The Writer apologises to Orpheus

One night as he sat trembling head in hand from head to foot a man appeared to him and said, I have been sent by – and here he named the dear name – to comfort you. 

Samuel Beckett – Ohio Impromptu

My sweet Orpheus,

First and foremost, let this be an apology. As another in a long list of writerly types in whose hands you twisted and spoke, I am sorry for treating you unkindly, for pushing you, more so than any other of my archetypes, to a place of insanity.

I am sorry for writing you in such a way that you became obsessed, obsessive, and for causing you the pain of a broken heart. I am sorry for stretching your myth through the loops of the Eternal Return, for not allowing you closure, trapping you like a ghost in the endless in-and-out of Hades, with not even a happy ending to hope for.

I am sorry for turning the Eurydice you wanted so much into an ever-receding messiah, the nightmarish version of the one Süskind so favourably compared you to. I am sorry for taking your love for Eurydice down the path of absurdity by way of unwarranted intensity, and for tying your very heart to her in such a way that you could never release her without giving up on yourself. 

I am sorry for allowing my own grief to derail our exercise, Orpheus, for damaging you in the process of trying to write about love. 

I did these things not just because, like most writers, I am a cruel and unscrupulous puppeteer, but because I had to understand where your distress would lead you, what the wrench of loss and separation would bring out of you. Eventually, the strain broke both of us and in my guilt I gave you the temporary solace of Melusina, plucking her from an entirely different myth. I love you enough to wish you could end up with someone loving, open and giving, like Melusina, but also I know that she will never replace Eurydice, because the myths you both stem from are too different to slake the yearning you feel. 

I meant it, Orpheus – one of the few things I meant on your behalf as well as mine – when I said in the words of Tao Lin that I want to learn how to love in this expanding universe, that I want to learn to return to what matters, and, more importantly, that I want to learn to return only to that which wants me to return. 

I am sorry for having given you this conviction you share with Averroes, that if only you could make your obsessions fully understood, fill the gaps in the other person’s necessarily fragmented and unfinished words, a less temporary solace could be found. If only you could fully decipher the Eurydice who has gone silent, place your words into her mouth, then you would understand and bring your shared myth to a satisfactory close. 

Melusina’s is the kind of love that would allow you to break out of your crystallisations, your toughened patterns, out of the fears and automatisms triggered by Eurydice, but this would happen at a price: here is the sort of love that demands work and constant realignment, that requires a willingness to compromise on personal habits, and isn’t it easier, in many ways, to remain alone in one’s motifs? 

What I admire about you, Orpheus, is that even on the most mind-numbingly repetitive paths, even when you thought you’d expressed all of your pain so many times it had become meaningless, you somehow remained a creature of hope.

You said, “Eurydice is inside me, and I love the part of her I know. If nothing else, perhaps my love will give her peace.”

There is a kind of self-sufficiency that is like death, born from a person’s disinterest in being reached by love. I gave your Eurydice this kind of inwardness, despite the fact that in many other versions of your myth she was shown to be deeply devoted to you.

This was, perhaps, the biggest cruelty on my part, to have left you with these trace expectations of Eurydice’s affection, while making her behaviour into that of someone who has fallen out of love with you utterly. I am sorry for doing this to you, Orpheus, but it felt necessary. Had she loved you when you lost her that second time, you would not have been able to make your way into Hades again and again. Only the unrequited nature of her love could trap you in an endless return, a cycle of desperately trying to win her back, because in your case it wasn’t death that held her captive, nor some other larger external force; it was simply Eurydice’s will to fall out of love with you.

When my father’s mother died so early in his barely grown-up life, it wasn’t because the world collided with her or because her body gave up; it was because she had decided to. 

All I can say to you, Orpheus, is that you are looking in the wrong places for the Eurydice I gave you. The Eurydice I gave you cannot be found in tales of lost love, in words grieving the passing of a loved one. The Eurydice I gave you can only be found where indifference lies. Disinterest is what you need to see her as an embodiment of, not love, not star-crossed affection, not a mythical romance broken off too soon. To Eurydice, who lives in the bliss of the dead, you scarcely exist, and if you do it is as little more than a recurring nuisance.

I wish with all my heart, Orpheus, I had given you a worthier companion to pine for, a worthier mirror, someone more deserving of your intensity. Unfortunately, out of writerly heedlessness, just out for an experiment, I gave you this uncaring Eurydice, and the juxtaposition of her indifference with the affection you gave her now fills me with tenderness for you, dear Orpheus, for you and your willingness to love even the parts of you that will not accept being loved. 

All I can do now is try to find an ending to your story, but just so as to provide some solace from the mess I’ve caused, I would like to give you a version of what things could have been between you and Eurydice, a good version, so to speak. 

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The Mermaid

The Mermaid has spent too much of her life with water in her ears, the pressure of several underwater atmospheres weighing down on her, and sometimes she forgets which element she is currently in. On land, she whispers; underwater, she shouts. It confuses everyone.

Out of water, the Mermaid becomes light-headed, and quick to dismiss her strengths, choosing to see only the ways in which she falls short. Her body, she thinks, is too dissonant in its composition to be the object of love. The Mermaid often wishes she were a fish, and although many of her features call to mind those of a fish, her tail contains the reproductive organs of a mammal, and her scales are only a mammalian approximation, based on hasty evolutionary guesswork. A worthy body, she thinks, is one that makes sense, like those of her terrestrial cousins, or else the sleek blubber rhombus of a dolphin or whale; those, she thinks, are harmonious compositions.

