Orpheus falls asleep inside Mercury

Orpheus sleeps in a deep red room bathed in orange mineral light. He dreams there as if he lay embedded in Mercury’s heavy iron core, and his breath adapts to the planet’s slow revolutions. When he sleeps, which is rare, he sleeps in what has come to be elsewhere, a colder place born from the collision of two celestial bodies. He hides inside his unstable star and waits. A solar year on Mercury is 88 Earth days. Only one sunrise every 180 days. 

In his dreams, Orpheus lays poultices on Eurydice’s fragility. The planet’s surface is dark grey, at least it appears as such to mediated human sight. There is no unmediated vision of Mercury, the trickster god, none, unless you have died and are being led down into the Underworld. True to reputation, Mercury’s space weather is extreme.

Orpheus tries to look within and couldn’t tell whether or not he qualifies as temperamental. For the most part, his mercurial tendencies seem to stay internal, only rarely making their way to the surface. Mercury doesn’t recycle his surface waste, he doesn’t need to. Mercury, who both makes and transgresses boundaries, exists in a state of simultaneous damage and innocence. Mercury accumulates marks on his deformed surface, riddled with scars.

Orpheus lives within the confines of his body and finds it hard to reach beyond, push himself into the world, no matter how much he would like to be there. Give yourself to the world, many of his hungry suitors tell him, don’t deny the world your presence. But Orpheus doesn’t remember how.

This used to come so easily to him, and then the walls came up, Orpheus locked in. Mercury doesn’t have any moons, no satellite suitors want to be anywhere close to this irregular being. In his sleep, Orpheus develops a deep, distressing thirst, causing panic to build within. Like Echo, Mercury is terrestrial, small and rocky, with no water in sight.

In his dreams, Orpheus remains a poet, capable of speaking directly from his organs, words Eurydice hears and understands; in waking, like the wolf from the fable made to learn Latin in school and trying to replicate the sounds he is taught but only ever managing to say ‘lamb’, Orpheus fails to speak any words but those pertaining directly to the object of his desire:

Eurydice, Eurydice, Eurydice.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Psyche et L’Amour (1889)

Dreaming of Eurydice ferries heat into Orpheus’s body, which wants to cool down for sleep. The heat of missing Eurydice rolls itself into flames, and Orpheus moves around on the bed, looking for colder spots. Despite his proximity to the sun, Mercury is cooling down, shrinking. His atmosphere is very thin. In many ways, Mercury is a beautiful impossibility – too close to the sun to have been born there. Born, one assumes, somewhere else, further out, then migrated inward, closer and closer to the sun’s intensity. A gradual tempering, like the rigidity that changed the elastic magma body of Orpheus into a hardened, guarded tower.

Orpheus’s night skies are mostly overcast, but even if they weren’t, Mercury is very difficult to see. Mercury is almost always outshone by the brilliant beauty of Venus, the bitch, made more beautiful still by the torment she inflicts on Psyche. Venus, greedy, who wants to steal even Persephone’s beauty. Persephone, the only woman who looks after herself properly in the entire myth of Eros and Psyche. In a story full of the pity of men and the betrayal of women, Eros and Psyche themselves could easily be a couple of callow, lovestruck teenagers from a Shakespeare play. Persephone’s beauty sends a curious Psyche straight to sleep. Orpheus could do with some of that right now; unfortunately, sleep eludes him more often than not these days, and when it doesn’t, his dreams are more vivid than his bleary-eyed concept of the present, so vivid he wakes from them with the sense of not having slept at all.

Eurydice, Eurydice, Eurydice. 

On Mercury’s pocked surface lies a crater named Debussy. The craters on Orpheus’s body don’t have names, but they bear the marks of impact, fingernails and teeth. From the lower end of his spine, he feels an invisible band extend, towards what he doesn’t know. Eurydice’s body, so present in his dreams, is still gone when he wakes. He wishes, but can no longer assume, that she lies awake at the other end. 

Once their union redeems Eros of his past, he and Psyche give birth to Pleasure. Of course, because this is the story of Olympians, their marriage is a handshake supporting Zeus’s plan to fuck mortal girls by the bucketload. If Orpheus could make any change to Psyche’s tale, he would steal one of Eros’s love darts and put it to use between Psyche and Pan. Pan doesn’t need to be earned, isn’t guarded by ferocious goddesses as if he were a golden lamb. Pan is free, open to Psyche. Pan is the son of Mercury, who is perhaps to blame for Pan’s excessive sexual nature, but who also delivered his son onto the world, gave him an affinity with humans and their mortal needs. With Pan, Psyche could allow herself to be, and remain, human, a creature of faults and flesh, not someone who needs to pass demeaning tests and court suicide to deserve the love of Venus’s horny teenage son. In fact, with Pan, Psyche could come to terms with her own mortality, in the arms of this god who will himself die. 

