Not like now

heaven is insufficient / you know too well it’s paradise

you want // where we are bodies, extemporised and full

of melting splinters /// fondness consumed

amidst animals and trees, our colours all coiled

in embrace //// you think the white light of love is a quiet

bath of bliss, so immaterial, the inscrutable

everlastingness of it ///// paradise is heaven

with lungs, but you say there is no return

to a place of breath and sublimity ////// our grunting cannot blend 

with the birds’ capacity for speech, not in the damp 

chill of the shade after our dying /////// you bit me, and I know

I bit you in turn, betraying pale matter below

the sun-reddened skin //////// not here, and not now

paradise is incarnate, but this ongoing heaven

is bland, a doorway of bodies / peeled off

and hung up like garb //////// that which we want

is deep / and bright / and unlikely

it already slipped once / and you

tore out your lungs / saying

////////// that was enough

Orpheus and the Flayed Man

Orpheus is distraught. A man without skin lives in his dreams. Orpheus knows this is because too many of his thoughts focus on limitations, on the boundaries of the self.

Trapped inside his own skin, in his unique consciousness, Orpheus has no chance at communion with others, not even those he wants the most. 

Eurydice swims in her set of underwater chambers, moving pebbles with her mouth. 

The muscles around the man’s eyes resemble the rings on a felled tree trunk. Orpheus watches them twitch. 

The bare musculature is an embrace, the twist of jungle vines around the tender skeletal trunks – in all things, Orpheus sees what he is lacking. 

In his dreams, the skinless man stalks across the landscape Orpheus is attempting to inhabit. The landscape has released its logic. The shadows thrown by its elements are golden, as are the pupils of animals, reflecting light rather than absorbing it. 

When they first found each other, Orpheus and Eurydice rubbed their pasts against each other, to see which parts this process might heal. In the fading light, their bodies, panting and warm, fell side by side into the sand. Eurydice placed a handful of sand on Orpheus’s skin and rubbed it into his legs, his arms, his back and torso. He returned the favour until their skins glowed with awareness, as new and receptive as an infant’s.

The flayed man in Orpheus’s dream cannot blink. He can only watch without pause, without release. 

Skinning is not an improvement on exfoliation. Skinning deadens the impact of touch.

Despite the impression of opening, removing the skin is in fact a closing.

In losing your skin, you lose the membrane allowing you to feel another’s caress. Left behind is only a raw, impotent mass, unable to engage or receive. Too much has been removed, and you become untouchable.

The dripping muscles on the flayed man’s stomach twitch.

Eurydice has arranged her pebbles in hexagonal patterns, befitting the vibrations that rise from the bottom of the lake.

Orpheus turns over to seek a cold patch on his mattress, scratching and chewing the pillow in his sleep.

Some Things You Didn’t Say Because You Thought You Had More Time

A week or so before you disappeared into that unreachable realm, I asked you, the way I often did, to tell me how to live a better life.

Clean your windows once a month, you said, and I said, No, seriously.

I suppose, you said, you could read Wittgenstein and ask him, and I said, No thanks, that’s not a path I wish to follow.

Or you could read Heidegger, you said, and in my mind I tasted the water someone once brought me back from Heidegger’s mountain cabin spring.

Or you could read Plato, you said, and I said, Enough, it’s you I’m asking. Tell me what you think. For once in your life, teach me something in a straightforward way.

Find someone, you said, speaking from experience, who will teach you to be better. Find someone who will see the mess of your outline and say “I care about everything you are.”

That’s not an option, I said. I’m too afraid of pain.

Then, you said, find an animal who evokes tenderness, so you can learn to give without fear.

My landlord’s a shrew, I said, I’m not sure he’ll allow any other rodents on the premises.

Then, you said, all I can say is, remember to love carefully everything you hold, no matter how briefly; to be open and giving even to that which runs away; to see each colour for what it is, and for the way it impacts the one next to it. Remember that cutting your own hair is an act of kindness, in a way. Remember that the room you live in is just a shell, the way you are just a crab. Remember that whatever you are is not your fault, nor does it last forever. Remember that loving cannot help but feel like stepping on an urchin, and that no matter how carefully you remove the spines, the sensation stays inside your flesh until you find another urchin to step on the same way, to fill the same deep and narrow holes. Remember that the flesh you have is always changing, but that its need to be held, to be part of the world it’s made from, will never disappear.

