A Natural History

… the river’s

Ice closes; silvery carp, whiskered and scaly

As dragons, cluster

And thrash around the piers

Of the bridge. Frogs,

Eels, water rodents

Die. On the bank, preserved like impurities

In glass, a rutty tangle of wheel tracks, of paw-

And hoof-prints, of sandal- and boot-prints. At intervals

I found fire-

Ravaged altars, some blackened, some

Still smouldering; pools

Of congealed blood, from either an offering or perhaps

A wound, lay in the hollows

Of the uneven floors. Near one

I knelt and fingered

The shards of a pot, or water clock, painted bright red

And pink, like a fuchsia; tucked

Up under the eaves of another, an abandoned

Bird’s nest, fabricated in a curious manner

From scraps of wool, and brown animal hair, and a few fragments, torn but still

Just legible, of papyrus …


… now the Magi

Who are all

Appalling liars, believe the gods will never appear to, nor obey,

A person with freckles. To one who has a fishbone

Lodged in the throat, they say, ‘Plunge

Your feet in freezing water’; but if it’s a crust

That’s stuck there, the remedy is bread from the same loaf

Rammed into both ears. Headaches

Are best cured, they claim, by pouring vinegar

Over door-hinges, and applying the resultant sludge

To the temples. They venerate the mole, and trust

The entrails of no creature as they trust

Those of this tiny blind tunneller through the bowels

Of the earth. Anyone who consumes a mole’s heart, fresh

And still beating, will see like a prophet

Into the future. Avoid

Using a vulture’s feather as a toothpick; for sweet breath

Rub the ashes of burnt mice mixed with honey

Around the gums, then clean

With a porcupine quill. Should you suffer

From persistent pain in the abdomen, tear open

A bat …


… beyond

Stretches a desert where flickering ghosts crowd

Round the startled traveller, then vanish. Nature

Would have us wonder

At her ingenuity, and creates men who never spit,

Who stand all day watching the burning sun journey across the sky, moving

Only to shift their weight from foot

To foot. Some are born with two pupils

In one eye, and in the other, if you look

Closely, you will see the image of a horse. There are regions

Where no shadows

Ever fall, where men sleep but do not dream, where human

Skulls serve as water vessels. Those on whose mouths

A swarm of bees settled when they were young, will sway

Whole peoples with their clear

Golden words in later life. But no

Words spoken of any kind, in any tongue, can allay

The griefs of ageing, or deny our racked bodies their final, sweet

Release into oblivion: sure signs

Of impending death include numbness, raucous laughter, mottled

Eyes or nostrils, fingers toying obsessively with the tasselled

Fringe of the bedspread . . .

from Six Children (Faber, 2011), © Mark Ford 2011, used by permission of the author and the publisher.

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