She envies humans whose bodies seem carved from a single piece. The Mermaid’s tail is, of course, impossible to ignore, even when she hides it under a long skirt. She doesn’t really have a gait and can only slither. Lithe as she can be underwater, the Mermaid is cumbersome and unwieldy on land, not the sort you take out dancing.

Most of what she does involves lounging, and while her sexual appetite is voracious, she doesn’t take much initiative beyond fanning out her fins and batting her lashes. While she possesses something akin to gills, the Mermaid still needs to come to the surface for air. Her mass of long, diaphanous hair conceals two small blowholes below her neck, one to each side of her spine. When she comes up to breathe, seagulls pick at her gossamer hair, which is heavy out of the water, the way wet sponges are.

The truth is, she is physically ill-equipped for life in either element. No matter where she is, her movements are those of a creature who doesn’t quite belong, an imposter of sorts. Underwater, her skinny forelimbs and simian hands can only helplessly slap the water as her tail propels her through it, and the lack of fatty layers on her upper body means she feels everything too intensely, even there in the thicker element. Unlike her terrestrial cousins, who are endotherms, warm-blooded, the Mermaid thermoregulates like an ectotherm. She spends much of her time basking so as to store heat in her small body for the inevitable cold of the watery depths. Every day she lies on sunny rocks, eyes closed like a lizard’s, batting away the courting of seagulls.

Because her material existence is steeped in the other-worldly, the Mermaid can find heat in something as abstract as love; an intense bout of affection can warm her small body for months.

Humans give much attention to her wide-boned face and soft, enormous eyes, to her mouth which many men want to sink their hooks into, but the Mermaid finds it difficult to accept their interest. She worries about the way being out of water makes her smell. Her fears all amount to loneliness, understandably so, as very few of her own kind remain, scattered across the seas. Many fall in love with humans and leave the waters for good. The Mermaid, too, feels closest to humans, feels drawn to them, yet she knows she can only engage them for a while before encountering their limits. Eventually, humans become disinterested, or too aware of her otherness, of the fact that her skin doesn’t feel or smell as it should, the fact that she doesn’t have two legs that spread.

On land, it takes the Mermaid a long time to process what occurs, and she feels dull compared to the rapidity of her underwater movements. None of what she is underwater can translate onto land.

Humans consider water an object of ingestion and utility, and they consent to its presence in their lives as long as it isn’t dirty or uncomfortable. They like the way it looks in photographs. The Mermaid wonders if humans know the teeth the water has, the way life inside it often feels like being eaten and absorbed by a large, limpid organism.

There is much about the Mermaid that is translucent: her nails, hair and teeth. Even her tail is see-through when held against the light; looking in, one sees her reproductive organs, and then emptiness surrounding a ladder of bones. All this translucence only makes the Mermaid feel more forgettable. She is only half woman, after all, her other half a bad imitation of a fish.

In humans, the eye is the most see-through part of the body, and at the back of their eyes one can see right into their vascular system. Unlike much of her body, the Mermaid’s eyes are dense, covered by a thick membrane that makes it hard for her to see what is visible to humans right away.

They look at her opaque, baffling eyes, and fail to see through to what they might call a soul.

People quickly tire of the Mermaid’s appearance and find there is nothing they want from her after their initial curiosity is satisfied. Who needs their life weighed down by a creature who sleeps in a shallow bath, who carries salty smells into the house, who needs to disappear for stints in the sea, lest her skin dry out? What draws them in initially is the novelty of her shape, her hair clear as glass, the feel of scales under their hands.

They ask her to demonstrate her various breathing skills in a hastily filled kitchen sink. They ask her if she likes raw fish, if she ever just swims around with an open mouth. She abhors this question, and what it implies.

They ask her to sing to them, something they’ve heard about sirens. When they realise her voice is nothing but a fractured scream, they frown, and then forget to call her the next day.

 

 

Orpheus gets distracted

During the past couple of months I’ve spent increasing amounts of time in what my therapist calls the ‘Sandpit of Archetypes’, where I play with archetypal figures as if they were my dolls. Since Nanowrimo, I’ve begun to weave bridges between my arche-puppets, to see if they bring something out of each other that wasn’t there before, although in all honesty, all I’m probably achieving at the moment is more of the same.

Grief has a way of knocking your mind full of holes, which has kept me from spinning my thoughts as far as I wish they went. But I don’t think the archetypes mind too much, they just want to be played with.

Anyway, here is my precious baby Orpheus, intercepted by my favourite castle-building sea-witch Melusina, who seems to be taking a break from Siegfried’s crap. 

*******************

Orpheus has lost count of the times he has gone down to the Underworld, carrying a mound of increasingly artificial hope on his back, so as to reconstruct the lacework between himself, the part that wants to love, and Eurydice, the part of him that cannot trust, cannot open herself to the world. Worn out from the recurring descent, Orpheus has automated his mourning; his emotions change so quickly, and with each step, that he has, for the first time in ages, lost interest in logging them. His feelings skid across the ice, they are so fast, so fleeting – they are no more to him now than the buzzing of flies.

Orpheus emerges from the Underworld, where he has yet again lost Eurydice to the depths, had to watch her slide back into the dark, and here he is the bright light of day with his lids pinched together because after each ascent the sun seems harder to bear, its heat less like nourishment and more like paper cutting into a pre-existing wound.