Water in a closed hand

Cascando (by Samuel Beckett)

why not merely the despaired of
occasion of

is it not better abort than be barren

the hours after you are gone are so leaden
they will always start dragging too soon
the grapples clawing blindly the bed of want
bringing up the bones the old loves
sockets filled once with eyes like yours
all always is it better too soon than never
the black want splashing their faces
saying again nine days never floated the loved
nor nine months
nor nine lives

saying again
if you do not teach me I shall not learn
saying again there is a last
even of last times
last times of begging
last times of loving
of knowing not knowing pretending
a last even of last times of saying
if you do not love me I shall not be loved
if I do not love you I shall not love

the churn of stale words in the heart again
love love love thud of the old plunger
pestling the unalterable
whey of words
terrified again
of not loving
of loving and not you
of being loved and not by you
of knowing not knowing pretending
I and all the others that will love you
if they love you

unless they love you

Since the age of 22 I have found myself haunted by this poem, and now that so much of my writing deals with recurrence and the circularity of things, it seems hard to deny that this poem’s lines circumnavigate me like moons, firing their disruptive light into my writing. In fact, no matter how much I try to get rid of him, every time disruption occurs in my writing – either the disruption of body and mind, or that of human and time – Beckett pokes his nose out of a molehill, saying “Remember me?” Yes, you bastard, I do. 


Sometimes, you have to understand, I read Tao Lin because it’s all I feel capable of reading, wondering what’s wrong with me that I don’t gravitate towards those who have written about the ache I feel in a more complicated way.

Sometimes all I am capable of hearing is an unnamable sadness followed by delicate swears. I feel more cradled that way. 

I think that when the plants around me die I am achieving some sort of communion with the realm I inhabit, no matter how small the rooms may feel; I have somehow transcended the limits of my mind’s flesh into a space that reflects my internal bullshit, like someone thrown up by a Brontë.

Sometimes just smelling coffee brings your face floating into the room like a goddamn hologram or a swarm of flies, and I very deliberately stick to drinking green and watery things so I can keep the colour of your eyes at bay. 

The immense sadness of losing you to yourself is like watching my brother detach and consume his own toe, knowing exactly where it will lead because it has led there before, knowing that the despair I feel at watching myself lose you from a distance, from the distance you carved between us with a toy shovel that says ‘this is for your own good’ when you press the right button, because pressing the right button causes your shovel to speak, which is not the case with you, and the despair I feel, like I said, is not because I love you, which I do, but because I am watching myself feel this and I see beyond it into the silence where there should be a pulse. 

Sometimes, no matter what bedtime stories I tell myself, I know that time is not circular and what is lost cannot return, because we all fall at different speeds and time is a cruel form of gravity. 

Sometimes the fire is not enough, and I see that when the rat climbs along the bars of its cage from wall to wall to wall it does so not because it is trying to break through but because in times of internal detonation dragging your belly along the reliable firmness of a limit feels good.

The other night I dreamt about your body in a dark room, sitting bare-skinned in an inflatable kiddie pool, your knees poking out of the purple plastic because you are not a child, and you were lighting candles, thousands of candles one after the other in this room that never got any brighter. I remember that the light flickered on your skin and for a moment I wasn’t sure where I was exactly, if I was seeing you through my eyes or through some kind of objectivity, because there wasn’t a single plant involved and there were no animal sounds in the air, and because as you sat there with your ass in the water surrounded by flames I felt an immeasurable affection toward you that is not like me at all. 

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. 


Glass Teeth

I believed for a long time that the roof of the mouth resembled a ribcage, its doming shape with its display of spokes to either side of a central line; the ribcage, that crown of reaching hands protecting the left-leaning heart, the fat wings of the lung, the huddle of liver, stomach and kidneys. This is what I imagined when my tongue stroked (over and over to the point of making the area so sensitive my ear itched for days afterwards) the hard, silky roof of its cave.

But I’ve lately come to realise that it isn’t so much a ribcage the palate resembles, although the similarities are there, but the muscles in your lower back when you lean forward, when the bumps of your spine poke upward like a small mountain range under the skin, like the pads of a paw artificially aligned under pale sheets, the erector spinae doming on either side of your backbone.

This is what I see in the palate now, not the front of the body with its vital organs, not the side that opens up for an embrace, no, I see your back naked in the shower, reaching to wipe foam from the leaves of the spider plant.


