White Nights

Mark Ford

after Lucretius

A snake, if a man’s spittle
Falls upon it, will wriggle
And writhe in frenzied contortions, and may even gnaw
Itself to death; and there are certain
Trees, should you ever drift off to sleep
In their shade, you’d wake clutching your throbbing head as if an axe
Had been buried there. The blossom, I’ve heard, of a type of rowan
That flourishes in the mountains
Of Helicon has overpowered and killed with the vile stench
It emits. And women should be wary
Of the potent musk of the beaver, which can force a busy housewife
Suddenly to drop her darning, or her delicate needlework, and collapse
In a dead faint – though this
Occurs only if the scent is inhaled at the time when her menstrual
Blood is flowing.
         Those afflicted with jaundice see everything
As yellow because their yellow bodies
Send out – like a halo or aura – a constant stream
Of tiny bright yellow seeds, and these seeds merge
With the images careering through the air from all that exists; and then a further
Coating of yellow is added by the patient’s
Yellow eyeballs, which tinge all they absorb with their own
Lurid hue.
         We humans did not, in my opinion,
Long ago slide from heaven
To here on some golden chain; nor did we emerge
From the ocean, nor were we created by the relentless pounding of waves
On rocks. It was the earth
Which bred us, as she feeds us still. Out of her own
Sweet will she created the wheat that shimmers, laden
Fruit-trees, and buttercup meadows. But now nature
Seems tired; our farmers exhaust their oxen
And themselves, they blunt ploughshare
After ploughshare, but to little avail. The soil yields what it yields
Grudgingly, and demands more and more labour.
The wizened farmer sighs, and can’t help
Thinking back to the days of his father, when things
Were simpler, and the fields more fertile, though far less
Of the world was cultivated. Likewise, the vineyard owner
Broods morosely on his twisted, stunted
Vines, and curses heaven, not realising
That all things decay, that all things sink
Towards the grave, grow frail or weary, are worn gradually
Away by the remorseless passing
Of the years.