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Nightingale: a gloss: a special APR supplement.

Nay, then I'll stop your mouth. --Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus

LANGUAGE IS THE FIRST SITE OF LOSS AND OUR FIRST DEFENSE against it. Which is why after Philomela's brother-in-law, Tereus, rapes her, he cuts out her tongue and tosses it, the bloody stump hissing at the girl's feet.

In my poem "Philomela," I leave out this mutilation. Leave out, too, Philomela's sister, Procne, who learns of her sister's rape from the tapestry Philomela weaves. Leave out the death of Itylus, Procne and Tereus' son, whom the sisters dismember, boil, and serve to Tereus for punishment, Philomela tossing the boy's bloody head-stump at his father. Leave out, as well, the metamorphosis of Philomela and Procne into a nightingale and swallow, respectively, Tereus into the hoopoe that pursues them. Such details would be unimaginable, I think, not because a reader can't imagine them, but because I don't want to.

Ovid makes his trio's transformation occur at the instant syntax shifts from the conditional to the imperfect. "The girls went flying ... / as if they were on wings. They were on wings!" he writes. The difference between simile and metaphor. The second the mouth conceives it, the imagination turns it into the real.

Ovid, Metamorphoses, VI, 669-670

I'm writing "Philomela" at an artists' colony where I go for runs. Sometimes a man in a car will pace me; sometimes a man on his bike will circle back to get another look. Sometimes the men who pass me say nothing.

Around this residency are woods in which, the staff informs us, we can go for walks. It is beautiful there, and there are olive groves. I do not walk alone in the woods.

It's 1992 and I'm hiking near Loch Ness. It's just after breakfast: I've spent the morning alone in a stand of gold aspen that circles the lake. When the three men find me, the smell of beer and whiskey thick on their clothes, bait boxes and fishing rods in hand, I have just sat down with my book. The men are red-eyed, gruff. The first two nod as they pass me: it is the third who walks back. He has lank, gingery hair, and black spots in his teeth.

Hello, he says when he reaches me.

Nightingale: OE, nihtegala, niht + galan, small, reddish-brown migratory bird celebrated for its sweet night song during the breeding season. In Dutch, a frog.

Virgil, The Georgics, Book IV:
    [A]s mourning beneath the poplar shade the nightingale
   laments her lost brood ... she sobs
   nightlong, and on a branch perched her doleful song

Shelley, A Defense of Poetry: "A poet is a nightingale who sits in darkness, and sings to cheer its solitude with sweet sounds; his auditors are as men entranced by the melody of an unseen musician."

Are you an American? he asks. I always wanted to kiss an American.

Female nightingales do not sing. Only the male sings, as Tereus does, attempting to woo Philomela with words. "Love made him eloquent," Ovid writes. Tereus' language is aroused by Philomela's silence. What space is a woman? "[S]ome Pallas in place which furthered my inuention, for I am in that point of Ouid his opinion, that, Si cupia sponte disertus erit (desire makes a man spontaneously eloquent)." A palace of pleasure arousing both erotic and narrative desire.

Ovid, VI, 491 George Pettie, A Petite Pallace of Pettie his Pleasure, 1576

Just a kiss, he says, dropping his tackle box, and I know I should run. He grabs my head, and I am already clawing at his head, terrified but also terrified of hurting him. Hurting him will make it worse for me. He hisses in my ear as I slap his hands, and now he's got his arms around me. I rear back, unbalancing myself, so that when I do the one thing I've been taught, which is to bring my right knee up hard into his groin, the blow is weak. That didn't work, I stammer, as my leg grazes the inside of his thigh.

It never does, he replies. And now he has me on the ground.

Philomel, Philomela: ME, from Greek Philo + meios, song, a nightingale.

Matthew Arnold, "Philomela":
    How thick the bursts come crowding through the leaves!
   Again--thou hearest!
   Eternal passion!
   Eternal pain!