I nearly lost you, but our teeth have been in each other’s skin, our arms have held like gums, like fleshy earth, what is savage and unyielding about both of us. 


The palate occurs only in vertebrates, so it makes sense that it should appear to have a spine. Don’t we like to replicate our patterns in smaller, fractal ways? This is how our bodies connect to one another, and to themselves, how we think of our embodies minds in the world. In German, vertebrae are called ‘Wirbel’, which brings to mind vortices and whirls, an implicit and continuous gyration, hidden there in the solid spine, in the bone.

I think of the transition where hard palate turns soft, where the bone stops and the tender part begins, that knot of nerve endings that I let you touch and it makes me heave for just a second. And after the softness comes the ravenous empty hole, where things (edible things, the glassy-hard ideas of things, your words and promises) disappear, never to return, and the gullet continues to lie open expectantly even when the sustenance it craves has ceased to come.

I think of the seam, which feels like a much more gradual transition than it perhaps is, but aren’t all transitions slow, even when, looking back, you can pinpoint the exact moment where it all went wrong, it takes so long for it all to sink in, for what was beautiful to stop seeming so, when you were so used to the awareness radiating between your bodies, it takes a long time to realise that you haven’t touched each other anywhere but in your thoughts for weeks.


You were there when I heard he died, torn from sleep by the only voice I would allow to do so. You were there with your hands pressing down on my feet when my body shook and lost access to its words.


Maybe feeding one another is what we suck at. Hinting at nourishment, and like certain flowers draw the matter of their growth from the air, feels easier. Not to need the sort of food that involves taking from another, that involves a dependence on something more substantial than air. Not to need each other for pleasure, not to require each other’s presence in order to brush from our skin the leaden residue of living, does this feel like freedom, finally?


A month or two after his death I looked into a basin of shimmering carp on my way to a restaurant bathroom and stayed there for a long time watching the silent bodies trace their way through the shallow translucence. Though differently coloured, each had in its scales a tinge calling to the hue of another’s body, each of them linked in some way to the tone of the others. I think of the way the colour of the veins in your feet is the same as the colour of my eyes; the colour of the lines between your teeth the same as the colour of my pubic hair.


Screen Shot 2018-12-16 at 12.19.37

Bilateral symmetry in terrestrial mammals, in fish – in many of us – is a grand idea, but not one we can as individuals live up to. We like to think we can be sliced down the middle perfectly and still make sense because all we’ve lost in that missing half is the exact thing we still own in the other.

In so many ways we, who are our bodies, fall short.  We look at each other and even though we can’t see it happen yet we know we are falling apart, always shifting around in our decay, and we know that we weren’t made – we occurred, grew out of one another. Our fragility lies in our lack of teleological purpose: all we are is a step in an experiment that can never reach its apex, the perfection a more godly experiment might work towards. We are a step in the dark, a feature of not knowing what this all works to obtain.


The infuriating thing about seeing your father’s dead body stretched out in a coffin a few days after he passed is that people warn you of ‘that waxwork feeling’, when that doesn’t cover it. Waxwork replicas are based on living people, made so as to imitate their living face, but a dead face cannot be made alive again. The jaw hangs loose in the head, all wrong, his skin never this colour, his eyes never so brutally shut. If only he’d been a flower, someone could have blown his likeness out of glass, someone could have copied him into something willing to accommodate even his flaws and spots, the parts where his body had begun to die while it was still alive, all in a medium without smells, without the touch of what it is.

So that we don’t realise the Harvard flowers are made from glass, we keep them behind glass, where the temptation to touch and break the illusion doesn’t occur.

And why did a god so invested in permanence

choose so fragile a medium, the last material

he might expect to last?

(Mark Doty – The Ware Collection)

I read Mark Doty’s poem about glass flowers for the first time on the morning of the day whose evening claimed my father’s life. Before he collapsed on the kitchen floor, his hands had been, as they were every night, immersed in a sink of cold water, swirling between the delicate leaves of that evening’s salad, washing their flimsy green fabric. The softness of the edible plant, the hardness of the floor tiles against his skull. And then, when my mother found him, the seam was ruptured, and the words could no longer find their way from the brain to the mouth.

My father’s body wasn’t behind glass, and it wasn’t his body anyway, the way bad taxidermy doesn’t come close to evoking the liveliness of a fox. My mother’s hand lay on my father’s forehead, she spoke to this body she knew so well as though it were alive and could still hear her words, while I held my spine close to the wall, held the soft part of my torso which my ribs can’t protect, felt the nausea stir and come out through the eyes with the itch of tears.

