When Eurydice, who is dead, points to her empty chest and says, “Let me go, Orpheus, there is nothing here that loves you” – believe her. There is nothing there, not even a chest, not even those words.
“Born a bard, this one,” says Rilke, and slaps your shoulders raw. Rilke is more intimate with death than you, and he wishes you could see it as a state free from yearning. Any rescuing of the dead from death is pointless. Death is their fulfilment, and having died they have no regrets.
Eurydice dead is full and dense like a pearl. The realm that holds her, if she is held anywhere, is one without memory. She does not remember you, Orpheus, she can’t. Eurydice is memory, not the one who remembers.
Like an ambitious parent, Rilke wishes you could see that this whole matter of inevitability is really in service to poetry, this great utilitarian art that makes every instance of human pain worthwhile. “But poetry,” says Rilke, “has to be conceived of as limited, needs to be written for its own sake, not for the sake of alchemically bringing about the thing the poet yearns for.” Orpheus is too proud, too torn, to imagine that his poetry comes with any limitations; he needs to believe that his words can make Eurydice become flesh in his arms again.
But when the ascent comes and Orpheus is asked to believe that through his song alone he has earned his beloved’s return from the underworld, that his song could have affected the laws of life and death to this extent, he thinks, “This is impossible. How could I ever have done such a thing? I am so deeply flawed, so undeserving of Eurydice. How could she possibly be there behind me?”
And he is right. Eurydice, in the fullness of her death, no longer yearns for Orpheus, feels nothing for him even resembling love. Eurydice has no desire or reason to follow him; Hermes is the one pushing her up that slope like a heavy crate. Even if Orpheus hadn’t turned around, would Eurydice’s love have returned? Once the indifference of death has touched the parts of the body that love, don’t they whither away? Can they ever grow back? The marriage between Orpheus and Eurydice lasted only three weeks, the poets say. All this work, just to recover three weeks of marital bliss?
Rilke rolls his eyes at Orpheus.
Orpheus knows, just as the poet knows, that the person he loves isn’t his wife of three weeks; the person Orpheus goes to retrieve over and over from Hades isn’t her; it is the spirit of Eurydice, the sensation of Eurydice, the opening Orpheus experienced when he first fell in love with her. The euphoria of Eurydice, this widening of himself, opened and flattened out into the world like the Angelus Novus, every aperture spread.
This sensation burrowed into him, grew a shimmering head and limbs, became a part of Orpheus that opened its mouth into a gaping need and said,
Nothing the muses or Apollo taught him, none of the poetry, the music, the sciences of the world, not the stars or the veining in the leaves, not the way the light falls through cracks in the rock, not competing with the song of sirens on the Argo, not the softness of a warm animal’s back – none of it came close to what it felt like to fall in love with Eurydice and feel her fall toward him in return.
The Eurydice inside Orpheus is not the one who has forgotten him. The Eurydice inside Orpheus is the one who is alive, and in love. The Eurydice he carries would never be told that her beloved turned and failed in Hades and ask simply, “Who?”
Orpheus hasn’t seen his therapist in weeks, because Orpheus is protesting the fact that his therapist works out of a tiny office in a cave made from the heaving flesh of a hundred rhinos. One of the horns sticks from the walls at such an angle that coats can be hung from it.
Instead of going to therapy, Orpheus reads, which is bad for his back, his eyes, but Orpheus wants to speed up the ageing process, get it over with. He is too young to feel this old, so he works on making both sensations meet in somewhere in the middle.
For the fourth time since he got it, Orpheus is reading Tao Lin’s Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. He reads it and thinks, yes, I too feel crushed by the shit of the world, yes, I too want to hold your face with mine. Yes, he thinks, things are straightforward and can be expressed as such, yes repetition with a slight variation can sometimes cradle the wound just so, the way adjusting your fingers while holding hands makes the sensation of connectedness more acute. Yes, he thinks, I don’t know how to love in this expanding universe, and yes I want to learn, even if it never happens fast enough. Even if my understanding doesn’t come to me at the speed necessary to turn time around and bring you back to me, back into a time before the viper left its poison in your flesh. Yes, Orpheus thinks, I have made myself so lonely, if affects my ability to distance myself from the binary.
“The secret of life is that I miss you” and that I wish I heard from you this exact sequence of words repeated and echoing out from every moment of openness:
“I’ll be right back.”
Instead, because you won’t speak, because you can’t, because you have no mouth, no lungs, because you aren’t alive enough to speak, in love enough to speak, I say it to you, over and over, each time I descend, when the time comes for me to turn around and let you go I say,
“I’ll be right back.”
Because in the process of returning to you I move with the momentum of the spinning world, with the shivering of stars.
Because returning to you makes me want to throw up less.
Because, like Tao Lin, “I want to remember you as a river.”
Because by facing backwards to where you are, I face the surge of interstellar dust, I catch it with my pores, my lungs, it whitens my hair, mixes into cement with the tears the wind whips up and it builds small castles in the corners of my eyes.
Because, like Paul Klee’s Angel, my arms are open in space, frozen wings, and my back is to the world.
Because only you are here, alive in this.
The earth rotates and I get dizzy because time passes and where you are time does not exist, and I don’t like feeling something you don’t feel, I don’t like all this unshared experience. I live my days according to the earth’s rotation with respect to the stars, because it shortens my days by four minutes, four minutes I don’t have to spend concerned that your heart and mind are lonely, somewhere in the glass jars where you left them; I don’t have to be concerned that a hard world now contains your innards and erases me from you; I don’t have to be concerned that these diagrams of self I build have already forgotten what the point of their existence was.
Orpheus worries that he doesn’t live up to his therapist’s expectations, because therapists, he was told, believe in linear progression, the ability to improve and leave behind the shell of a self that was worse, then analyse in great detail the past’s imprint on the shell, so as to make sure you never go back to being this inferior.
This is, of course, a paranoid imposition. Orpheus’s therapist is patient beyond belief. But Orpheus returns, it’s what he does, he runs backwards until he bumps his head and feels a change occur, but this change is in itself an illusion.
Orpheus is hungry and puts almond butter on a piece of bread. The longing for Eurydice is always buried deep in hunger. Eurydice herself is hunger, reminding him of his embodied self, which is now alone. Strange, a body so unused to living for itself; Orpheus knows his body best when it is tensed in expectation of Eurydice. The anticipatory throbbing, the tingling in the tongue. The eyes that seek her shape in every object, the smell of Eurydice. But Eurydice is elsewhere, has retreated into abstraction, a fluid need somewhere in Orpheus’s flesh.