Each time he comes back up to life for air, Eurydice’s silent refusal rings in his ears, I cannot love, not now, not you, not the world. Orpheus can’t make himself whole again because his missing piece, Eurydice, listens only to the poison in her foot. We were hurt once, we will be hurt again. She isn’t wrong when she says this, but her approach creates nothing but inertia. 

*

And here he is now, up here in the waking world, where birds call to each other and the wind makes music in the trees, Orpheus hears a new voice, unplaceable, one he hasn’t heard before. The voice is saying:

“Take a seat, Orpheus, take a break. You’ve been doing this for, how long now? I’m not saying you have to stop, but it might be time for a change, no, a little distraction from this business of being Orpheus so relentlessly.”

Melusina’s eyes are like lichen glowing on a tree. They don’t burn Orpheus’s eyes the way the sun does, and so he sits on the ground and listens. Melusina has found her way into his story, somehow, and he doesn’t ask how. You don’t ask a witch how she does things, or why.

“We both belong to our damage, our myths,” she says, “and we know this, so maybe we can help each other out, just this once, change masks and bodies, let our roles become translucent for a while. What do you say?”

*

Confusion is a great place to be, the faith healer says.

They both know the path they’re on, the inevitability of it. They will try their entire lives to fix something that cannot be changed, to regain the love of a part of themselves that has forsaken them. Eurydice is the part of Orpheus that will always be submerged, will always withdraw from love, the part that won’t leave Hades no matter how much Orpheus struggles. Siegfried is the part of herself Melusina will never cease to please, do right by, the part that can never be satisfied. So why not give in to each other for a while, leave aside their myths, the paths they will later have to return to. Melusina has no bearing on Eurydice, no interest in Eurydice’s damage; Orpheus cannot explain or make up for Siegfried, and Melusina doesn’t want him to. 

*

Crossing over and putting your own myth on pause is a risk, the shrink advises. You know you can’t escape the repetition you are always working your way through. The thing you escape will find you again, no matter whose story you hide in.

But what sweet release it is to imagine a moment in which they can be something else, act as a roadblock in each other’s automatic progression. Cut through the fog of repetition and eternal recurrence, screw up this whole inconclusive trundle. Rip them for a moment from their fate and see if it leaves a mark, see if it changes the way of things. Rub them against each other, see if their sparks transform the scenery from forest to desert, see if they can clear what’s overhead to reveal a night sky full of stars.

Confusion is wonderful, the faith healer says, because all bets are off, and there are no maps telling you where to go. 

*

Melusina says: “I think it’s time we suspended what we’re carrying and found some solace in each other. I know you Orpheus: you get distracted when you’re not rewarded. You think of yourself as a patient man, patience is your virtue of choice, not your singing, which is beautiful, not your body, which is love. Patience is how you love, and yet your patience traps you in a deadlock with yourself: the part of you that seeks connection versus the part of you that wants, above all else, to protect herself in isolation. Such a long-lasting stalemate, don’t you think? And so familiar to me. Couldn’t we both use something else to wipe the slate, something to spark a fire in the palms, a stomping rage inside the lower parts, remember what the body feels like when it tangles up with another’s limbs. Let’s step into each other’s myths, Orpheus, see what things are like outside the deadlock. Let’s give this to ourselves now, Orpheus, to each other, during this lull in our patterns, this waiting time before we head back down into our respective Underworlds – yours in Hades, mine a castle on a hill – before we return to fighting for the parts of us that refuse to yield, back to the ache we nurse so ceaselessly. This is the time to remember what it feels like to mourn without sorrow. To bite a lip that isn’t your own, nor Eurydice’s in dreams.”

Orpheus nods and walks through the door she holds open for him, a passageway she clawed from the air with her hands, which are magic. He walks through to see another wood there, similar to those he knows, yet different, further north, its greenness lusher, and not a juniper in sight. There is no sea salt in the air, this is a landlocked kingdom.

This is the wood Melusina inhabits, and around her are valleys hollowed from the gentle slopes of black and leafy hills. It is in these woods that Melusina waits for man after man, each one of them Siegfried, all of them waiting to be Count, all of them impatient men wo repeat Melusina’s painful pattern, men who have no patience with who she can be, who she is becoming. Siegfried is distressed by transition, by what wavers and mutates. Each version of Siegfried who finds out how erratic Melusina’s physical form is, blending human and serpent and bird and fish, chases her away in fear, cannot find in himself the ability to love such a confusing being. And yet it is this person Melusina must return to each time, Siegfried after Siegfried, until she comes, with each successive involvement, closer to an answer. 

*

David Cronenberg, who is in many ways a fish, says: “Everybody’s a mad scientist, and life is their lab. We’re all trying to experiment to find a way to live, to solve problems, to fend off madness and chaos.” (Cronenberg on Cronenberg, p.7)

Melusina and Orpheus look for themselves in the pain of a no, look for themselves in every instance of reaching out to Eurydice or Siegfried respectively, and in this repeated no they look for the part of their psyche they are missing, have been missing for so long, and they look, most of all, to understand. Their path, they tell themselves, is scientific, but even this motivation cannot save them from becoming tired, becoming discouraged, becoming bored.