I do not use my voice. Two other men are ahead of us in the woods: I have no idea what they will do if called back, where their allegiances will lie. As if these were rules agreed upon, he doesn't shout either. In retrospect, his silence suggests that his friends might have taken my side. But at that moment, the two of us cajole and threaten in hisses. The whole attack is conducted in silence.

Ovid says it is imagination that makes possible the rape: Tereus "sees beyond what he sees," an idea embroidered on by later writers. "[H]ee seemed to see her stand apparently before him (only a stronge imagination assurynge him that it was shee) which sight sunk so deeply into his heart and brought him such excessiue delight, that hee presently awakened, and missing the partie that procured him such pleasure, his ioy was turned to anoy," writes George Pettie in his rewriting of the myth. To see past what we know into what we desire, to put that desire into language. And by performing that, to enact in the reader a similar performance. The art is not finished until we imagine the outcome ourselves.

George Pettie, A Petite Pallace of Pettie his Pleasure Ovid, VI, 453-482

My hands are pushed against his chest, his hands are in my pants, on my breasts. He says nothing, though he grimaces, his face close to mine as he leans to kiss me, so that I whip my head away. I can feel the cold leaves against my cheek, the damp earth, can spy my book lying a few feet off. Just let him, something small, dry, miserable in me says. Let him, and it willall be over. But I don't. I keep my mouth shut, and I fight.

There is no scream after the tongue is cut, but would we hear a cry? Philomela screams only in the text, thus in our minds: in that, her body and our own do not communicate. We cannot hear it. She exists only in our imagination: an absent body that exists either in the past or an unforeseeable future. She begs for help we can never give. It is absurd to suggest we could. In that sense, she never needed a tongue to scream for help. She never had one.

K. Frances Lieder, "Lights Out and an Ethics of Spectatorship: Or, Can the Subaltern Scream?"

In my poem "Philomela," the rape isn't described. It takes place off stage, recorded years after the event by the character who experienced it.

When I left out the rape, I thought I was refusing to indulge a reader's voyeurism. But the reader knows what is left out: my silence, then, is not a revision but an invitation to imagine this violence for yourself.

Procne, too, has to imagine her sister's violation. Philomela's weaving thus becomes a muslin veil drawn over experience, both bringing her sister in, and shutting her out.

There is another woman at the residency who runs, and when we meet over meals, we list our encounters with a well-rehearsed mixture of irony and exhaustion. We are scared and we are not scared: both irrational positions based on our experience in the world. She is a black woman in a white nation; I am someone who's been attacked. We live our lives with the knowledge that further can always happen. The man pushing out of the hedge, tackle box swinging. The hard gleam of muscles along the cop's arms as he rides up, suddenly, into the light. Take the requisite precautions, but what use is more fear? We have to imagine less, or stop running.

And then his fingers are tearing inside me, his tongue filling my mouth.
    The woods are ruthless, dreadful, deaf, and dull;
   There speak, and strike, brave boys, and take your turns;
   There serve your lusts, shadow'd from heaven's eye,
   And revel in Lavinia's treasury.
   Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus
, II, i

He stops. He withdraws his hand from my pants, lets go of my hair. I curl my legs up into my chest as he pushes himself, unsteadily, off me. That wasn't much, was it? he asks. He brushes leaves off his clothes.

When I try and explain what his teeth looked like, what his breath smelled like, the cold tips of his fingernails as they clawed inside me, I know I am asking for something beyond the response of your own suffering, your awareness of my suffering. I don't care what you know or how you feel. I want to go back in time, to an eternal before. I want you to give me what no one can give me. Which is why I have resisted talking about it.

Tongue: OE tunge + Latin lingua: an organ of speech, a figure or representation of this organ; the faculty of speech. A voice, a vote, suffrage. To assail with words; to cut a tongue; to slit or shape a tongue in a plant for grafting.

"Giving great tongue": a cry made by hounds when they scent a fox.

