When I was near the house of Circe, I met Hermes in the likeness of a young man, the down just showing on his face. He came up to me and took my hand, saying: ‘Where are you going, alone, and ignorant of the way? Your men are shut up in Circe’s sties, like wild boars in their lairs. But take heart, I will protect you and help you. Here is a herb, one of great virtue: keep it about you when you go to Circe’s house.’ As he spoke he pulled the herb out of the ground and showed it to me. The root was black, the flower was as white as milk; the gods call it Moly.
Homer. The Odyssey, Book 10.
- Nightmare of beasthood, snorting, how to wake.
- I woke. What beasthood skin she made me take?
- Leathery toad that ruts for days on end,
- Or cringing dribbling dog, man’s servile friend,
- Or cat that prettily pounces on its meat,
- Tortures it hours, then does not care to eat:
- Parrot, moth, shark, wolf, crocodile, ass, flea.
- What germs, what jostling mobs there were in me.
- These seem like bristles, and the hide is tough.
- No claw or web here: each foot ends in hoof.
- Into what bulk has method disappeared?
- Like ham, streaked. I am gross-grey, gross, flap-eared.
- The pale-lashed eyes my only human feature.
- My teeth tear, tear. I am the snouted creature
- That bites through anything, root, wire, or can.
- If I was not afraid I’d eat a man.
- Oh a man’s flesh already is in mine.
- Hand and foot poised for risk. Buried in swine.
- I root and root, you think that it is greed,
- It is, but I seek out a plant I need.
- Direct me gods, whose changes are all holy,
- To where it flickers deep in grass, the moly:
- Cool flesh of magic in each leaf and shoot,
- From milky flower to the black forked root.
- From this fat dungeon I could rise to skin
- And human title, putting pig within.
- I push my big grey wet snout through the green,
- Dreaming the flower I have never seen.
- My brother saw a pig root in a field,
- And saw too its whole lovely body yield
- To this desire which deepened out of need
- So that in wriggling through the mud and weed
- To eat and dig were one athletic joy.
- When we who are the overlords destroy
- Our ranging vassals, we can therefore taste
- The muscle of delighted interest
- We make into ourselves, as formerly
- Hurons digested human bravery.
- Not much like this degraded meat — this meal
- Of something, was it chicken, pork, or veal?
- It tasted of the half-life that we raise
- In high bright tombs which, days, and nights like days,
- Murmur with nervous sound from cubicles
- Where fed on treated slop the living cells
- Expand within each creature forced to sit
- Cramped with its boredom and its pile of shit
- Till it is standard weight for roast or bacon
- And terminated, and its place is taken.
- To make this worth a meal you have to add
- The succulent liberties it never had
- Of leek, or pepper fruiting in its climb,
- The redolent adventures dried in thyme
- Whose branches creep and stiffen where they please,
- Or rosemary that shakes in the world’s breeze.
About the Poet
Thom Gunn, (1929-2004) was born in England, and attended Trinity College, Cambridge, before emigrating to the United States in 1954 to accept a fellowship at Stanford University where he studied with Yvor Winters. Gunn later taught at the University of California at Berkeley from 1958 to 1966 and again from 1973 to 1990.
As the critic Neil Powell wrote of The Man with Night Sweats (1992), “Gunn restores poetry to a centrality it has often seemed close to losing, by dealing in the context of a specific human catastrophe with the great themes of life and death, coherently, intelligently, memorably.”
Gunn’s honors include the Levinson Prize, an Arts Council of Great Britain Award, a Rockefeller Award, the W. H. Smith Award, the PEN (Los Angeles) Prize for Poetry, the Sara Teasdale Prize, a Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Award, the Forward Prize, and fellowships from the Guggenheim and MacArthur foundations. [DES-11/10]