*

The aim of the experiment, if there is one, is fuelled by the masochism of the scientific mind: to return again and again, like a Hegelian self-consciousness, to that which says no to you, refuses to yield, which like a glass flower fools the eye and cuts the palate to shreds; that which looks edible but cannot be bitten without shattering, without a violent disappointment. In the name of science you return to it and make it happen to you over and over, to see, not if you can make it yield, make it say yes instead, but to see why its refusal tears these clumps out of you, to see where in your body this no hurts the most, and why it feels the same each time it occurs.

“The point,” says Martyn Steenbeck about science-fish David Cronenberg, “is to follow the experiment or hypothesis through to the end, unrestrained by social or political consideration.”

The reason this is permitted, is because Orpheus operates in a dream, Melusina in a tale. They are returning something to its wholeness, something that may never have been whole, but they know wholeness can never be attained without admitting that parts of oneself will always be hidden in others, where they may have been for much longer than we imagine. Eventually, both Melusina and Orpheus will have to abandon distraction and return to their quests, their experiments, repeating again and again the patterns that are theirs alone.

*

Orpheus says: I’ve spent so much time with my ear pressed to my own sternum, and yet I know almost nothing, except for all those things I’ve wrapped in words, concepts of my needs and thoughts, what I think I know myself to want. And all of a sudden there is Melusina, who knows nothing about me, knows only what she sees, and she says, ‘I don’t think you’re scared of being unloved, you’re scared that once you are loved in return you’ll realise you don’t know how to act, that every word you say seems heavy or wrong, you’re scared that once you are loved you begin to doubt yourself immensely, your abilities, your temperament, you start thinking you’re a monster, you think “I’m not worthy of this person’s love, they must be mistaken, they can’t possibly love me and know what they’re doing, they must think I’m someone else.”

Her arms fall around me and she says, “No-one can know you the way you want to be known, Orpheus. Nobody wants to. It would be like wanting to know water, wanting to know it as if it were a person, beyond knowledge of its chemical composition. Wanting to know what water dreams at night, if it has aspirations, what its relationship with its father was like.”

And her voice is such that I don’t care if she’s right or wrong, what matters is that she puts me somewhere in an imbalance of comfortable and ill at ease, and she smells like seaweed and her hair is split like lightning at the tips, I feel the calluses on her hands and think, so what if I don’t know where this is going, so what if Eurydice and I are trapped in an endless cycle of denial, so what if love is never more than a whiff of God that wants to quell His absence.

*

The setting of Melusina’s world changes when Orpheus enters it, though of course he doesn’t know this: shadows have a lilac shimmer like Orpheus’s eyes and hair, no longer the rich gold of Siegfried’s shade. Melusina notices the air is cold and light with Orpheus here, not the dense and temperate wafts that curdle around Siegfried’s fiery frame. Orpheus has brought tenderness into the atmosphere, a playfulness that Siegfried cannot find, Siegfried who says, “I don’t know who or what you are, you’re too many things at once. I’m just trying to run a county here.” And Orpheus, who’s seen it all, who’s been to Hades so many times now that he’s surprised when rivers aren’t full of flames, the air for once not veined with wailing souls.

They sit and drink the coffee Siegfried won’t allow himself to drink.

They touch each other’s bodies the way Eurydice will not let herself be touched.

*

Remember, says the therapist, the enormous, underlying grief, so large that even standing right on top of it you could not see the outline of its face, could only see the texture of earth instead of skin. It’s not Eurydice who will make you feel whole, it’s learning to be without her, to let her stay in Hades for as long as she needs. The grief you are both dealing with in your own ways is primal and eternal; you can’t shake it from your bones nor write about it, put it into words, but it is what has driven you from copy to copy of the same person, it has rubbed you into the most translucent version of yourself, into someone who, for fear of hurting, eats only sand and leaves, drinks only his own piss, whose hands touch only his own skin; but Orpheus, before you head out into the plain to have what’s left of your scraggy little body mutilated and torn, think again that each small pain, no matter how displaced, is a manageable way to mourn that unfathomable death. Get distracted, Orpheus, create some chaos for a while. Remember what it’s like to be rewarded. In time you will return to yourself, your Eurydice. You will return to caring for that which eats only itself. 

*

8AD MAN – Ovid in Exile

It was 8AD when you decided I was a bad man, when the love you said you felt no longer rose from your pores to meet my steam. It was 8AD then, when they ferried me on your behalf to the tail end of our Empire’s lobster-shaped cartography. It was 8AD when I fell from your graces and you ceased to respond with an affection matching mine. Misery will befall any man who loves Augustus, and who, by loving, exasperates him. Augustus must not be loved, and he who tries to love and be loved by Augustus is a man digging his own grave. This is the prediction I brought upon myself when I entered your body, allowed your body to enter mine, and let you too close to my heart, that overeager angel flanked by pocked and weakened wings, filling with fluid rather than air.

Parambassis ranga, the ray-finned glass fish from the fresh waters of South India, live delicately, cannot live well in captivity. Between walls, glass has a tendency to shatter when touched. Glass is happiest when it is born from lightning striking sand. Glass born from a human lung in the fiery captivity of a glass-blower’s studio is fragile, because humans have a propensity to make things ever more delicate until they can barely exist on their own. The fragility of the ailing human body is blown out of proportion by the isolation shrouding it when we cease to be able to see what’s raging inside us, or gain insight from each other into our pain.

