Saturday, November 6, 2010



Don’t tell me that Orpheus failed.
An artist understands about faith –
the hours, the years, the life,

watching a blossom disclose
its throat, the secret
fur on the narrow tongue –

a blood-tinged light
crossing the perilous curve
of the corolla’s horizon,

nun-like petals that hide
the passion of patience inside,
a burgundy cleft in the heart

cowled with a hood of blue –
Look long enough at anything,
and it will grow in you –

One breath from embracing
black, in the center
of the blossom of your life,

he won’t turn:
not the Orpheus who sang
so much better after love, after death.

~ Oriana


Too many poems about Orpheus. Too many poems about O’Keefe. But let’s face it: these figures, one mythical, one historical, have turned into archetypes that shape our personal and collective psyche. The interpretations can be endless, and they keep on coming.

Why? Why do these stories have such great staying power over the millennia? Why, just in the last decade, hundreds of new poems about Orpheus? Is it that we too have tried to save someone we loved, gone through hell and back to rescue our beloved – and failed? Is it that we are all betrayers? Or is it that we all wait for the magical person to be save us and lead us to the world of light, and the savior is bound to betray us?

Or is it more simple: we try and try to find the answer as to why Orpheus turned around. Would we have been capable of absolute faith?

These are huge questions. My poem takes a more “narrow slice,” and looks at Orpheus as artist. An artist has to have infinite faith and patience. Georgia O’Keefe knew that, so I posit that it was difficult for her to accept the myth. Orpheus the poet and musician, through his years of disciplined, passionate patience, would not have turned.

Yet perhaps it’s not the turning or not turning that is of critical importance here, but the loss of the beloved.  If we have lived a while, we all come to know this loss.  It changes us, and, if we are artists, we unwillingly admit that we have become better artists as a result. As Louise Glück says, “I have lost my Eurydice . . . and it seems to me I have never been in better voice.”

Another aspect of an important myth is that it is timeless. In the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, the critical moment of his turning around becomes an eternal moment.  There is a suspension of time, the way it seems to happen to important memories. For instance, I am always that seventeen-year-old girl who is boarding the jet that will take her across the Iron Curtain (remember that phrase?) to the West. I can easily imagine a scientist, weary after many hours in the lab, at the moment of discovery. And I can imagine Orpheus forever holding within him the image of Eurydice’s face just before it dissolved. The exquisite poem by Lenny Lianne is a meditation on this moment.


Over and over he recalls
the clockwise motion of his body at the bend
in the uphill path as he turned
to glance back, and glimpsed her gazing at him.

Before her face scattered, swept away
as if in a roiling sandstorm, her looking back
at him rippled through his whole body,
binding them together.

In the same clockwise motion seconds turn
into minutes and are worn down, compacted
into memory, his image of her watching him
fills his new afterlife, so when he closes

his eyes to recall her, he remains unsure
is it he who sails through the space
that excludes her, or is it she
who travels across it and keeps coming toward him.

            ~ Lenny Lianne

This poem is an example of taking a very “narrow slice.” The music and the imagery turn on each other, imitating the turning motion of Orpheus. But he isn’t the only one who performs an action. Eurydice, usually presented as a passive character who does no more than disperse like smoke after the fatal glance, returns his glance, and in that glance they are united forever: she keeps coming toward him.  

Michael Peterson:

I think the fault in Orpheus's turn is with Hades, not Orpheus, just as in the ludicrous instruction to Lot to not look back at Sodom and Gomorrah. We look back – it's what we do.

I love your poem, especially juxtaposed to O'Keefe's painting. Very powerful (and erotic). You mention a suspension of time in your comments. I think of these as stopped clock moments. I have many in my life, tattooed across my soul, still very much alive and influential.

Thank you, Michael, for your perceptive comment, which hangs here like a shining fruit on the Tree of Knowledge. Yes, we turn and yes, we eat the Forbidden Fruit. Positing God's existence, that was his cunning scheme to ensure that the fruit would be eaten.

Jorie specializes in presenting the moment just before the transformation. We know how the story ends; she forces us to stay in the “before,” the glance, the fruit, already within us, but still unravished, always just about to happen, to step into the eternal.



“Orpheus after Eurydice” is short, to the point, and very skillful.  And it is quite interesting from the standpoint of what it does with physics.  There's Orpheus's ending question of whether he moves toward Eurydice to close the distance between them or whether it's Eurydice who moves toward him (though never quite arriving, so that Orpheus's fantasy of gaining Eurydice is never really consummated).  I also thought that using "clockwise" motion at the beginning of the poem was very clever, since it allowed Lenny to use "clockwise" again to describe the seconds and minutes during which Orpheus might have gained Eurydice but then, in a trice, lost her.  It's a haunting story, this tale of Orpheus and Eurydice, and I think Lenny's poem captures the haunting uncertainty in it.