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This poem is taken from PN Review 177, Volume 34 Number 1, September - October 2007.

from Mandeville Matthew Francis

The Travels of Sir John Mandeville first appeared in French some time around the middle of the fourteenth century. Though the author claims to be an English knight, nothing is known for certain about his identity, or whether the claims he makes about his life and travels have any substance - but much of his material is undoubtedly derived from other manuscript sources. The book had wide popularity in the Middle Ages and afterwards; Columbus is said to have taken a copy with him on his voyage to America, which says something about the persistence of the medieval world-view. To a modern reader, the Travels are remarkable for the way they juxtapose the wonders of reality and those of the imagination, the crocodile and the Phoenix, Tartars and Amazons, a round world that could theoretically be circumnavigated with a symbolic map having Jerusalem at its centre. These poems are taken from Mandeville, a book-length sequence which follows the narrator round his world, elaborating and explicating some of the original text, rearranging and omitting other passages, but remaining, I hope, faithful to the spirit of the Travels.

Of the Vegetable Lamb

It will not do to look for it if you are hungry.
It grows among rocks, in places where the only plants
are flakes of yellowish grey and skeins of brown crackle,

where the stream, if there is one, finds no soil to moisten
but fidgets a few yards then slips back into the ground.
Swallow a handful and it tastes of rusty armour.

You can search this hardness a long time and not find it,
then trip over it when you stop to relieve yourself:
an ankle-trap of knitted stems baited with one fruit.

It takes a knife to split the rind, but the pith inside,
woolly as you would expect, is sweet and chewable.
In the hollow heart the lamb stretches and looks at you.

It will die anyway now you have opened its womb,
and besides, what kind of a life did it have in there?
...


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