We walk through the pale, sunlit corridors as people who have seen inside themselves. Our bodies made transparent to us, open to our gaze. This is the gift our illness has bestowed, and we carry it in our pockets, lung folded over dark lung.

The waters out here are murky, the sea is black, clinging to its own night. My body is too small to stir the sludge aside. How typical that the art of love, which I thoughtlessly carved into a slab, now stands between us, Augustus. When you became Caesar, I, your poet, became a threat, too volatile, too much like mercury, unfit to clarify even the cloudiest spleen. You began to fear my devouring spirit, Augustus, and you ceased to seek your solace in me, fleeing instead into the throne room to attend to leadership duties. But even this wasn’t far enough from my reach and you decided it was time I left Rome for good.

Banishment, you said. The men beating down my door were your ambassadors. Their arms seized me, and my body was banned to a cell for three nights before it was chained to a cart and ferried to the utmost edge of the Empire on the fourth dawn. Banishment for Ovid, who betrayed. The journey away from you lasted months, and with every passing day as I woke to find the wheels still turning I knew I would never see your face again, your face, it is true, shabbier with age and yet still the only face I assign to love. Time in exile ceases to flow cleanly, makes crosses instead of lines.

Despite what my letters say, it is not Rome I miss, is is the Rome that holds your body, Augustus, the Rome that is your flesh. Within the borders of Augustus, body and heart distended across mountains, seas and planes, there is no place for Ovid, the Empire now  devoted to another fire, the love of strength that seized you when you became Caesar. The only truth between us is that I can’t be far enough away. But you don’t know, Augustus, that the poet’s mind is the foundation of metaxy, and the distance between us, even your death, makes you glow more significantly inside me. Did you think, Augustus, that banishment would suffocate my passion? Have you ever been loved? If you had, you would know that exile cannot end affection’s blaze once it’s underway. Love stays in the poet, materialising over time in his corporeal patterns.

Look into the waters and see their small, translucent bodies tracing paths, all spine and on each side  an enormous eye, their flesh a kind of jelly. They swim past each other in the sweet watery slick, a window to their inside world, revealing how little of their inner space is taken up by organs, how much of them is spine, enormous eyes looking through the body’s glass. What can the large eyes see of their transparent peers? Like poets, do they speculate deep into the bodies and hearts of others until something is brought to the surface that should have remained hidden? They stare through the glassy skin at the incessant beating, the bones, the sparks. How constant our bones are when compared to what we feel. When you became Augustus, sometime after you became Caesar, though your heart continued to beat its wings, it no longer did so towards me.

Here I am, Ovid in exile, and like the wretched creatures I have fleshed out in words throughout my life, I am finally learning to languish and pine, to beat the hot ground with my bones, which carry in their marrow, indelible as code, my yearning for you. All those who are not you, Augustus, are unwanted, driving deeper into me the sickness that is your absence, a sickness that has wrung the strength from my lungs.

I dream of us, Augustus, together in exile in a fresh-air sanatorium, somewhere in the Swiss Alps perhaps, breathing the air that carries whiffs of soap and Edelweiss and billy goat shit and clean wet earth, breathing and hoping to cure the disease of loving too passionately. I dream of us there emptying our lungs of city life, of dust, of the humidity brought on by crying, by sweating, by lives unfitting for our needs. I dream of us there, in rooms next door to one another, in pyjamas of silver cotton thread, pince-nez, pomade in our hair, I dream that we walk past each other and feel the tentacles of longing shoot out from our skins, hooking into the beloved flesh. Our illness is one of sensitivity; it knocks the air right out of our tender lungs and leaves us reeling for a while. Like French saints, we burn, we suffer. I dream of us on chaises longues in the greenhouse, I reading my words to your ear until my voice gives out, I dream I hear you coughing next to me at night, who knows how long our bodies will last. We hope for the things the doctors tell us to hope, hope that our sheer will can make the illness go away.

It wasn’t you who tore down my chamber door that summer night, as you used to do in the past, when your eyes still burrowed into me, saying ‘Your words entice me, poet, the way you speak the Gods is truer than what shines from the temple walls. Hold my hand and follow me into the dark, teach me the difference between a spear and a reed.’ Those were your words to me when our bodies were younger, bodies we threw at each other without much thought against my plaster walls.

Think of the way technology makes our flesh translucent, radio waves exposing on screen what is happening within. In the tuberculosis ward, we carry the image of our own bodies exposed on screen, made into smears of light by electromagnetic waves; we have the doctors give us a print of our own internal image and we carry it over our hearts, show it to one another in the dark of our embraces. This is me, we say, me on the inside, all of me, love me for what you see. I have nothing to give but this flesh, these flattened ribs, the fumes of illness you see curling there, nothing but this bulky pear of a heart, the smudged cavities of my wringing lungs – this is all there is to me. Love me for this, if nothing else.

But you, the powerful one of us, flung my body as far from yours as you could, with the same insistence as you used to pull my head into your solar plexus. Before my banishment, when your love melted from your eyes, you said my crime towards you lay in something I saw, something I ought not have seen, the way water nymph Melusina melts into the rock when Count Siegfried spies on her in the bath – is it this sort of thing I have seen, Augustus, have I surprised you in full narcissistic thrall, in a metamorphosis of the flesh, have I spied in you something that belies your words as moral ruler over Rome’s unfathomable terrain? Have I seen in you what you yourself are unwilling to see, the ways in which you fail? The poet is a bad mirror, Augustus. Whatever I saw, it forced you to make me disappear.

