Thursday, July 31, 2008

The moon laurel

In the beginning of this poem, the philosopher Lucretius has a girl in his bedroom.
He holds in his hands an empty vial of green glass,
A secret medicine made from laurel berries and purchased at an extravagant prize
Through a friend, perhaps Catullus, or more likely Gaius Memmius.

Lucretius is impatient for the potion to work, but as some time passes
And still he feels no change, he begins to suspect he might have been swindled.
He registers the girl's soft hand on his shoulder as she rises to leave the poem
In quiet repetition.

And he ponders the myth of Sisyphus, to him representing Roman politics,
The eternal and convoluted pursuit of power, which is itself a hollow thing.
For ultimate victory is essentially beyond reach, like the nymph Daphne fleeing Apollo,
Narrowly escaping violation by changing herself into a laurel tree.

But to the man who has discovered the causes of things, and has
Cast beneath his feet all fears, unavoidable fate, and the din of the devouring underworld,
The sweet laurels of victory are only the leaves of that simple shrub, Laurus nobilis,
A broadleaf evergreen. They taste good in a stew and nothing more.

In his mind's eye Lucretius sees now a giant laurel tree, not planted,
Strangely, on the firm slopes of the mediterranean, among the olive groves and the vines,
But somewhere far away, on the other side of the world and beyond, in even harsher soil.
There is, it seems to Lucretius, a giant laurel tree on the moon,

And Wu Gang is trying with all his might to fell it. The mischievous Wu Gang
Who has neglected his duties and gone in search of immortality,
Wherefore the gods have promised him a place in their immortal ranks
If only he can fell the moon laurel - an impossible task, as the tree constantly regenerates.

Lucretius the Epicurean laughs at the thought of this
Because he doesn't yet know that he has been driven mad by the love potion,
And that he will kill himself by his own hand
In the 44th year of his life.


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