Tuesday, November 24, 2015


John William Waterhouse,  Siren, 1900



Oh they came, their eyes blank.
I pinned their souls under rocks
wanting only their shocked flesh
as the ships broke up, again, again . . .
Years now. Unlike the others I remember
a hand, some coarse hair against my cheek.
Now I stare at the sea all day
singing about strange events
for I’ve passed through their souls
inadvertently, thinking them shadows —
their souls were particles of odd happenings
or geography or touch,
tainting my immortality with memory.

As the sea roiled around him, one sailor
dreamed of his wife’s tomb,
the steep, sweating walls and dead pigs
killed to entice away the worms.
Another rubbed sea salt into his eyes
as if it were home, the desert;
while the one i murmured over, sweetly
dead in my young, implacable arms
saw his father turn in another sea.
In this fairyland, their strenuous lips
only blub loosely like the octopus
crossing my feet with lank, amorous
tentacles; their fingers dissolve
into the sharp, familiar bone.

Sometimes I hear mariners’ wives chanting
over the water, like us, forlorn;
I remember the charmed wedding nights,
and each man’s last embrace snow-
flake patterned into his soul, now mine.
Yet I keep singing, my dangerous voice
joined in sad irresponsibility with those
on this rock who forget why
each time until the next ship crashes.
Into the haunted music I weave my warning
carefully, as if my language were decipherable.

~ Maura Stanton

I love persona poems. I love the leap of the imagination it takes to dream oneself as precisely as possible into someone else who’s become part of our psyche. And once we know the tale of the Sirens, it’s with us forever.

Homer’s Sirens were part birds, part women. It’s later that the current image of the Siren, with a fish’s tail, became standard. But in classical Antiquity, the image of Sirens was found most often in cemeteries. The concept of the Siren evolved away from the Homeric femme fatale toward something more akin to our notion of an angel.  The wings stayed, as well as the attribute of music. The most striking piece of art in the whole show was a funerary Siren: sculpted in marble, a lovely woman with large wings, playing a kithara, a string instrument resembling a lyre. It turns out that Sirens were believed to accompany the dead to the Underworld, consoling them with music.

Ultimately, the Sirens, who could impart mystical wisdom, also became a symbol of the soul yearning for paradise. As I said in my blog post, “The Sirens Still Sing to Us,” we lose the world but gain the song.

This poem, however, takes us back to the Homeric sirens. There is no competing with The Odyssey. Few people know about the later “angelic” Sirens; millions are familiar with the myth of beautiful women’s voices luring sailors to their death. Stanton makes the Sirens basically innocent, unconscious. They mean no harm; immortal, have no memory, so they keep on singing, unaware of the consequences until the next ship crashes.

I read somewhere that the only way eternity would be endurable would be without memory. If in heaven there is no memory, then each moment repeats the wonder of seeing the place for the first time.

But one Siren mistakes the sailors souls for shadows, and something astonishing happens:

Now I stare at the sea all day
singing about strange events
for I’ve passed through their souls
inadvertently, thinking them shadows —
their souls were particles of odd happenings
or geography or touch,
tainting my immortality with memory.

“Tainting my immortality with memory” is my favorite line.

Now the “memory-tainted” Sirens is full of the sailors’ memories — their wedding nights, their parents, the landscapes they’d seen, the memories of touch (and, I assume, smell — those remain for a lifetime).  She identifies with the bereaved wives. She knows her voice is dangerous, but she can’t simply stop singing — apparently she’s “hard-wired” to sing. She tries to weave a warning into her song, but her language, alas, is not decipherable.

(A shameless digression: I’d love this poem to start with the second stanza — “in medias res.” Then it would be immediately compelling:

As the sea roiled around him, one sailor
dreamed of his wife’s tomb,
the steep, sweating walls and dead pigs
killed to entice away the worms.
Another rubbed sea salt into his eyes
as if it were home, the desert;
while the one i murmured over, sweetly
dead in my young, implacable arms
saw his father turn in another sea.

“Pigs killed to entice away the worms” — who knew? Wait, was that really done? Regardless, it’s irresistible detail.

The part about the Siren’s immortality becoming contaminated by memory could come later, in flashback.

But never mind. The poem is magical even if imperfect. It’s magical because it creates an alternate reality vividly enough.)

Absorbing the sailors’ memories is somewhat like eating the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. You cease to be an innocent being — “innocent” mainly in the sense of “ignorant.” Now you know you cause harm. Alas, in some circumstances you can’t help it — and you end up suffering too, as Stanton’s Siren feels the grief of the bereaved wives. In a fascinating twist, those women at least on the surface become like the Sirens, also singing over the waters, forlorn, but cut off from love except as memory and longing. 

 Siren, 7th century BC vase, Corinth, on an old Polish stamp


A “siren” has become pretty much a synonym for a “femme fatale.” Any woman can find herself in a femme fatale situation without really being a typical femme fatale: any relationship where she loves the partner less than she is loved puts her in the position of power — and she may be uncomfortable with it, and feel compassion for her partner. The poem certainly presents the case of “I know I am alluring to you, but you are not alluring to me.”

And what woman hasn’t dreamed, at least for a moment, of being a Siren, a beautiful Lorelei, a femme fatale? Ah, the power to inspire devotion while not making any sacrifices! A femme fatale illustrates the “Ben Franklin effect”: we love those for whom we’ve done favors, in whom we’ve invested time and energy. Since we’ve waited for them for hours while they were unconscionably late for a date, they must be worth that kind of waiting, right? The more they abuse us, the more difficult it becomes to break free — that’s the pathology of it.

And of course there is also the “homme fatal.” In fact I suspect that much more often it’s the man who remains aloof, solidifying his power over the woman helplessly in love with him — until, proverbially, she’s ready to “do anything for him.” It’s what I call “the boss and the secretary” game. She does most of the work he’s being paid for while he enjoys long “lunch meetings,” and covers up for his professional negligence. Usually he’s too smart to become an actual lover — that promise is forever dangling, never fulfilled. A physical love relationship usually comes to an end; an unrequited love, if unconsummated, can last for decades.

Whether it’s a man or a woman abusing someone else’s infatuation, it’s dreadful, pathological. A normal woman quickly snaps out of her Siren fantasies, realizing she would not be really happy being loved — even madly loved — by someone she doesn’t love. She returns to dreaming about the Prince. If the dream is intense, it too can be destructive, but on the whole a woman’s nurturing side prevails and she can love actual people with their flaws.

It would be going too far to say that the speaker in the poem is a femme fatale with a heart of gold. At most, she feels sorrow, she weaves warnings into her song. A heart of gold would require that she sacrifice her immortality in order to save a sailor’s life. But perhaps it’s not within her power to do that. The Greeks didn’t traffic in free will. There was Necessity, or Fate.

 The Goddess Ananke, or Necessity


By the way, in Homer the Sirens don't devour the bodies of the sailors. That’s a common misconception. Those sailors who survive the smashing against the rocks starve to death, listening to the enchanting song.

Clever reader, have you predicted that the phrase “starving artist” will come up next? And the word “compulsive”? Need I connect the dots?

Not for those readers who are familiar with the creative process. It is devouring. Most artists never “make it” in terms of worldly rewards. They pay a price not only in terms of poverty, but also in terms of guilt over not giving enough to their partners — since, you guessed the next eternal verity, they are “married to their art.”

The human beloved is doomed to being second in importance. “It’s a lonely life” — unless the artist’s mate has enough life of her own, enough of other sources of affection and satisfaction.

One time I asked fellow poets and writers, “Would you want your daughter to marry a writer?” The answer was an instant and unanimous No. In fact, it was a horrified shriek of No! Yet such a relationship can work well if it’s a relationship equals — usually both of them work in a creative field. Or, if only one does, then the partner manages to have a rich, satisfying life of his or her own.

 Cezanne, Kiss of the Muse, 1860


But Stanton’s poem appeals to me precisely because it’s not “about” the Siren as an ice-hearted femme fatale. The Sirens don’t lure the sailors because they are evil. Stanton posits that they ply their trade because they are immortal: hence they have no memory. Having no memory, they learn nothing about the consequences of their actions. They are surprised to see amorous fingers turn to sharp bone.