And yet, for all the distance, my mind can’t but bear the beauty of your cheeks, the hair that falls like pale feathers on your face, your ears, their small, inward-curling perfection. I still feel the pointing of your tender hands, their skin fragile now and yet their beauty lies in the way they used to reach for me. Nothing will remove your features from my heart, Augustus. Think of the disease burning up our bodies when our lungs gave in, a fever of love we were too frail to feel, born victims of a consumptive passion, think of us are sent high up into the mountains to rest and breathe among the echoes, to heal there from the weakness in our chests, to suck in deep as much as we can of the fresh air said to be our saving grace. Think of the way the doctors have us stand behind a screen to see our bones shine in the dark like cartoon anatomy, every laboured breath visible through that impossible radio wall. Think of the ghostly way our ribs lie flattened on top of each other like wet shreds of paper on black water. Think of how we hold each other in the darkness of not-knowing, this summer retreat likely to take an abrupt end for some of us.

Imagine us, Augustus, as transparent people, habits and organs exposed to each other, in full sight of each other’s imminent stool, our flesh translucent like that of a fish. Imagine us able to comment on the health of each other’s lungs, the sparks in our nervous systems, the position of our hearts inside our chests. We could detect illness in each other just by looking in, the way apes eat the fleas from their sweetheart’s fur. Imagine living in such bodies, always open, always visible, imagine the anxiety of never being able to distract ourselves from our own pulse, our own heartbeats, our stomachs digesting. Imagine having nowhere to flee ourselves, how could we bear to be alone with no one to hold our bodies when the darks swirls of lovesickness unfold, imagine nothing hidden, no shield between us and ourselves. All there is, open to itself. Would it make us kinder men, do you think, more capable of intimacy?

Where else such a chance to see inside ourselves, inside each other? Creatures of excessive emotion, we bemoan the opacity we are tethered to, the clay in our epidermis, we fear the bewildered loneliness of our cloudy shell. I deal with the fear by flinging these words into the inhabitants of myths, I make them dance, I mould them, I ruin their lives; you take a spear and vanish into the duties of a man of mind. The political animal feeds on its worship of you, Augustus. Love was never something you could come to rest in, only ever one more conquest, a reward with which to widen your scope; soon boredom sets in. In the body of a poet, no matter how aged and frail, love remains cradled in devotion to itself, and the poet lives in a willingness to love and continue to trace every one of its folds.

In the tuberculosis ward, I am alone. The presence of you is carried only within my mind, a ghost, a desire, which will never again manifest in the flesh. “Me voici donc seul sur la terre,” says Rousseau, wandering spirit unbound yet trapped in an exile of his own. I am alone on earth when you die on a blistering August night, befitting your name. Your hands never again run down my spine, your flesh starves of mine. All these wars, these expansive settlements, all in your name, but for what, you ailing child? Your cough never left you; once, you kissed me and couldn’t tear yourself away before your cough shot deep into my throat.

I, the poet, belong to you, and your name is indelible on mine, carved into mine as if by some brutal machine in a colony of later years, carved again and again, with every new iteration of Augustus, even decades after your death, your name deepens the grooves it makes in my flesh. My verse were written in the age of you, and there is no wiping you from them. But since that initial crashing of our hearts, all these years ago, which led me to believe that like emotive planets we were leaving craters in one another’s surface, it seems thousands of years have passed, and I, though once a poet to whom the words and stars were kind, am now speaking from so far away that my images are muddled, my words smeared with a tacky gleam. No matter.

I wonder sometimes how many copies of me you went through before I was just another in a line of lovers to the great Augustus, all those attempts at changing yourself by rubbing your skin against another’s, all these Ovids with eyes like mine, concerns like mine, all these poets in line whom you chased down in admiration, saying, ‘Poet, I’ve never met a man like you.’ Inside the grooves dug by repetition, every time you spoke these words, said them again and again to poet after poet just like me, inside those hollows in your body reverberates my longing to hear them said again. The tubercular body is too sensitive to survive in a dispassionate empire. It coughs to eject the false air, the nauseating hope. On the doctor’s screen, black plumes of lovesickness appear, folding like hands around the weakened lung. The throbbing branches are no longer quartz, they no longer fan out with the pure joy of carrying blood toward the sky; instead, they liquefy. The body melts into phlegm as pale as candle wax.

When you die, Augustus, copy after copy of you emerges through time, these new rulers carry your name, and yet not one of them is you. It is not in the name that love is contained, not in the soul, love lives in the body, there inside the spotted lungs, inside the cracking bones, and when you died you never returned, no matter the abstraction you were flattened into, no matter the legends and coins, no matter the words you once said to me, you stayed gone.

How many copies before me? As many as there will be men who are Augustus after you have died? I am not the beginning of this string, Augustus, and I am not its end. I am somewhere in the middle, a meaningless pearl torn from an anonymous oyster on a seabed of no consequence. And yet in my body your name features indelibly, a permanent fleck on my lung. My mind unfurls in its retelling of the way your nose tip traced along my sternocleidomastoid, the way your hands held on to my wrists, your face impossible to erase from the jelly of my eyes. And yet such a translucent sickness, for all the value it adds to a poet, can never be the state of choice for a head of state, you said. A head of state is made of marble, you said, and does not carry his somatic secrets folded in a pocket across the breast.

