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.
Copyright © 2017 Paisley Rekdal. Used with permission of the author. This poem originally appeared in Tin House, Winter 2017.