The transition of life into death was abrupt, took, it seems, only an hour or two, and yet those who are left now spend their days looking for those moments that caused the transition to begin with, the moments which could have contributed to a sudden-seeming interruption of the living body, a flinging of life into non-life. Should he have moved more, eaten differently, was it his sadness that did it? Was it an accumulation of things? Unless death comes from the outside, it almost always is.

A disappearance is a lack, but like the lack of a body in Cardiff and Miller’s The Killing Machine it doesn’t mean we don’t suffer with and for the invisible body tortured in the chair, it doesn’t mean we don’t see the very thing whose outline is suggested, still burned into our retina from 30 years of exposure to its presence.

There is no way to say where the transition from living to dying began, from loving to indifference, except that it was always underway and rose to the surface in a unified manner like those vertebrae in your forward-bending back are made visible by a certain movement, despite the fact that they were always there, holding you upright, allowing you to look at me, the centre from which you spread your arms open to me and closed them only once I was safely in their midst.


Mark Doty 2
“The Ware Collection of Glass Flowers and Fruit, Harvard Museum” by Mark Doty (in My Alexandria)


It is too soon for me to close these threads, tie them off one after the other. The mind in grief seems to be a place of holes, capable only of opening, not of bringing back into a knot. For now, I will leave things as they are, glimpses of unrelated images on a map, in hopes that they will, over time, merge into a coherent shape, perhaps only months down the line. All I can do now is arrange them in ways that leave enough space for the filaments to form.

Split the ovum – Echo and Narcissus, broken symmetries

When conception begins and the egg’s perfect curve is invaded and made to split, cleft into double after double of itself, diligently producing copies of its soulmate, at which point does perfection cease and the chaos of asymmetry begin? We grow inside the perfect egg, and we become imperfect, even our bilateral symmetry is damaged by individuality, the mistake of living. The egg is the last time we are comparable to the idea of us. After that, we are born, born towards imperfection. Can there be symmetry in faces, in teeth? The potential of it, at least, is written into the idea of teeth, Platonic dentures floating up there in the ether.


On his receptive, emptied skin, Narcissus feels the radiant heat of primordial symmetry, and underneath the heat he feels a cooling, feels perfection vanish as it cracks, the burning sphere rolling itself out into the chaotic lumps of a spreading present. We are placed, says Martin Gardner, into “a cold universe of broken symmetries,” and with the heavy book on his lap the thought fills Narcissus with dread.

From a violent imperfection, that is to say from similarity but not sameness of desire, Narcissus was born perfect, a body smooth as an egg, a face as compelling as water to the fading mouth. His body is a star, long dead and compelling in a way that pulls the eyes up into the dark. His perfection precedes the god’s a beam of rage, shot through the soulmates’ spherical bliss. Narcissus carries within himself a fullness, a two-ness, while all others are left with a lack, on a hopeless quest for their invisible, missing half.

When separated from those who believe they are his half, Narcissus finds himself more complete than ever – outward desire has never been more than a lie. His body in the arms of another is an impossible solution; with those of an other his fluids can never mix. In the withdrawal that is his home, Narcissus is whole.


And now this thought, that even he was born from a necessary loss of symmetry, from that which breaks after the egg is fertilised. Narcissus’s heart, like Echo’s heart, lies to the left, and breaks at its lack of bilateral harmony. The heart, remember, the man’s heart just stopped. Narcissus knows the heart can be beaten into stopping, by fists whose drumming is fuelled by an unbearable unhappiness. More than that, the food the heart was given was too thin, insubstantial, and the heart bled out.


In the mirror of the pool, the symmetry appears so perfect, so perfect it breaks when touched. Touch is the sense that breaks the illusion of perfection, touch is the most worthy emissary of reality, winged at the ankles, flight sprouting from the talus, from underneath the lateral malleolus, useless, demonstrative feathers where the rotation takes place. Touch, the most connective and regulated of senses, and yet how many split creatures haven’t given in to its solace when the strangling embrace of the self entices. We have so long lived with ourselves, the parts of us that are unlovable, and with those parts we have made a domestic cohabitation based in disembodiment.

Echo would, but cannot, touch. The artwork hangs behind ropes, behind refusal. Narcissus only wants to touch, and be touched by, that which can never be held.