Imagine compassion, made possible not by electromagnetic waves but by the barrier of the skin simply giving way to sight. Imagine the flesh clear as glass, imagine the incessant twitching and jumping under the surface, the blood curling its way into the organs. A living X-ray, and not just the one: every body the same. We wander the streets and see deep into each other, the flurries of activity there between our ribs, along our spines, the muscles milky under the surface. We see not the sex organs, we see the fluids and cells they carry. We see the bends in each other’s bones, the red flame in the suffering flesh, the darkness in the lungs of city dwellers, and we remember how to worry about each other. Up there in the mountainous resort, it’s so easy to believe the tale of lovers agonising side by side, hoping to be each other’s salvation. It is easier to live with the contradictions up here, of loving and not, of being angelic and animal, alone and beside you still.

The reason for my exile, it is said, is that one of us was too in love with himself, with what was too much like himself. We cannot say which of us it was. The result is the same: 8AD – a distance as wide as this Empire, which requires you to be always in its middle, will allow. 8AD ended me. All I wanted was to be your middle, Augustus, to be the centre into which you curl when the world tires you out. I will never see your face again before you die, before I die, nowhere but in sleep, every night since 8AD. Before this, Augustus, we were, for a brief moment, more open to each other than the murkiness of human skin allows, we were translucent, open to each other in words, in flesh, and I could see you there in front of me, I could see you completely.

Orpheus/Eurydice, or: the self disseminated into others

Sometimes when envisaging itself the mind splits itself into many parts so as to see its different aspects more clearly, aspects embodied most often by characters that can play out their traits with the aim of seeing how they relate to one another. Sometimes two lovers are the easiest puppets for the conflicting parts of a mind, as is the case here, when Orpheus and Eurydice must realise how incompatible their responses to a common past damage have become, leading to an asymmetrical dance between one who flees and one who chases, always fruitlessly. 

***

You are Eurydice, and what has bitten your ankle is your past. I wonder now if you allowed it to, beckoned the snake’s sharp mouth towards you, even after all these years you are unwilling to be separate from it, to let it stay where it belongs; this past, Eurydice, you speak to it endlessly, you steep in it, it puckers your skin. The bliss I seek seems to you impossible, and you are unwilling to contribute, preferring to dwell alone in the Underworld with these last traces of her, the poison that ferried you there, coursing through your translucent earthly flesh. You want to remain a tank of her imprints in the dark, to watch them glow and swim inside your river map, you want to be alone in silence without me, made to hear no words but those she left you.

And here I am, this other part of you, the desiring fool who, despite every person in our past, never lost hope in love, imprudent Orpheus descending again and again into the Underworld to find you, sing you into a freedom you have no care for. Here I am, Eurydice, the part you lost, trying in despair to win you back to me, but the split has occurred too long ago, and we are now two separate beings, one yearning for unity, the other seeking in an untouchable solitude the memory of others, easier to be with than her living twin. I, the hopeful part of you, once meant so much to you, you let me define us, you held me, I was your all. Were we once a single soul, Eurydice? Our perfect likeness tells me that we were, and yet you carry a damage I cannot feel, and a refusal to choose me over the company of others, whom you find so much more compelling. All this yearning to step out of yourself, Eurydice, and into unfamiliar depths and ruins.

Here I am, descending to where you are so as to convince your smirking wardens that all of this is a mistake, that you aren’t meant yet for this place, that your heart’s true wish is to be alive on the surface with my love for company.

“She will be yours in time,” I tell them. “Human lives are short, she will be back before you know it. Let me have her back just for a while.”

They bare their teeth with knowing eyes, the discomfort of sadness is felt in their skin. How can I be so deluded to believe that I know you, they think, believe that you are capable of wanting me, that what you truly want in life is to love me in return, that your stay down here is involuntary. Each time I stand before them, your sinister keepers don’t have the heart to tell me that they are not what’s keeping you down here, that you checked into this underground madhouse of your own volition, and no matter how many times they give in to the logic of my song and send you up there after me, none of it will last.

“You may be her twin, but you are superfluous to her.”

They don’t have the heart to say it. Every time I think I’ve found you again, Eurydice, every time I think you’re back, the same thing occurs: the viper who infused you with indifference returns, adding more and more of its poison to your system until your heart can no longer stand the uphill climb and tells me finally that I have to let you go, give up. Life down here is what you want, and you can no longer humour me. The poison will never leave your system.

When I had you, held you, placed my heart between your teeth, already you were dancing with the water nymphs, my name split apart from yours in the mind we shared, already you were bound by a trance I have seen before, in him who bends over the dark waters and sees himself dissolve into pink and yellow shakes and shivers, the water washing him clean of yet another layer of himself. He bends further and further forward, toward what he realises he can become if he unties himself from the love of any other person, and like you he is bitten, in his own way, his skin is lacerated and fed a poison he cannot undo. Like you, he becomes fragility, he becomes oscillatory, his care less constant than a spark.

On our last night of embrace your body pulled away from mine like a splitting cell and you got up to drag your bare feet through the dew. Your viper found you among the reeds, she returned, she said, “Come back to me, return to me, he is no more than anyone else you ever tried and failed to love. How can Orpheus’s song compare to everything I meant to you?”

Your eyes glazed over with an interminable expiration, and no matter how far my arms reached to hold you, you pushed me away. “We are two separate bodies now,” you said, “and I can no longer see what lies outside myself.”