"Will not my tongue be mute?" Tarquin wonders, at the thought of raping Lucretia. The rape must mark him as well: a blot upon his face as well as his character, violence carving its sin upon him. If she cannot go unmarked, he cannot either; the body giving tongue to its distress. Shakespeare, "The Rape of Lucrece," 227

I don't call it rape, but that doesn't mean others wouldn't. Sexual violence has been historically difficult to articulate. Chaucer devoted the fifth book of "The Legend of Good Women" to creating subcategories of words akin to rape: ravine, a rape linked with abduction; robberie, a rape occurring in the woods; stelthe, an attack cloaked in secrecy. We would not care to make such distinctions, but Chaucer's characters do. When Amans (Latin: "Loving") is asked whether he has committed the sin of ravine, he denies it, admitting only to the possibility of stelthe. It is important, he fumes, to make such distinctions. What happened to me feels like something that exists between words, a subcategory of expression for which there is no one easy expression.

Ravin/raven: OF, ravine + L. rapinare: to plunder, to seize or divide, to devour voraciously.

Raving: MF, resver, to wander, to be delirious. "Raving" is applied to the Bacchantes or Maenads, whose name means "raving ones." Procne first appears in Ovid's tale dressed as the Bacchantes' queen, "in all the dress / of frenzy," spear over her shoulder, draped in vines and deer hide. Philomela, voiceless suffering, is visited by her sister, rage. A raping. A raving.

"Raving": at the heart of the story is female madness, a word sonically, if not etymologically, attached to the word for rape. Raving is a curse that spreads through imagination and desire. In "The Rape of Lucrece," when Tarquin puts his hand on Lucretia's breast, her terrified heartbeat "moves in him more rage." To the ancient writers, only raving explains female aggression. Agave, driven mad by Dionysus for her "unbridled tongue," doesn't know her son, Pentheus, and spikes his head on a stake. Medea, to punish an unfaithful Jason, dismembers their children. To wound one is to wound the other, bodies linked by sperm, and milk, and blood. Don't infect me with your madness.

Euripides, The Bacchae, 438 Shakespeare, "The Rape of Lucrece," 469

If art is the eloquence left Philomela, what answer does it inspire? Pain speaks to pain. "Why should one make pretty speeches and the other be dumb?" Procne wonders, looking back and forth between Philomela's tapestry and her son. Itylus' ability to speak throws Philomela's silence into loud relief, and though he says nothing in the myth, his flesh "keeps something of the spirit alive." When Procne dismembers him, he "leaps in the boiling water, hisses on the turning skewers." Pain too is a language. The body speaks it fluently.

Ovid, VI, 647-649

Rape threads through The Metamorphoses. To Ovid, a poet, perhaps the ultimate dehumanizing act would bring the body to a place beyond language. People in his myths often become animals, men and women "more cut off from words than a seal," as Robert Lowell writes of one manic stint spent in McLean Hospital. Language is power. Language is masculine. To live cut off from words is to descend into the bodily, the irrational. It is, if words make law and government, to be outside political power. To make his (literate, male) audience understand such powerlessness, Ovid frames the rape from Philomela's point of view. He centers male agency within a silent female consciousness.

Robert Lowell, "Waking in the Blue," 24
    But if you stubbornly keep lying down in bed, dressed,
            You'll feel my hands by way of your torn dress:
   In fact, if my anger should carry me further,
            You'll show wounded arms to your mother.
   Propertius 2.15.17-20

Or Ovid features rape because it is a trope of Roman elegiac discourse. Arma, amor, ira. Desire is scripted by violence.

Madness to insist upon narrative cohesion when the story is one of chaos and fragmentation. The story is one of raving. Philomela's descent is an unveiling of the animal heart at the world's center. The girl, running as if flying into the woods. The girl flying. Tereus, cruel predator, crystallized into the war-like hoopoe. If we become the thing which symbolizes us, it is not change, but revelation.
    [Tereus] was a passionate man, and all the Thracians
   are quick at loving ...
   Two fires burned in him: his own passion and his nation's.

