~siren song: a manifesto~

April 27th, 2008

I threw the pearl of my soul into a cup of wine.
I went down the primrose path to the sound of flutes.
I lived on honeycomb.

~Oscar Wilde, De Profundis


I have been writing a character I call My Neptuna. The work is going slowly this week, lots of resistance, and so today I thought, if my mind wants to rebel, wander, why not wander over this way—and perhaps discover why? I will disregard the concern of being earnest, sincere, self-exposing, self-indulgent, and just root around a bit…


My Neptuna is a young woman who wanders ghostly, draped in gossamer veils of rapture and sorrow–the painfully beautiful kind, full of longing certain women articulate so enchantingly.

She is based upon the woman whose life inspires the book, and a friend whose vaporous consumption by melancholy I once witnessed, and the me of twenty years past (see above, circa nineteen or so.)

Why do we love them so? What is so appealing about a drowning woman? I mean figuratively of course, though certainly the myths around Ophelia and Woolf deserve a tail splash here as well.

But I’m thinking of a woman who swirls in the depths of her own silver-spangled, starlight and firefly ennui.

My Neptuna is a badly gaffed sideshow mermaid. Not as bewildering as Barnum’s crown jewel of marketing panache, the Feejee Mermaid, but a close second.

I can’t reproduce images of her here for publication reasons (ie: I’d like the book to be published!), but here are her hands, stained by the murky water and wearing a mer-wedding ring:

Barnum’s best example of his self-defined practice of “Humbug–the art of attracting attention, whether the article is good or bad” was the Fejee Mermaid. Pictured here is the purported first of a gazillion monkey/fish sculptures still extant—this one now part of the collection of the Peabody Museum of Harvard.
Barnum hung a painting of a gorgeous mermaid outside his tent, people paid in droves, and then saw this. Still, he made a bundle. I speculate that this is because more than dog-faced boys and pinheads, people want enchantment, they want to believe in mermaids.


Enchantment can also come in the form of mirroring, a talent the young Siren often relies upon, much to her boredom and occasional demise. Below is a classic of Pre-Raphaelite painting “from nature itself,” completed in 1852 by John Everett Millais. Model Elizabeth Siddall notoriously “sat” for the painting in a cold bathtub full of water, and became quite ill.

A painter, poet, muse-mirror and eventual wife to infidel Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Siddall was also a melancholic laudanum-lover and died of the drug in 1862, in a possible suicide.

millais_ophelia1.jpgRichard Burbage played Hamlet in Shakespeare’s time; wonder what fair lad played Ophelia?

D. G. Rossetti buried his only copy of a book of his poems with Lizzie Siddall, and later–presumably when he spoke to his agent–he became overcome with regret. In an act perhaps only a writer could imagine, he had her exhumed to recover and publish the worm-ridden text.

In legend, even in death her coppery hair continued to grow, filling her coffin. It’s a morbid and truly Victorian fetish (woman’s hair as enchanting symbol of motherly and/or erotic love but also asphyxiation…) and an awful summation of the issues with Rossetti, and yet, I love that image.

Still, why mirror? The performative aspect inherent in Sirening calls to question: Who is more charmed, the listener, or the Siren, by that audience? Rossetti’s poet sister, Christine (author of the fabulous Goblin Market), wrote of their sickly symbiotic relationship in In an Artist’s Studio:

He feeds upon her face by day and night, and she with true kind eyes looks back on him,
Fair as the moon and joyful as the light: not wan with waiting, not with sorrow dim;
Not as she is, but was when hope shone bright; not as she is, but as she fills his dream.


I quoted this poem in some very earnest song lyrics during my own maiden Siren days, as the singer of a band called Devil Dog. It took all the courage I could muster to get on stage and sing what was in my wee heart to a bunch of eye-rolling twenty year-olds–but I found that courage and lived very publicly–joy, mistakes, and all–and let’s just say not everyone loved me for it. This would not be the last time folks would get bunched up about how I chose to live my life (in pursuit of rapture.) If only I had read The Waves then…

But behold, looking up, I meet the eyes of a sour woman, who suspects me of rapture.
~V. Woolf

To wit, the Siren/Ophelia/Mermaid is desired as: tawdry carny enchantment, (smoke and) muse mirror, and easy target of envious scorn. Amateur, all!

What the Siren offers in her song is knowledge, bitter and wonder-ful. The whole kit and boodle. Giving over to that song is a conscious grasp at a life through the eyes of a voluptuary.

