into the air three times.
Hastening home, the impatient lover
ran to the maid and, leaning over,
embraced her there on her chaste couch.
Her skin seemed warmer to his touch;
his fingers felt her thighs, at which
the ivory grew soft between
his thumbs, as wax melts in the sun
and, gently worked by loving hands,
stretches, relaxes and expands,
responsive even as it responds.
  He stood amazed, still doubtful, thought
himself mistaken, and then not;
inflamed, he stroked her thighs again
until the statue blushed! Each vein
fluttered as our protagonist,
pouring out thanks to Venus, thrust
his lips upon live lips at last.
The maid, feeling his kisses, raised
shy eyes to the sun and, in a glance,
saw daylight and his lace at once.
The goddess, with her genial presence,
sanctioned the union and in time
a girl, Paphos, was born to them –
from whom the island takes its name.