To Ovid, violence is brute, natural, indifferent; it wells up through the blood, a moral emptiness that obeys no rules because it understands none. In The Metamorphoses, the truth of male violence is that it might erupt at any time: the void always threatens to yawn before us, and we struggle to assemble words that will explain it. The truth of female violence is that it is fundamentally irrational. Only language, which orders time and gives experience shape and meaning, might control how violence is experienced. It gives us back control. "There was no time ever /when she would rather have had the use of her tongue, / the power to speak, to express her full rejoicing," Ovid writes, after Philomela throws Itylus' bloody head at Tereus' feet. Language is made to contain our awareness of, even our celebration in, suffering. The pain attending our pleasure. The pleasure we take in another's pain.

Ovid, VI, 460-462, 659-661

Here are the words describing Philomela's cut tongue: immurmurat (murmurs), palpitat (quivers), quaerit (strives). Like a lover, the tongue murmurs, it quivers, it strives for its mistress.

Ovid, VI, 562-564

Positioning an implicitly male audience in the consciousness of the raving, raped woman tilts the myth from one of identification to one of rejection. To portray Philomela's calls for justice within the frame of madness reduces her moral justification for Tereus' punishment. It focuses the reader's gaze back upon her mutilated body, her tortured mind, turning our regard from one of empathy to spectacle.

Keats, in his copy of Titus Andronicus, a play that rewrites the myth of Philomela, struck out with his pen several of the taunting lines spoken by Demetrius and Chiron after they've raped Lavinia, sliced out her tongue and cut off her hands. He drew his pen vigorously over their dialogue, mutilating their speech: violence overwriting violence.
   MARCUS: Speak, gentle niece, what stern ungentle hands
   Have lopp'd and hew'd and made thy body bare
   Of her two branches, those sweet ornaments--

In Julie Taymore's Titus, Lavinia wears branches for hands, recalling Shakespeare's recurring imagery: Lavinia's hands "tremble, like aspen-leaves, upon a lute"; Chiron, sneering, suggests her "stumps will let [her] play the scribe." Wood as scene of violation, wood as body, body as failed writing instrument. Lavinia's changes, too, are metonymie. The girls run as if they are flying. They are flying!

Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus, II, iv

Branch: ME also F, branche, a tree limb or stem, a child, also (fig.) a division; to strike out on a new path; to divide.

Hew: OE, haewan, to strike forcefully, to cut, to shape, to slaughter.

Limb: OT, limo-, organ or part of the body; limb (L, limbus), an edge or boundary of a surface.

Near an olive grove by the residency is a bird which mimics human song. An opera singer stands there certain afternoons, dust in the tall grasses, heat bringing out the scent of lemon and jasmine. She sings into the field where the unseen bird nests, a tree branch swaying under its small brown body. The bird waits a beat after she finishes, then--matching her note for note--trills back. Try it yourself, she says, charmed by this idea of speaking across species. Perhaps a mating call, perhaps a delineation of territory.

Keats returned often to the figure of the nightingale: a symbol common to the Romantic poets.

    Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain--
     To thy high requiem become a sod.

      She clos'd the door, she panted, all akin
     To spirits of the air, and visions wide:
     No uttered syllable, or, woe betide!
     But to her heart, her heart was voluble,
     Paining with eloquence her balmy side;
     As though a tongueless nightingale should swell
   Her throat in vain, and die, heart-stifled, in her dell.

"LA BELLE DAME SANS MERCI" and no birds sing

I am most interested in his Philomela reference in "The Eve of St. Agnes." It is not only that Madeline is like Philomela, voiceless while her body throbs with unspoken pain, but that Keats' Philomela, his nightingale, must die.
   [begin strikethrough]DEMETRIUS
   So, now go tell, an if thy tongue can speak,
   Who 'twas that cut thy tongue and ravish'd thee.
   Write down thy mind, bewray thy meaning so,
   An if thy stumps will let thee play the scribe.
   She hath no tongue to call, nor hands to wash;
   And so let's leave her to her silent walks.[end strikethrough]

Is the metonym, finally, for Philomela art, or silence, or raving? Later poets' use of the nightingale suggests she is a poet able to sing about and against suffering, but Ovid doesn't mention song. Ovid symbolizes Philomela and Procne by their murder of Itylus: "And even so the red marks of the murder / stayed on their breasts; the feathers were blood-colored." What is our longing to hear Philomela's song but our own desire for retributive justice? Ovid's story is clear: the tongue which might give voice to reparation is mute beside the body's marks of injury. Philomela's story, then, is meant first to excite, to enrage.