The Seirens sing to Odysseus the things most likely to please him, reciting what would appeal to his ambition and knowledge. “For we know,” say they, “all other things and all that shall befall upon the fruitful earth as well.”
Athenaeus (Greek rhetorician from ‘the times of Marcus’), Deipnosophistae


In Homer’s Odyssey, Circe describes the Sirens as “lolling there in their meadow, round them heaps of corpses rotting away, rags of skin shriveling on their bones,” the corpses being those who presumably would rather starve than leave their marvelous, terrible, truth-having company. (or as my friend Jenna said when I mentioned writing this “voluptuary manifesto,” “just thinking about it makes me want to lay my head on your chest and rest in your smell: perfume/red wine/old silk/faint undertones of hair dye.”)


Of course, there is risk in daring to want EVERYTHING, know EVERYTHING, experience EVERYTHING; the risk that you will get it.
My Neptuna knows this intuitively, but not at all through lived experience. Her wise intuition and relatively unsullied sense of Hope will come to experience later, and then what? Will she go the way of Woolf, Siddall, Ophelia? Will she succumb to her own song? Maybe. It depends on how you define succumb.

When I was a wee siren-in-training, my favorite story was The Little Mermaid (Den Lille Havfrue) written in 1836 by Hans Christian Andersen. It is ostensibly about a young mermaid who is willing to give up everything to gain the love of a prince. Nothing good comes of it, naturally.

But you could also read the tale as an allegory of desire for Truth! Sorrow! Beauty! the whole kit and kaboodle at any cost–a willingness to delve to the murky depths, make real sacrifice, bear intense discomfort, misunderstanding, and ridicule, to ultimately achieve enlightenment (as very wise sea foam.) Perhaps the Little Mermaid was just a golden-haired Faustus…

I think this is the vision Rimbaud had in mind when he penned:


O pale Ophelia. Beautiful as snow.
You died, child, borne away upon waters.
Winds from high Norwegian mountains
Whispered warnings of liberty’s sting;
Because a breath carried strange sounds
To your restless soul, twisting your long hair,
Your heart listened to Nature’s song
In grumbling trees and nocturnal sighs,
Because deafening voices of wild seas
Broke your infant breast, too human and too soft;
Because one April morning, a pale, handsome knight,
A poor fool, sat silent at your feet.

Sky. Love. Liberty. What dreams, poor Ophelia.
You melted upon him like snow in flame:
Visions strangled your words
-Fear of the Infinite flared in your eyes.

From Ophelia, 15 May 1870, by Arthur Rimbaud, translated by my friend, Wyatt Mason.

The only mistake Ophelia made–what lost her her courage and faith–is giving a fig what anyone else thought. As though the burden of carrying Sorrow to balance the Beauty wasn’t enough (nevermind Sky. Love. Liberty.) If only she had read The Waves! Or perhaps The Bard, elsewhere:

Sing, siren, for thyself…
Shakespeare, The Comedy of Errors


The gal who put the va-vavoom in voluptuary–Isadora Duncan. Here frolicking in the Theatre of Dionysus, Athens, “her fine head tossed to the sky, her forehead shining with a crown of a million stars,” singing to the birds, the trees, the waves, herself.

Sing for thyself. That is what I can offer to My Neptuna, and to the over-wrought young siren I was (still am?).

Or as my pal Mary Ruefle said (I guess I am wanting kindred spirits gathered while I explore this murky water) after my very first public reading at MacDowell–the one where I nearly cried all the way through–but didn’t!–from the intensity of revealing myself to that degree–“Don’t worry so much! People will like you or they won’t! Things will work out or they won’t! There is nothing you can do about it!”

Singing for Thyself is the key to not succumbing to the murk, and is the light that in the Underworld points home again. It makes openness possible, to Joy and Sorrow, and all shades in between. It makes possible forgiveness of yourself and the people you love, it makes possible, in other words, Now.

As I began this missive gazing into the pool of Narcissus, so I will close it, with my favorite self-portrait at twenty-four or so, singing for myself.

I offer a quote from Martha Graham to Agnes De Mille that I’ve likely sent to you at some point:

There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique.
And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost.
The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable it is nor how it compares with other expressions.
It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.
You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work.
You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you.
Keep the channel open. No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time.
There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive.

2 Responses to “~siren song: a manifesto~”

  1. Habib says:

    Beautiful. As much as I love the stories you discover of other kindred spirits, the story of yourself that you reveal is the thread I like to pull at the most. My Neptuna – I feel like I know her already.
    How does one decide to exhume the corpse of a loved one lost, let alone convince the grave-digger to do that work? That sounds like a story for me.
    XO D

  2. kate says:

    hey there dear… funny how the words jotted on keyboard flow so easily. it feels like being unhandcuffed doesn’t it? Thanks for the Agnes de Mille. I think I know a bazillion people who will benefit from mulling over it… including me.


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