The heart was given no more than the mere idea of blood, no longer the blood of life, of love, and in consequence the heart bled out. Life ran from it in streams, all down the left side, the course of its dying crooked. There is so little to say about this, about hearts and the way they fall short, short of what? Their function. And yet so few functions are incontestable.


The symmetry of things lies in the fact that one overlaps with the other, and that the appearance doesn’t change after rotation, that the move to a different angle will not alter anything about the way we understand a thing. Narcissus cannot learn because he is born from water, drawn to water, drawn only to what is the same from all sides. Narcissus cannot change his past or learn from it, nor escape it, nor become anything but what he is, because Narcissus believes only in what is symmetrical.

“Water,” says Martin Gardner, “has spherical symmetry. Like a crystal ball it looks the same no matter how you turn it. But when water freezes, under certain conditions this perfect symmetry shatters to produce the lower but more beautiful hexagonal patterns of snowflakes.”


The world has been getting colder. Echo feels it in the mornings, and sometimes when she speaks another’s words she sees them appear in a plume of mist before her mouth. She wants to suck the escaping heat back in, and the words it contains. Narcissus came across himself as the seasons changed, and would the water have frozen over, hiding his reflection behind the dull milk of ice? A mountain knows no symmetry, not the absolute symmetry of water, and this is why on a mountain Echo can orient herself on the cracks and peaks, and Narcissus gets lost in the sameness of water, which is himself. From every angle, all Narcissus sees is Narcissus.

In the pool, he finds the symmetry he desires and and he cannot live up to its perfection, not even he after whom so many have fallen prey to the despair of unrequited love. Narcissus wants to undo perfection by reaching into it. Water and light cause the straight line to break, and it is his own arms he sees plunging into and disturbing the dear face. To relate to the world by touching it, pressing into it, rubbing one’s skin against the skin of it, entering its folds, feeling oneself stroked and surprised by it, all this is what takes the many bodies of Echo back into the parts of herself that are available to the light. In a person, there is no such thing as perfection.


How can recomposition occur, how can harmony be attained, when what has vanished precedes us all, the universal ovum split and opened itself up to a loss of symmetry? In a centaur, a figure composed of two reconnected parts that found themselves by accident, the problem is one of maladaptation. The lower body is a horse, all power and demand, the capacity for speed and muscular function, and yet the lungs feeding all this power are up there, in the human torso, adapted to the human brain, utterly unfit for the energy expense of a galloping horse. The horse’s legs are hampered and curbed by a human heart and lungs that cannot keep up with their demand for oxygen, for fresh blood. If the recomposed centaur self chooses to live out the drives connected to its lower parts, its heart and lungs will explode.


Echo the divining rod spreads open before Narcissus, trembling as she feels the water rushing under his skin. She has found him, the most beautiful spring, born from violent waters clashing, she trembles for him, but water never trembles in return, water only causes the tremor in the seeking wooden spine, only causes the thirst inside the aching throat. Echo cannot make herself invisible enough, cannot let go of her body enough, all she can be is voice, the invisible voice to the face in the water. Narcissus, too, bent over the pool to quench a thirst.


Between the stars, the harmony has been torn, and all things wear out and ripple and break. Bubbles and lumps appear in the cosmic flesh, like growths under the skin of the void. What is it that broke us, that tore us from perfection? What is it that made the bumps in our nose, the crooked ribs, the scar on our arm? What is it that pushed our heart to the left?

“You and I,” says Gardner, “are the broken symmetries of fertilized eggs.” Two hearts breaking with desire for that which they want to hold and melt into with their touch. And yet similarity is not the same as symmetry, it is not enough to those who want perfection. When Narcissus, who resisted being held, finally chooses to extend his touch, it is more than a choice, it is his entire body compelling him to, what he reaches into is not the warmth of another body but cold water cradled by the earth. His desire is to spread himself onto, into another body, but this body can never be held. Narcissus’s eyes see something his body is not capable of reaching, a self decomposing, withdrawing itself from the world.


Narcissus will not age, says Tiresias, his sight fogged up behind a second lid. Old age comes to a version of him who does not know himself. Only a fate could say that to see oneself is to know oneself, and what about the necessary asymmetry of being ground like meat through the holes in another’s body? The lover’s body grinds the own until little remains of it but parts whose relation must be reevaluated, their webbing rebound.