Edward Burne-Jones, Pan and Psyche, 1872-4

After extinguishing the orange light and darkening his deep red cave, Orpheus lies awake and listens to Daniel Deshays’s recording of a dying crow. The French expression for recording sound involves taking it; more to the point, prise de son and prise the sang are so similar. The red walls of his room are pulsing, closing like a protective membrane around the bird’s agony. Blood rushing through the skin of the world. Mercury carries an unspoken trauma, the collision between two celestial bodies at the source of his existence. Mercury, with his 75% iron core. 

Consciousness can move away from the sounds of dying if the sensation becomes too much, if the awareness of the process feels overwhelming. The microphone doesn’t care. Part of what is taken is an absence. When more and more absence finds its way between the crow’s rustling body and tiring voice, Orpheus begins to feel abandoned by what he hears. If sound were soul, this would make soul a ceaselessly regenerating substance that cannot be run out of or stolen until the death of the animated self.

According to Deshays, the microphone doesn’t, as consciousness does, discern among the things it takes; the machine takes in what it’s pointed towards, indiscriminately. Even though Orpheus feels a tether reach out from his body, he cannot see what he is tethered to. Another version of himself somewhere in the ether, he assumes. An anchor, reaching somewhere into the iron depths of Earth. Something he cannot release, even though he and it swim into discordant directions among the busy patterns of the firmament.  

“A cord joins the tails of Pisces, the two fishes”
Atlas Coelestis, James Thornhill, John Flamsteed

The Good Version

There is a version of events in which nothing has ever gone awry between Orpheus and Eurydice. It is not a version often told. Happiness is not what we want for other people because it has little to say to us beyond this: ‘Look at these bastards. They’re happy.’ 

In this version of events, Orpheus and Eurydice are united still, cut from the same flesh, their heartbeats are one. Their differences are complementary. What Eurydice can’t do, Orpheus will, and vice-versa. 

When they make love, their eyes are open to each other, their bodies wide and trusting, the world a map of possibilities. Orpheus’s spine isn’t sore from hopeless yearning, and Eurydice’s veins aren’t filled with the poison of indifference. In the corner of their home flows a brook in which they wash their faces in the morning. The bed in which they sleep is large and both their bodies sleep in starfish shapes, limbs wide, mouth-belly exposed to the air. 

In this version, Orpheus’s hands aren’t stained blue from taking out his grief on the desert sky when he felt forsaken. 

In this version, Eurydice’s eyes have lids, opening and closing with the pleasure of being alive at Orpheus’s side. 

When Orpheus writes, in this version, it is for Eurydice, and when Eurydice reads what he writes, her body beams with the joy of recognition. When Eurydice dances, in this version, it is with Orpheus, not with naiads or slithering footless beings, and when she dances it is to the song Orpheus plays for both of them. When Eurydice smiles, Orpheus feels that he has given the whole world a subtler tint with which to adorn itself. When Eurydice tells the jokes he so craves, Orpheus laughs from a throat that can open wide without choking on greasy and meaningless fumes. 

When Orpheus travels, it is to go see Eurydice, a Eurydice who is found not in the depths of Hades but in the bright sunlight, waiting for him on a bridge, or bent over a cup of tea, a book, or cutting her toenails on his rug. 

Eurydice alive, full and loose as a ball of yarn. Eurydice alive, the softness of your hair as it pulls my hand into it. Eurydice’s eyes the colour of banana spots. Eurydice’s eyes like a river in a storm. 

In this version, Orpheus’s mother calls him from Parnassus and says, ‘Something different about you, couldn’t say what. If it’s happiness, may it endure.’ 

In this version, the snow on the trees and mountain tops lures Orpheus and Eurydice out of their home and they ramble through the lilac afternoon with their palms pressed together, fingers interlaced. Their house is warm and full of animals. 

Eurydice, who is Orpheus, who is Eurydice, writes and dances in the world, finds songs in the clatter of trains, the whooshing of trees, the robin’s complaint, the scratch of a pen. 

Orpheus wanders through life collecting things he brings home to Eurydice, and Eurydice does the same. The house is full of things that remind them of each other, and no matter the sky’s colour their bodies are flung towards each other in endless surges of desire. 

