Snowfall in the Roman World Empire by Jesper Svenbro
On this particular winter afternoon in the Roman world empire
two figures are standing at the edge of the forest.
Although at the moment snow is falling so heavily
that the reader can’t make out
at any distance who these two might be,
I who am writing this poem
know that the man to the left is Göran Printz-Påhlson
wearing an immense sheepskin coat
of a Boeotian make,
and that his interlocutor is Nemesian,
the ancient author of a number of bucolic poems—
but above all of a poem about hunting,
Cynegetica, whose very beginning
is so exhortatory that many should have found it worthy of imitation....
What the two poets are discussing
is not hunting in the literal sense
but the hunt as metaphor, the capturing of the motif
by means of an ingeniously set trap,
dogs barking and the shrill sounding of horns....
Horns!—At this very moment I am fully awake.
We are standing in the FNAC in Paris,
it is just before Christmas 1978,
there is enormous congestion in the rue de Rennes just outside
and even in the shop you can hear the honking cars.
Carrying a heavy load of books,
Göran tries with little success to reach the check-out desk.
The snowfall is heavy. The shop is crowded.
As for myself, I am buying the Budé edition of Hesiod
which I should have acquired a long time ago.
Göran’s cheeks are uncommonly red.
Big flakes of snow have alighted in his beard
and are starting to melt.
“Father Christmas, I presume?”
a voice asks in the crowd.
The question seems apposite today.
But at the moment he is not wearing a pixie cap
but a Boetian felt hat to protect himself against the Northern wind—
and of course the aforementioned coat, sown from lambskins
in the manner prescribed by Hesiod.
For the Northern wind is keen, pierces
cowskins and goatskins, can only be stopped
by lambskin with wool of the thickest kind.
It makes the woods of the cosmos “bellow,”
according to the Boetian bard,
who then makes the most of the storm:
conjuring up the intimate sphere of the Boetian cottage
to great advantage, making it seem very attractive, in his poem.
By the light of the fire a shimmering girl
is rising anadyomenically out of her bath....
No doubt Hesiod would have liked to provide a detailed account of the scene.
But there he is in the snowfall!
The visibility is so poor that not even the slopes of Helicon can be seen.
We might have wanted to knock at the door ourselves
and catch a glimpse of the cottage—
had we only been able to get that far.
The crowd is compact.
Göran seems gigantic in his lambskin coat.
In the very moment when he hands over his Boetian credit card
to the curiously familiar girl at the check-out desk
—doesn’t she seem to have just risen from her bath?—
we are transported to a snow-drifted corner
of the northern part of the Roman world empire.
Did the Romans get as far as Göringe?
It has stopped snowing.
Göran mutters something about “the fence
which makes realism a neighbor of Romanticism”
and at the same moment I see the stakes emerging from the snow
some little distance from the forest
where we discovered him.
Somehow we got on through the check-out line.
I ask Göran what happened to the books that he bought
but for some reason he doesn’t answer.
He is silent as the eagle-owl
when the stars come on.