Ovid, VI, 672-673

Perhaps the greatest desire a victim of violence has is to look, in memory, at that violence dispassionately. But, remembering, the heart pounds, the body floods with adrenaline, ready to tear off into flight. For some, there is no smoothing chaos back into memory. Poetry, with its suggestion that time can be ordered through language, strains to constrain suffering. It suggests, but rarely achieves, the redress we desire. Language does not heal terror, and if it brings us closer to imagining the sufferer's experience, this too does not necessarily make us feel greater compassion, but a desire for further sensation. If we cannot articulate pain beyond inspiring in the listener a need for revenge, we only speak of and to the body.

Philomela's first communication of pain is visual: like a film, her tortures scroll action by action across a tapestry. Like a film, the images manipulate our emotions: Philomela's pain cannot be relieved except through equivalent, mimetic actions that heighten the need for, but never achieve, the catharsis denied the original sufferer.

Perhaps this is the reason Ovid never describes the nightingale's song. She does not sing, because no song can soothe what she has suffered.
   Either [pain] remains inarticulate or else the moment it first
   becomes articulate it silences all else: the moment language bodies
   forth the reality of pain, it makes all further statements and
   interpretations seem ludicrous and inappropriate, as hollow as the
   world content that disappears in the head of the person suffering.
   Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain
, 60

Sufferance: ME soffrance and Latin suffrer, patient endurance; the suffering of pain, trouble, damage, wrong; sanction, consent or acquiescence.

Suffer: to cause pain; also, to endure pain.

That the branches of poetry are silence and wound.

In my poem "Philomela," the woman who has been raped inherits--years after her attack--an antique sewing machine from her grandmother. She imagines using this machine to sew a bedsheet on which she will embroider figures of the domestic life her grandmother ruefully noted she did not have: a house, a child, a man. But after a few minutes' contemplation, she boxes up the machine, slides it high up on a bedroom shelf. What is she communicating? Who would she be speaking to? She can always return to the bedsheet, she tells herself, but in the unwritten rest of the poem I imagine for her, she never will.

Not rape, I say, meaning certain body parts and not others were used, meaning I do not cede that last ignominy to him, will never name how I lay in the dirt and ground my screams back down into me. But what is the word for what I experienced after? What is the word for how I awoke to fear and never went back to sleep?
   Time drives the flocks from field to fold,
   When Rivers rage and Rocks grow cold,
   And Philomel becometh dumb,
   The rest complains of cares to come--

At some point, the nightingale falls silent. Time erases the song by numbing the wound, replacing it with fresh complaints. Sir Walter Ralegh, "The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd," 5-8

I'd like to imagine the fact I fought was the reason the attack ended, but the truth is he let me go. If he'd wanted more, there was no question more would have happened. I would have stopped fighting and become what some might call an accomplice to the act. I was, in fact, already going limp, subtly acceding to his desires in the hopes that, having satisfied them, he would stop. Perhaps this is why he pushed himself away. Perhaps it was enough that he'd grabbed and inserted and taken what he could within narrow legal, or personal, limits to prove a point to me and to himself: anything he wanted he could have. In the end, I was not so much a body to be reckoned with as a structure he would dismantle.

In life, time's passage allows us to see change, but a poem's chronology forces us to see repetition: lyric time is not progressive but fragmentary and recursive. Traumatic time works like lyric time: the now of terror repeatedly breaking back through the crust of one's consciousness. Mourning the wound thus becomes an obsessive love for the lost. