In 1993, I was still reading widely in spiritual literature, trying to figure out what was happening in my life even as I was doing what I’d been called to do at 9 and again at 18 — practicing shamanism. Reading Joseph Campbell for the first time blew my mind open. When it mixed with my admiration of W. H. Auden and a greeting card sent by a friend with a John William Waterhouse painting (A Mermaid) reproduced on it, this poem resulted.
The structure of this poem was strongly influenced by Auden’s “In Memory of W. B. Yeats.” I worked in the opposite direction Auden did; his poem went from free verse to form; I went from form to free (actually to prose poem). The first section, a Shakespearean sonnet, was my first formal poem.
At Water’s Edge
Woman, in the picture language of mythology, represents
the totality of what can be known. — Joseph Campbell
The Washer at the Ford
Cuchulain, son of Lug, it is said,
Reached the river crossing at night,
And saw the waters flowing red.
A washer-maid worked there by lamplight,
Weeping as she bent to her task.
Sir Cuchulain, knight of Ulster,
Left the Gray near a tree and knelt to ask
What it was that so distressed her.
The maiden did not look at him as she began to speak.
I wash the clothes of men who will soon die in war.
She wiped her face, leaving pale red streaks.
And as you see, this shirt is yours.
The lady rose and spread his clothes to dry upon a stone,
Then stepped into the river and left Cuchulain alone.
Thetis Dips Achilles in the River Styx
She hums a tune she was taught as a child.
The dead call it back, but she doesn’t hear.
Her mind is fully on her task
As she frees the howling boy-child
Bound between her breasts.
Plunge, and he goes silent to her ears.
All is hollow and distant to his —
All but the sound of the ones Charon left behind.
She fights the urge to dry him,
Leaves it to the fetid wind,
All the time wondering who the boy will answer to for this.
The Difference Between a Mermaid and a Siren
In Waterhouse’s painting, a mermaid sits on the shore, dressing her hair.
Pearl ropes are draped over a bowl by the curve of her tail as she combs,
looking at something no living human can see. She doesn’t speak or sing;
even legends are constrained by their genes.
The sirens know music to drown by, to dash ships against stones.
There are ways to hear them: Odysseus knew, but he was the grandson
of a god. Even he never found out the truth of them: the real faces of the
raging dead, just before their bird-feet rip loose the tenderest parts.