Whitby Writers Group

a self-help writers co-operative

The Moon Machine

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A storm-tossed boatload of sponge divers
fetches up on Antikythera,
a rocky island spiked with teeth and talons.
Next morning, diving in the bay, they find…
not sponges – fingers; arms; hands; legs;
muscled torsos; bearded heads and feet
of bronze, corroded in rough seas cursed by
a bleeding moon.

Two thousand years ago, a Roman galley,
piled with loot from plundered Syracuse,
foundered in just such a storm. The divers
bring ashore amphorae; bracelets, jewels,
plus statues of exquisite workmanship.
But these are commonplace discoveries
when set against the unique finding of
the moon machine.

General Nicias, besieging Syracuse,
preparing to set sail for Athens on
the advantageous tide of the full moon,
chose to postpone his sailing for a month
because of a malign celestial omen.
Selene, in the fullness of her bosom,
darkened and became, for all to see,
suffused with blood.

An enterprise begun on such a day
was sure to be abortive. But instead,
caused by a month’s delay in setting sail,
Nicias and his army came to grief.
Intending to pre-empt the selfsame fate
due to the onset of a dire eclipse,
The Syracusan Archimedes built
the moon machine.

No planets govern the affairs of men
so thoroughly as do the sun and moon.
Phoebus’s daily round is clear and simple.
But, in marked contrast to her shining brother,
Selene, in her course, is fey and fickle.
Yet her capricious journey did not puzzle
Archimedes, skilled, cunning clocksmith of
the moon machine.

Lever, pulley, pivot, rack-and-pinion –
none that Archimedes did not know.
Knew too the wisdom of Chaldean kings:
they also feared the darkling of the moon,
believing it foreshadowed royal death.
The magi recognised within their records
periods in appearance of eclipses of
the bleeding moon.

And so, before the inauspicious day,
a criminal, condemned to be impaled,
was offered in its place a speedy death
being enthroned as king for just one day.
In such a way they hoped to turn aside
the deadly consequences stemming from
the ominous and inappropriate bleeding of
the pregnant moon.

In Antikythera, the wine-dark sea
delivers up a green and slimy pancake
of heavily corroded, scrambled bronze.
Then archaeologists consult with scientists.
X-ray machines of special manufacture,
dismantled, reassembled in a Greek museum,
are energised to probe the hidden workings of
the moon machine.

Presently an image crystallises
of levers; pulleys; graduations; pointers;
sheets of bronze engraved with full instructions;
gear wheels spiked with teeth of magic numbers:
223, 127, 53, 19 –
the secret formulae empowering us
once more to recreate, in our own times,
the moon machine.

Whole nations have applied their wealth and skills
to studying the roots of human sorrow.
They found it fundamental to existence.
But much to wreck the stratagems of men
is so predictable – and so: avoidable.
Why do we endure it? For once more
does it not lie within our power to build
the moon machine?

Ian Clark
2019
(updated from its 2016 version which incorrectly quotes Thucydides)

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