The idea that immortality requires no memory reminded me of a chapter in Einstein's Dreams, No memory means that everything keeps happening for the first time. Here one of the Sirens becomes accidentally "tainted" with memory, and now instead of her happy innocence she carries the psychic burden of the sailors' memories — especially, it seems, their memories of love.

Immortality as lack of memory is an interesting inversion of the usual understanding of immortality as everlasting memory. But who’s doing the remembering? Not the object of “immortality,” but those who remember him in some manner. Immortality as being remembered — usually with the aid of rituals such as commemorating anniversaries, writing reminiscences, talking about the person — and, in the case of a writer, reading and discussing his work — this kind of immortality is “done” by others. It’s not personal immortality, which I suspect might indeed be unbearable after a few centuries — and which might require absence of memory.

Being human, we are much less “programmed” than animals. I think this is as far as I want to go at present without stepping into the eternal debate over free will versus determinism. We are mortal and have memory. We can learn from noting the consequences. I will leave it at that.

Closing Image: Paul Delvaux (1897 - 1994), Dawn in the Village of the Sirens. Note that their lower bodies here resemble tree trunks and roots. The trunks can be a reference to the Maenads, the worshipers of Dionysus who got punished for tearing Orpheus into pieces by being changed into oaks. So the Maenads too represent destructive women. But I am not sure if Delvaux intended this reference. I think that he simply morphed the Sirens into this shape, perhaps to indicate that they are rooted, locked, imprisoned in their behavior. 


The Siren painting is the perfect image for A VOICE FOR THE SIRENS. In fact all the pictures are perfect for this blog.

The Siren on the Polish postage stamp could be 20th century especially with the background so I wonder if the background was added.

Learned so much from Femme fatale section.

What is the Goddess Ananke or Necessity holding?

My favorite part of Paul Delvaux’s painting is the breast in the mirror. To me implies that the Sirens also love themselves and are narcissists without memory so they constantly have to remind themselves who they are by looking at the breast in the mirror. But that’s probably not what the artist intended. Maybe he just liked breasts. LOL


Insofar as there are three kinds of men, with painters it’s easy to figure out which kind they are: just note how they paint women.

This is hard at first with Picasso, but eventually it also shows


That’s a very good observation about the Sirens: they have no memory, so they can’t love anyone (not even themselves, but the main theory of narcissism holds that a narcissist lack true self love), and they need to have a mirror to remember who they are.

The Siren on the stamp: the shape is authentic, copied from a really ancient Greek vase. And very early art can look surprisingly modern — it doesn’t try to be realistic, but is strongly stylized.

I think the bright colors and the background are probably a contemporary invention, but it would take an art historian with a background in vases to know for sure.

Ananke is supposed to be be holding a spindle — anything to do with spinning and weaving indicated fate. But in this image what I see is most likely a torch. A more brutal interpretation would be that since is the Goddess Necessity, she’s holding a club with which she hits poor humans, to impart the lessons of the “School of Hard Knocks.”

Glad the part on femme fatale provides insight. It took me a lot of life experience to figure out some of those “relationship dynamics.”


Made me think of my old poem “Hell” a short one that says hell would be “every dream remembered.”


Yes, remembering everything would be sheer hell — not just dreams but everything that ever happened.

Happiness depends on selective forgetting. Fortunately that’s just how our memory works. I don’t mean that we easily forget the bad things — but we tend not to “rehearse” those memories, meaning that we don’t reconstruct them over and over. A person in good mental health prefers to dwell on positive memories, selectively strengthening them. “Practice makes perfect” also when it comes to recalling happy memories.

Conversely, depression blocks the access to happy memories, so only the negative stuff is remembered. If depression continues long enough, you may find you can’t remember a single good thing that ever happened to you, absurd as that sounds. Even after depression ends, it takes a while to regain that access.

But even if immortality meant only positive recall, imagine how tiresome that would get after a few centuries. Immortality as lack of memory makes sense — then everything would be fresh and interesting.

Some Alzheimer’s patients experience precisely that. There is the tormenting, paranoid Alzheimer’s, and the “beatific” kind, when the victim becomes happy, cherubic. 