Orpheus grows into a better Orpheus, Eurydice into a better Eurydice. There is no snake, no Underworld, no eternal return, no hopelessness, no unrequited love. There is no story, which is what life is like when it is good: not for the benefit of anyone looking in, reading to see the ways in which the protagonist is saddened, grieving, and hurt. In happiness, things simply are. In happiness, there is no story, and in this version, Orpheus is happy. 

Orpheus and Melusina share a moment

‘In love one perceives directly using one’s hormones and one’s stupidity

– Lisa Robertson, About 1836

Orpheus lies between Melusina’s legs, her feet pressing and drumming on the flesh of his arse. “You’re so tense,” she says, “What’s up with you?”

Orpheus chews on a corner of the purple blanket, then spits it out and looks at her face. “I’m thinking about what it must be like to have the head if a cow.”

“On your neck, or just to possess it? Heavy in either case would be my guess.”

“Do you think my father loved me?” asks Orpheus. “Do you think I’m irreparably fucked up?”

“You are the most distractible person I’ve ever had inside me, I swear.”

He sighs and leans his forehead on her chest.

“How should I know?” she says. “I haven’t read your myth.”

“I know, I forget.”

“You forget that people can’t read your mind.”

“Yes,” he says, “but not because I’m self-absorbed, just because sometimes I have a hard time telling the difference between myself and other people.”

Orpheus’s body has sucked Melusina’s body into it, his skin sticky as a frog’s, and she struggles to free herself.

“I need to get some water, Orpheus,” she says. “Sea-creature stuff, you understand.”

Orpheus lets himself fall back on the bed, arms spread out.

“Let the water run for a while,” he says. “It comes out green at first, then it goes clear.”

She walks to the bathroom and in the light he sees the scales on her legs have grown back. When she comes back with green water in a yellow mug, he sits up and holds her by the waist.

“Stop being so nice to me,” he says.

“Fuck you” says Melusina.

“No,” he says, “not like that.”

She takes a sip of water, leans over his shoulders, and lets the water trickle from her mouth down his spine. A dark stain grows on the mattress.


Orpheus stands at dusk under a sky full of dirty pigeon-coloured clouds, holding a beaker of sage tea to his solar plexus, and he watches the moisture from his face run up into the sky, sucked back into the clouds, where all water lives.


Orpheus strokes Melusina’s oddly yellow hair while she licks the skin below his navel.

“Sometimes,” he says, “I wish you could drop this thing with Siegfried, and I leave Eurydice to rot down there in her barren sulk, and we just stay like this forever, a rolling mass of bodies in the afternoon heat. What else is there to hope for besides this? Leave the struggle of the self behind and just open to something unrelated.”

“You know,” says Melusina, “if I were watching this whole thing unfold, I’d want you to end up with me too. But I know you’re not going to let this girl go, no matter how pointless idealising her is, for some reason you’ve got your mind’s claws in her.”

“There’s no-one like her in the world.”

“Yeah. Not even her.”


For days, Orpheus has been blowing yellow phlegm from his nose. Its consistency gets thicker every day, the colour deeper, and by the fourth day the blowing sound is deafening.

“Something deep inside me has become dislodged,” he thinks. “I must be healing an ancient wound, who knows.”


“What about Siegfried?” he asks Melusina.

“My myth makes things easy on me as long as I know how to be patient. I’m so many years into undoing the tragedy that occurs between me and Siegfried, I’m starting to understand everything. He needs me. Without me, he won’t become who he’s meant to be. It’s a matter of saving him from his own fecklessness. I didn’t make the rules, but I have a duty. I’m the part of him that brings about the person he needs to become. But Siegfried isn’t dead. Siegfried loves me, he just doesn’t know how to keep me yet. My magic is well spent there. I build the castle, and he inhabits it. But no matter how many times you go down to find Eurydice in Hades, even if you manage not to turn around, she won’t be the Eurydice you love. She won’t be the affectionate and electric person you knew. That version of her will never return. What you’d bring to the surface would be the dead-eyed zombie of Eurydice, who wouldn’t remember you or care about anything you are.”

“I know that,” he says. “But at this point this approximation is all I’ve got.”

“Stop chasing her.”