But down in the Underworld, singing to your sunless keepers all those same songs that once made you fall in love with me, I am oblivious to the ruling couple’s hints, lit up by the hope in my own melodies. With this yearning pouring from my mouth incessantly, I walk up the incline separating our two worlds, I do so again and again, a boundless vigour driving me to salvage the connection I still sense between us.

I walk, dragging you behind me, the rope of my words tethered to the boulder of Sisyphus, I walk with the sweat of unrest coating my body with its gleam to the point where even your nostrils numbed by death catch a whiff of me. You ascend behind me without a word of reassurance. All I have to go by to feed my trust in your presence are the words you said to me long ago, when there was love behind your eyes, when I thought you felt the things I feel still.

All I have are the promises your wardens made, that stone couple who equate love with a violent convenience, presence and absence alternating according to contract. They know that you will be back down there with them all too soon. Those two never mean what they say, and all they really give me is permission to fail at gaining your love, over and over.

“If this is what you want…” they say, after hearing my desperate song for the hundredth time, thinking to themselves, “You know she doesn’t want you. It’s the poison in her ankle she’s in love with, the part of her that cannot expand. She loves that liquid person from the past swimming in her veins.”

But it is only her I want, just this one, Eurydice.

If my own future holds the venom of an ankle-biting viper, let this viper be Eurydice.

What if, on one of my many tiring ascents up the slope with you walking quietly behind me, what if there never was snake, what if the snake is just a way for you to shield my feelings? You may simply be unwilling to love me, to care, because we are too like each other except in what we want. You cannot respond to the love I sing for because this love is my concern, not yours. You may have given up trying to heal from the damage we both suffered, decided that of all the people in this world I am not different enough from what leaves you cold: the morning mirror, that dark socket on the wall. You cannot love me because when you try we both go numb, I with hope, you with the inability to give.

“I have given too much, too often,” you tell me, “and it’s drained me dry. I have tried to love myself and failed each time, the part of me that hopes is not the part that is fulfilled.”

I walk up the steep path, carried by thoughts of myself as a patient man, thinking I know how to be patient for you, Eurydice, how to wait for you to heal, Eurydice, my joy, my twin.

The stone below me is wet with the tears of the living. No sound of your ghost feet behind me, and all I want each time is to turn around to see your face, which is tantamount to saying that I want to see you love me, even though in this impossible world I know you can’t.

Still, the temptation is too strong each time, and I turn with my mouth open to bleed my love over your hands, to see the dearest face I know. And I do see it, but it’s a face asleep, a face in communion with an other, an absent person, someone you feel closer to in Hades than up there in life with me. When I turn around, each time anew, breaking the wardens’ one condition, it is not disappointment I see in your face but relief, a kind of gratitude.

“Thank you, Orpheus, for failing to bring me back with you, for not being enough to save me from my past. Your failure is my permission to stay down here and keep this shrine to my beloved poison alive in my flesh. Thank you for keeping me safe from life, for setting me free. Hers is the only company I truly desire, so thank you for trying and failing so many times. I know you love me, Orpheus, I really wish you didn’t, I’m sorry that you fell for that charming idea of wholeness, of spherical, double-bodied soulmatery as Aristophanes once joked. We fell together into that same shape, yes, but Orpheus, you know it cannot be. I am not made to be bound to the back of another person, no matter how alike we are. You are so pretty, and your body made love to mine so well, all of our time together a fond memory for me, but nothing could fill the wound she left in me. She was a different person, for god’s sake, how can that not be better than loving what is too much like you? It is her I love and yearn for in my loneliness down here, not you. I cannot leave the Underworld, Orpheus, all there is up there is the prospect of staring into your face day after day. That alone cannot bring me happiness. I hope you understand.  In fact, I know you understand, because each time we are about to march back into the oblivious, waking world you turn around to look at me.”

Sometimes time folds when I climb these slopes and your words return to me, not these words but ones you spoke before, words that echo what I always wanted to hear, words that cradle and soothe, and for a moment a deep peace runs through me as though the branches of my arteries were lighting up my path through Hades for a while. Everything you gave me, Eurydice, makes it impossible for me to leave you down here, to give up the desire to wake to a clear unbroken mirror, see your face alive as I turn. And with this, the mistake occurs, always the same mistake in this pleating instant, the collapse of time: I turn to read your face again; before we reach the light of day, which seems impossibly far, I turn to ask you to love me.

You sigh and speak the words I dreaded. There is nothing to be done. You cannot want me no matter how much you wish it were different.

And with this you disappear again into the dark, relieved to be rid of me until the next time I descend with my lyre strapped to my back, return to the depths with my song and try again, because these attempts to lure you back to me are all I have left of a mutual bond that is now no more than our face in the dark and rippling water, the hollow parts in our mind into which I stumble, the languishing humidity of those many nights when you become still.

Red

the person you love stands

in a doorless room next to yours

with a lightbulb in her mouth

 

flat teeth score the glass, the metallic end

in the gullet plug sparks a fire

in the filament, and you see

 

the dumb blood rushing

in dark riverbeds behind the lantern skin

the illuminated face full of string, and without

waiting for your interference she

crushes the shell between her teeth

 

splinters climb into the rivers of her face

tear light into her body, all the places

where she opens up, where she gapes

until the walls and your throat

and her teeth glow red