Wednesday, June 17, 2009

`Things Ripped from Skins'

The satyr Marsyas found a double-flute (aulos) fashioned by Athene from the bones of a stag. The goddess had thrown it away after playing at a banquet of the gods. The music delighted most of the guests but Hera and Aphrodite laughed at her performance. Later, she played the flute by a woodland stream and saw in her reflection what had amused the goddesses: Her distorted face. She threw down the flute and put a curse on it.

“Marsyas was the innocent victim of this curse,” writes Robert Graves in The Greek Myths. The satyr played the instrument. Peasants heard the music and declared Apollo could not make sweeter sounds. This provoked Apollo, who invited Marsyas to a contest. The winner would inflict any punishment he wished on the loser. The Muses formed the jury, and judged the contest a tie, so Apollo dared Marsyas to play the flute backwards while singing at the same time, and he failed.

“Then, for all his pretended sweetness, Apollo took a most cruel revenge of Marsyas: flaying him alive and nailing his skin to a pine…”

The gods are petty, jealous and cruel, and behave almost as badly as humans. Some Greek literary renderings of the story emphasize Marsyas’ hubris and endorse the justice of his torture, but myths, like folk songs and jokes, are always mutating -- remembered, misremembered and given new contexts. The best known version of the Apollo and Marsyas story is probably Ovid’s in Metamorphoses. Ovid’s forced exile by Augustus has moved some readers to see a political allegory in the story. Zbigniew Herbert used the myth in this fashion in his 1957 poem “Apollo and Marsyas,” making of the satyr’s screams an image of poetry as it was written under the Communist regime in Poland:

“the victor departs
whether out of Marsyas' howling
will not one day arise
a new kind
of art -- let us say – concrete”

Gods still walk the Earth in George Witte’s new collection of poems, Deniability, and all are impotent or malevolent. The time is post-9/11. We recognize the landscape as ours – electronic junk, color-coded terror alerts, media saturation, body-less heads – but more post-apocalyptic than we remembered it. The body is another piece of refuse in the shit storm. The second stanza of the collection’s first poem, “Uh-Oh,” reads like this:

“Things ripped from skins,
words from definitions.”

Most of Witte’s allusions are contemporary, though Scylla and Charybdis show up in one poem, Thermopylae in another. In the three-page, three-section “Classical Studies,” he adapts the Marsyas myth, his only extended use of a classical or historical template for today’s events. He starts with Titian’s “The Flaying of Marsyas,” but never mentions Marsyas by name, calling him “the beast”:

“In the painting, Apollo flays
the beast that challenged his divine
supremacy of song. Bright-eyed
as a child, curious to know,
he peels back flaps of skin. Each cut’s
calculated, screams extracted
like purest harp notes, lines of verse
in every fresh incision.”

About Apollo’s sadism there is a suggestion of clinical condescension, that the flaying is somehow good for “the beast”: “He would gladly heal this creature / if surgery cured presumption, / remove whatever gland or lobe / aspired beyond its rightful sphere.” Here’s the conclusion of the first section:

“The god pauses. His masterpiece
Might require another brush stroke.
He stays the sun for better light.
These things take time if they’re to last.”

The second section, unnumbered and untitled, switches to a new, first-person speaker – rationalizing, self-pitying, childish:

“It wasn’t what you people think.
The pictures made us animals,
our tongues protruding red and slick,
eyes too, like they’d been fingernailed.
You can’t imagine what it’s like,
I’ve never felt so in control,
so free, outside myself but there,
invisible, the camera
my magic shield or spy’s disguise.
Things got out of hand, whatever –
some itch that didn’t satisfy.
We stripped and hosed the terrorists,
positioned them curled sixty nine,
you know the drill. We trained the dogs
to ask the whereabouts of __________:
that name they fear and won’t reveal,
like God’s. No names for anything.
We were following procedure.
When you’re starved for information
Even screaming sounds like music.”

It’s the voice of an American military guard, probably at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The language ricochets from defensiveness and denial, to an admission of excitement (“I’ve never felt so in control”), to meaninglessness: “Things got out of hand, whatever –.” Just as Witte writes in “Uh-Oh”: “Things ripped from skins, / words from definitions.” The guards are not gods and the prisoners, like Marsyas in the first section, have no names. The voice of the poet takes over the final section: “In the city’s underlayer / I planned this poem like a brief, / collecting evidence against / humanity’s inheritance.” He’s riding the subway when a “beggar” enters the car. His fellow passengers ignore him. Then: “In front of me-- / beneath my notebook’s tidy lines / his feet were flayed --”:

“I wouldn’t look. He touched my arm,
A violation. Summoning
My coldest gaze, superior
With intellect, I met his eyes:
All blood and mucous, the body’s
Last-ditch desperate remedies.
I don’t know what he saw in mine.
He shuffled on. My poem lost,
I cursed his touch until my stop.”

I would argue that Witte is not a political poet, at least not in the conventional banal sense of “pro-war” or “anti-war,” “pro-Bush” or “anti-Bush,” though he certainly will be read that way. Read sequentially and lived with, the 46 poems in Deniability render a high-resolution picture of our baffling new world. They also suggest how one thoughtful man – American, middle-class, educated – might try to make sense of the quotidian horror. Witte’s language is terse and staccato, sometimes rhymed, open to jargon and cliché, and never comes to glib, reassuring conclusions. He writes in “Trident”:

“Information drifts in radiant shards,
pixeled images, interrupted words.”

[I wrote about Witte’s first collection, The Apparitioners, here.]

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