“I can’t. I’m a dog, Melusina. I chase the things I love, endlessly. I’ve never managed to be a cat, someone who just walks away from loss to go lick his asshole in a corner, pondering the bitterness of life. I’m a dog, a hopeful piece of shit creature, bouncing at the slightest whiff of promise, the merest thought that the thing I seek might be close again. Eurydice’s love is never far enough away not to seem close to my dog nose, my dog ears, because her love, even just the illusion of her love, is part of me. I know what it feels like to be wanted by Eurydice. Who she was when she loved, when she was alive, fuels every part of me. Did I mention I’m a poet? As such, I can’t accept her death because she is the part of me that makes what I do worthwhile.”

Melusina laughs and kisses his collarbone. 

“Was your father mortal?” she asks.

“In more ways than one.”

“How about your mother?”

“Muse. Better than me in every way.” Orpheus strokes Melusina’s scales. “Before she had me some say she made the sirens. Can be vengeful at times, but mostly she’s great. You’d like her, I’m sure.”

“I might,” she says. “I think you should talk to her about all this.”

Orpheus squeezes Melusina’s thigh. “I like that you’re here.”

“That’s a start,” she says. “Beats waiting for Siegfried inside a rock.”


There is a moment in the dream when Eurydice returns. The sky is yellow and purple, and in the bushes the cicadas make their hind legs scream. In the dream, Eurydice’s approach is silent, but her entire body smiles. She wraps herself around Orpheus’s back and they lie warm against each other in the midst of settling dust. It has been so long since he heard her heartbeat that he listens to it for hours before he can turn around. When he turns, he wants to bellow out his happiness, because Eurydice is still there, she hasn’t vanished, her hair shorter than before, her eyes the shape of intimacy. “Make me waffles,” she says, and, “Can I take a shower?” He nods and holds her against him, closer and closer until they are inside each other, their shapes overlapping into one and they both sigh with relief at what their bodies wanted to feel for so long. They merge into a sphere of stillness, their limbs like waving rays. Now and then, they push further into each other and every part of them shivers. On the trees, in long honeysuckle rows, the empty shells the cicadas left behind cling lifeless to the bark. The sunlight loses itself in a hollow exoskeleton. The wood they lie in becomes a house, its rooms filling with people, their distracting paths jittering like ants. Eurydice fades, her eyes go silent and she looks at Orpheus as if he were a hole. The distractions never cease, the whole room is loaded with noise, the air flees into the corners, and Orpheus lies there knowing this has all happened before, just like this but in different words, and he cannot give in to the revolt inside him, no matter how much he wants to he cannot change was has already occurred.

Orpheus, annoyed with Rilke, is reading Tao Lin

When Eurydice, who is dead, points to her empty chest and says, “Let me go, Orpheus, there is nothing here that loves you” – believe her. There is nothing there, not even a chest, not even those words.

“Born a bard, this one,” says Rilke, and slaps your shoulders raw. Rilke is more intimate with death than you, and he wishes you could see it as a state free from yearning. Any rescuing of the dead from death is pointless. Death is their fulfilment, and having died they have no regrets.

Eurydice dead is full and dense like a pearl. The realm that holds her, if she is held anywhere, is one without memory. She does not remember you, Orpheus, she can’t. Eurydice is memory, not the one who remembers.

Like an ambitious parent, Rilke wishes you could see that this whole matter of inevitability is really in service to poetry, this great utilitarian art that makes every instance of human pain worthwhile. “But poetry,” says Rilke, “has to be conceived of as limited, needs to be written for its own sake, not for the sake of alchemically bringing about the thing the poet yearns for.” Orpheus is too proud, too torn, to imagine that his poetry comes with any limitations; he needs to believe that his words can make Eurydice become flesh in his arms again.

But when the ascent comes and Orpheus is asked to believe that through his song alone he has earned his beloved’s return from the underworld, that his song could have affected the laws of life and death to this extent, he thinks, “This is impossible. How could I ever have done such a thing? I am so deeply flawed, so undeserving of Eurydice. How could she possibly be there behind me?”

And he is right. Eurydice, in the fullness of her death, no longer yearns for Orpheus, feels nothing for him even resembling love. Eurydice has no desire or reason to follow him; Hermes is the one pushing her up that slope like a heavy crate. Even if Orpheus hadn’t turned around, would Eurydice’s love have returned? Once the indifference of death has touched the parts of the body that love, don’t they whither away? Can they ever grow back? The marriage between Orpheus and Eurydice lasted only three weeks, the poets say. All this work, just to recover three weeks of marital bliss?

Rilke rolls his eyes at Orpheus.

