They told me Heraclitus, they told me you were dead,
that some small bird had built its nest inside your noble head;
that hermit crabs and little shrimps were gnawing at your brain,
the matrix of your dearest thoughts ground down by rock and rain.
They told me Heraclitus, that they had got your nose,
your liver and your testicles and seven of your toes
the flesh and blood and bone of you was refuse on the ground,
while all your Heraclitusness was nowhere to be found.
They told me Heraclitus, as if I did not know,
the rotted meat that once was you now helps the fruit trees grow,
while all the brightness of the mind that made your music soar
lies lost among the particles that drift the ocean floor.
They told me Heraclitus, but I could not conceive,
the end of all that made you you: I still do not believe.
About the poem
I came across the first line of this poem in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, which my parents gave me one pre-internet Christmas. I had asked for the book, so spent hours browsing the quotations. I don’t know what it was about the quoted line which attracted me, but there is something of stateliness and severity about it, and a rather good metre. Also, I thought it was about Heraclitus the Greek philosopher: the one who said one cannot step into the same river twice. I later learned it was a different Heraclitus.
Whatever the exact reason, the line stayed lodged in my mind for decades. Finally, this year, it demanded that I do something with it. So I took Mr William Cory’s first line and metre, and used it as the first line of a new poem.
The poem is about the death of a friend and is grotesque. That seems entirely appropriate.