We think Marsyas is the only one
who changed, stepping forth
from the forest to challenge Apollo, staring at the god

he could never rival as if
into a harshly lit mirror, each recoiling

at what he found there: the jealousy knifed
inside the mortal talent, the cold perfection
threaded through with rage.

But then the muses stirred behind them.
And Marsyas, out the painful human wish
to be admired, cannot help but play.

And afterwards, the cutting,
the stripped corpuscles, the ruined mouth—

     Only after his victory would Apollo reach out
and clip three small muscles from the satyr’s throat
and shoulders, and dry them on a rock, and string them between
the curved horns of his lyre. Then the god

would pull a song
through that tender sinew, telling himself

it was not the crying of one
who’s lost everything he loves but the god’s
own singing that he heard, and after which
the muses strained, because it was the song

of someone who knew what it was like
to be alive, which the god could not bear
to know, or to stop playing.

And so Apollo, unthinking, binds himself
to Marsyas: the god taking from his rival

fear and desire, the satyr hardened by the god’s
cruel skill, until both songs

writhe inside each other, sung
by one who cannot understand death, and so

never understands what he plays,
knowing only how his hand
trembles over the plucked muscle:

adding, he thinks, something lower to the notes,
something sweeter, and infinitely strange.

More by Paisley Rekdal

Bats

unveil themselves in dark.
They hang, each a jagged,

silken sleeve, from moonlit rafters bright
as polished knives. They swim

the muddled air and keen
like supersonic babies, the sound

we imagine empty wombs might make
in women who can’t fill them up.

A clasp, a scratch, a sigh.
They drink fruit dry.

And wheel, against feverish light flung hard
upon their faces,

in circles that nauseate.
Imagine one at breast or neck,

Patterning a name in driblets of iodine
that spatter your skin stars.

They flutter, shake like mystics.
They materialize. Revelatory

as a stranger’s underthings found tossed
upon the marital bed, you tremble

even at the thought. Asleep,
you tear your fingers

and search the sheets all night.

Intimacy

How horrible it is, how horrible
that Cronenberg film where Goldblum's trapped

with a fly inside his Material
Transformer: bits of the man emerging

gooey, many-eyed; bits of the fly
worrying that his agent's screwed him–

I almost flinch to see the body later
that's left its fly in the corner, I mean

the fly that's left its body, recalling too
that medieval nightmare, Resurrection,

in which each soul must scurry
to rejoin the plush interiors of its flesh,

pushing through, marrying indiscriminately
because Heaven won't take what's only half:

one soul blurring forever
into another body.

If we can't know the boundaries between ourselves
in life, what will they be in death,

corrupted steadily by maggot,
rain or superstition, by affection

that depends on memory to survive?
People should keep their hands to themselves

for the remainder of the flight: who needs
some stranger's waistline, joint

problems or insecurities? Darling,
what I love in you I pray will always stay

the hell away from me.

Self-Portrait as Mae West One-Liner

I'm no moaning bluet, mountable
linnet, mumbling nun. I'm
tangible, I'm gin. Able to molt
in toto, to limn. I'm blame and angle, I'm
lumbago, an oblate mug gone notable,
not glum. I'm a tabu tuba mogul, I'm motile,
I'm nimble. No gab ennui, no bagel bun-boat: I'm one
big mega-ton bolt able to bail
men out. Gluten iamb. Male bong unit.
I'm a genial bum, mental obi, genital
montage. I'm Agent Limbo, my blunt bio
an amulet, an enigma. Omit elan. Omit bingo.
Alien mangle, I'm glib lingo. Untangle me,
tangelo. But I'm no angel.