Echo returns the world to its chaotic swirls. Echo the Oread is rock, is heights, is isolation. Her feet crave the uneven terrain. In Echo there are gorges, chasms, ravines. She has seen men fall to their death after the strength of their hands let them go. Echo is the first to see the sun creep from its grave, to see the light lick its way like a tongue across the jagged rocks. Echo feels the coarse hairs of leaning trees creep from the cliffs. Echo the Asymmetric takes the other’s words and returns them halved, sliced apart by electricity. She modifies their sound and meaning innocently, she transforms. It is easier to love what one has loved before, to reproduce, symmetrically, what already exists; producing copies of the same takes less energy, no need to take deviation into account when rotating the clay under the palm, and the whole process is less of a chore.

If Narcissus had not encountered the pool in which his visage swam, if there had not been a drop of water in all his life, if, like Echo, Narcissus had lived on the dry and salty mountain peaks, his hair would have grown grey, his face torn to cracks by the light of the sun, and he would have encountered someone else there, a father figure unlike his own, the immortal water god. A mortal man to love without passion, and he would have moved along.

The unfortunate thing is the match between image and desire, nothing is harder to resist than the illusion of every desire met in a single source. The heart cannot resist.


saying again

if you do not teach me I shall not learn

saying again there is a last

even of last times

last times of begging

last times of loving

of knowing not knowing pretending

a last even of last times of saying

if you do not love me I shall not be loved

if I do not love you I shall not love

Samuel Beckett – Cascando


Between Echo and Narcissus, the choice isn’t real, and cannot be made. The webbed existence of the two heartbroken children, the chaotic swirls of Echo, the bilateral illusion of Narcissus. Two imperfect creatures, and neither can offer relief. They are not like rams, running into each other like pistons in a world without consequence, in which mutuality does not wear down.

The tragedy of this has already occurred within Narcissus, and the attempt is now to rectify it through a negative symmetry. Narcissus speaks these words to himself, the self he thinks he sees. Spherical Narcissus remains trapped in himself, the cave in which he and he and he all overlap.


Echo cannot say this: “Come to me, Narcissus, be my smear, my deviation.” She cannot say it because Narcissus will never say it first, not even an approximation of it.

In all animals, symmetry is broken in some way. Because we rely on each other, need each other, we cannot be anything but broken, in some way. We are alive and fettered to each other in the realm of the imperfect; we are no longer swimming in the globular fire.


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


perverse and unwritten, the hired car

bullets down the thirty year old road

I hired had to hire – a teacher to continue existing

and if the world approved, I thought, I just might

licence myself to sing my affectations

in a different key


some ancestor, stiff with rheumatism, never once

was home when I came home

from lessons in the afternoon where in the gutter

of daylight hours I found his fingers chopped

or, who knows, perhaps gnawed asunder


when you left me my mouth said I permit it

as if it cared less about me than it should

and I remember that the building shook

with all the rotten foods it carried


something in that thought

only punishes more

with time


like a great man

reciting by a dying torch

the words of

someone immediately killed


once I called myself sixteen and said

no, I wouldn’t call it aquiline

it’s much more of a slope

with a teardrop or a cherry at the end


my ability to feel ugly is so textbook

a ragged pad of token use


I often group the thin along with the dying

as if it’s only a matter of waiting for the thing

to roll down the predetermined slope

and on the rusty sullen beach I wait


once, when a bullet

found no recourse, not even in sleep

even in the silent erosion of the brain

it condescended to the state of seed

and waited, like I do, around


I am now too angry to sleep beside you

I am too dark with beaten blood

to cradle your large body,

even its outline, inside me


catch in myself a shudder when the thought

plasticises and hits the ground


your shoulders have toppled and the shaking

has begun, but all I think about each time

is the dryness in my mouth


I turn in my glove as if so much dirt

had just fallen on the ground in winning shapes

to be read like fire tracks


and each time

my tongue is cracked like golden fruit

in the sun


I organise the words of songs because I cannot

respond simply, identify

what about a person is a person

and what about them is

a silent winter tree, totally indifferent


I am dragged into a thumping office room

where I dictate the words from the inside

to the outside

to an exploding typewriter with stars for keys

stars untouched for twenty years, and before then

only by hands of molten rock


here goes, I say

and the stars punch themselves deeper and deeper away

until the world dissolves

into innocent, fragile grey confetti