Discover more from PN Review
Twelve Labours of Hercules by John Heath-Stubbs
PN Review 2, January - March 1978
Twelve Labours of Hercules
The Nemean Lion
To strangle a lion with one's bare hands:
This legitimates his kingship,
His godship. Hereafter
He wears the skin. We kill
What we love. We become
That which we kill.
The Lernaean Hydra
Foetid snake of the green, standing pool:
Nine heads — when one's cut off
Three others grow. Thus error
Pullulates. This kind
Is cauterized by fire.
The Arcadian Stag
The silver stag, proud-tined,
Fleeting over the white snow,
Through glassy winters. Let no spear-point
Graze his flank, no arrow-tip
Impugn with blood-drop. The Lady
Of Wild Things, with gossamer moonlight
Gathered about her body, loves him.
He's not for you.
The Erymanthean Boar
This blatant beast —
Grubber up of boundaries, snorting
Consumer of rations,
Defiler of the sweet meadow:
Catch him alive!
The Augean Stables
I cannot shift it.
I cannot shift it. Water
From melting snows — turn on
The rivers like taps.
The Stymphalian Birds
Birds of the pestilent marsh, moulting
Darts of malaria, arrows
Of the swamp-fever. Bring pan and copper kettle:
Be off, you scruffy puttocks!
The Cretan Bull
Bull of the earthquake — he stamps,
A city collapses; he bellows,
A tall tower tumbles.
The Horses of Diomede
Horses of the King of Thrace,
Of the northern war-lord. They are armour-plated,
Jet powered, electronic brained.
In War's smoky manger
Man is their mashed provender.
The Girdle of Hippolyta
Of the women without men.
Putrid scalps dangle from her waist;
She has burned away her right breast, she brayed
Her first-born boy-child in a mortar.
How to snatch the girdle
Of her steeled and homicidal chastity?
The Oxen of Geryon
A three-bodied giant, the sun
At morning, noon and evening.
Herdsman of the western shore, his cattle
The sunset clouds — such riches
Are for the taking.
The Apples of the Hesperides
These two, apples
Of man's remembered innocence,
Burning through the twilight dream, and guarded
By female voices and the watchful snake.
We all come down to this —
The yapping guard-dog of the final dungeon.
But bring your honey-cake,
The kneaded dough-ball of all your senses loved
In the bright day, up in the cheerful air.
John Heath-Stubbs was born in 1918 and educated at Queens College, Oxford. A critic, anthologist and translator as well as a poet, he has received the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry and the prestigious St Augustine Cross. Carcanet published a number of previous collections by Heath-Stubbs, and most recently published a Selected Poems in 2018. In 1988 he was awarded the OBE. His poetry was published by Carcanet for almost thirty years. He died in London on 25th December 2006.
Subscribe to PN Review magazine at pnreview.co.uk.