  1. The Sirens make me think of young women, just coming into their "womanly" bodies, like my grnd daughter who at age 12, over a single summer, changed her body from that of a little girl, into that of a 25 yer old woman. Not kidding. Rememberint that time for me, too, I was thrilled to have my "womanly parts", and even tho at times I felt awkward, I loved to show new body off... completely mystified as to why there should be a few limits on that!! I think, like the Sirens, girls at this stage are oblivious to the powerful effect that can have upon males. We do not know our power... and this "unconsciousness" can lead to anger and frustration, and sometimes even loathing along with the lust, from males. "We dcn't know our own power"... maybe a platform for instigating further adventures around what that might mean.., what needs to be known about ourselves?

  2. I too developed relatively early . . . and what a shock it was! And that body was sinful, obscene -- I was still a practicing catholic. But around 16 or so I was fully aware (after being partially aware) of the effect of my youth and femininity on men -- but scared of it, and seeing those reactions as harassment. And that's what they were, working-class men being particularly open about it. I had to leave the church, and then have some years pass as detox before I could take any pleasure in being a woman -- so I envy you your easy-sounding transition.

    You make a good general point, though, that young girls are not quite aware how beautiful and alluring they are. I can't quite decide if that's good or bad. No matter what, older women need to watch out for the young ones, easily victimized. Remember how quickly we could develop intense crushes? I'm glad all that is over, though who wouldn't want to have young beauty AND the wisdom of age.

  3. Oriana, do you have source(s) on the change of the idea of Sirens into the "angelic" versions?

  4. I write about the funereal sirens at greater length in my previous blog post, http://oriana-poetry.blogspot.com/2010/08/sirens-still-sing-to-us.html

    Sorry I don't have the capacity in this format to make it a link you can click on, but you past paste the address etc

    It's not a scholarly presentation, but you can find a lot more on Google, including wonderful images. I first saw those in my local museum, and it was quite a discovery!

    Thank you for your interest.

  5. Miranda via Oriana: I enjoyed the blog on Sirens. The concept of immortality as absence of memory is not particularly prevalent in Christianity, but is so in Buddhism, don't you think? During the period after mortal death--when one is formless, and later, after one is reincarnated--there is absence of memory, it seems to me. Of course now and then there is some slippage, as in deja vues or awareness of other dimensions, or when past lives infuse present life ("taints" it, as Stanton would say).

    I also think it is inevitable that the young child/woman is unaware of her seductive qualities. The body develops so much more quickly than the brain (the brain not developed until about age 26!) This developmental disconnect creates a dangerous brew for young women, one in which they are gravely disabled in their ability to perceive the reality of their lives and experiences. I agree that culture needs to protect young women during that vulnerable time, not exploit them as so often happens.

  6. When it comes to Buddhism, the problem with reincarnation stems from there being no stable self (I agree with that proposition). Yet if there is no stable essence, no self or soul, what is it that's being reincarnated? I realize that the Buddha himself didn't want to comment on the afterlife, saying his task is to remove suffering in this life.

    But overall, whenever there is reincarnation (e.g. in Plato), there is that period of non-memory. Dante had an interesting notion: that before souls enter paradise, they go into Lethe not in order to lose memory, but to cleanse it of pain. Those in heaven remember everything, but no memories cause sorrow.

    I like this a lot. I love it when it happens to me -- when some originally painful event can finally be recalled with complete serenity.

    As for "eternal bliss," however, I think bliss could remain bliss only when there is no memory, so every moment is fresh and delightful.

    As for deja vu, I think it's a neurological glitch, a subset of false memory: there are enough clues for the brain to assume that we have already seen X while in fact we haven't. Memory is notoriously inaccurate because basically we reconstruct on the fly.

    Totally agree about young women -- it takes a while before they realize they have an impact on men just by being young women! Nor do they know that men are extremely motivated to get sex. I remember how much I resisted accepting what so many women tried to teach me: that a man may be talking about the weather, but what he really wants is sex. I thought that was an ignoble view of men. It took a bit of living to admit that older women knew what they were talking about.