A Natural History

  1.                                     ...the river’s
  2. Ice closes; silvery carp, whiskered and scaly
  3. As dragons, cluster
  4. And thrash around the piers
  5. Of the bridge. Frogs,
  6. Eels, water-rodents
  7. Die. On the bank, preserved like impurities
  8. In glass, a rutty tangle of wheel-tracks, of paw-
  9. And hoof-prints, of sandal- and boot-prints. At intervals
  10. I found fire-
  11. Ravaged altars, some blackened, some
  12. Still smouldering; pools
  13. Of congealed blood, from either an offering or perhaps
  14. A wound, lay in the hollows
  15. Of the uneven floors. Near one
  16. I knelt and fingered
  17. The shards of a pot, or water clock, painted bright red
  18. And pink, like a fuchsia; tucked
  19. Up under the eaves of another, an abandoned
  20. Bird’s nest, fabricated in a curious manner
  21. From scraps of wool, and brown animal hair, and a few fragments, torn but still
  22. Just legible, of papyrus...
  23.                                           ...now the Magi
  24. Who are all
  25. Appalling liars, believe the gods will never appear to, nor obey,
  26. A person with freckles. To one who has a fishbone
  27. Lodged in the throat, they say, ‘Plunge
  28. Your feet in freezing water’; but if it’s a crust
  29. That’s stuck there, the remedy is bread from the same loaf
  30. Rammed into both ears. Headaches
  31. Are best cured, they claim, by pouring vinegar
  32. Over door-hinges, and applying the resultant sludge
  33. To the temples. They venerate the mole, and trust
  34. The entrails of no creature as they trust
  35. Those of this tiny blind tunneller through the bowels
  36. Of the earth. Anyone who consumes a mole’s heart, fresh
  37. And still beating, will see like a prophet
  38. Into the future. Avoid
  39. Using a vulture’s feather as a tooth-pick; for sweet breath
  40. Rub the ashes of burnt mice mixed with honey
  41. Around the gums, then clean
  42. With a porcupine quill. Should you suffer
  43. From persistent pain in the abdomen, tear open
  44. A bat...
  45.             ...beyond
  46. Stretches a desert where flickering ghosts crowd
  47. Round the startled traveller, then vanish. Nature
  48. Would have us wonder
  49. At her ingenuity, and creates men who never spit,
  50. Who stand all day watching the burning sun journey across the sky, moving
  51. Only to shift their weight from foot
  52. To foot. Some are born with two pupils
  53. In one eye, and in the other, if you look
  54. Closely, you will see the image of a horse. There are regions
  55. Where no shadows
  56. Ever fall, where men sleep but do not dream, where human
  57. Skulls serve as water vessels. Those on whose mouths
  58. A swarm of bees settled when they were young, will sway
  59. Whole peoples with their clear
  60. Golden words in later life. But no
  61. Words spoken of any kind, in any tongue, can allay
  62. The griefs of ageing, or deny our racked bodies their final, sweet
  63. Release into oblivion: sure signs
  64. Of impending death include numbness, raucous laughter, mottled
  65. Eyes or nostrils, fingers toying obsessively with the tasselled
  66. Fringe of the bedspread...