Orpheus knows, just as the poet knows, that the person he loves isn’t his wife of three weeks; the person Orpheus goes to retrieve over and over from Hades isn’t her; it is the spirit of Eurydice, the sensation of Eurydice, the opening Orpheus experienced when he first fell in love with her. The euphoria of Eurydice, this widening of himself, opened and flattened out into the world like the Angelus Novus, every aperture spread.

This sensation burrowed into him, grew a shimmering head and limbs, became a part of Orpheus that opened its mouth into a gaping need and said,


Nothing the muses or Apollo taught him, none of the poetry, the music, the sciences of the world, not the stars or the veining in the leaves, not the way the light falls through cracks in the rock, not competing with the song of sirens on the Argo, not the softness of a warm animal’s back – none of it came close to what it felt like to fall in love with Eurydice and feel her fall toward him in return.

The Eurydice inside Orpheus is not the one who has forgotten him. The Eurydice inside Orpheus is the one who is alive, and in love. The Eurydice he carries would never be told that her beloved turned and failed in Hades and ask simply, “Who?”

Orpheus hasn’t seen his therapist in weeks, because Orpheus is protesting the fact that his therapist works out of a tiny office in a cave made from the heaving flesh of a hundred rhinos. One of the horns sticks from the walls at such an angle that coats can be hung from it.

Instead of going to therapy, Orpheus reads, which is bad for his back, his eyes, but Orpheus wants to speed up the ageing process, get it over with. He is too young to feel this old, so he works on making both sensations meet in somewhere in the middle.

For the fourth time since he got it, Orpheus is reading Tao Lin’s Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. He reads it and thinks, yes, I too feel crushed by the shit of the world, yes, I too want to hold your face with mine. Yes, he thinks, things are straightforward and can be expressed as such, yes repetition with a slight variation can sometimes cradle the wound just so, the way adjusting your fingers while holding hands makes the sensation of connectedness more acute. Yes, he thinks, I don’t know how to love in this expanding universe, and yes I want to learn, even if it never happens fast enough. Even if my understanding doesn’t come to me at the speed necessary to turn time around and bring you back to me, back into a time before the viper left its poison in your flesh. Yes, Orpheus thinks, I have made myself so lonely, if affects my ability to distance myself from the binary.

“The secret of life is that I miss you” and that I wish I heard from you this exact sequence of words repeated and echoing out from every moment of openness:

“I’ll be right back.”

Instead, because you won’t speak, because you can’t, because you have no mouth, no lungs, because you aren’t alive enough to speak, in love enough to speak, I say it to you, over and over, each time I descend, when the time comes for me to turn around and let you go I say,

“I’ll be right back.”

Because in the process of returning to you I move with the momentum of the spinning world, with the shivering of stars.

Because returning to you makes me want to throw up less.

Because, like Tao Lin, “I want to remember you as a river.”

Because by facing backwards to where you are, I face the surge of interstellar dust, I catch it with my pores, my lungs, it whitens my hair, mixes into cement with the tears the wind whips up and it builds small castles in the corners of my eyes.

Because, like Paul Klee’s Angel, my arms are open in space, frozen wings, and my back is to the world.

Because only you are here, alive in this.

The earth rotates and I get dizzy because time passes and where you are time does not exist, and I don’t like feeling something you don’t feel, I don’t like all this unshared experience. I live my days according to the earth’s rotation with respect to the stars, because it shortens my days by four minutes, four minutes I don’t have to spend concerned that your heart and mind are lonely, somewhere in the glass jars where you left them; I don’t have to be concerned that a hard world now contains your innards and erases me from you; I don’t have to be concerned that these diagrams of self I build have already forgotten what the point of their existence was.

Orpheus worries that he doesn’t live up to his therapist’s expectations, because therapists, he was told, believe in linear progression, the ability to improve and leave behind the shell of a self that was worse, then analyse in great detail the past’s imprint on the shell, so as to make sure you never go back to being this inferior.

This is, of course, a paranoid imposition. Orpheus’s therapist is patient beyond belief. But Orpheus returns, it’s what he does, he runs backwards until he bumps his head and feels a change occur, but this change is in itself an illusion.

Orpheus is hungry and puts almond butter on a piece of bread. The longing for Eurydice is always buried deep in hunger. Eurydice herself is hunger, reminding him of his embodied self, which is now alone. Strange, a body so unused to living for itself; Orpheus knows his body best when it is tensed in expectation of Eurydice. The anticipatory throbbing, the tingling in the tongue. The eyes that seek her shape in every object, the smell of Eurydice. But Eurydice is elsewhere, has retreated into abstraction, a fluid need somewhere in Orpheus’s flesh.



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.

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.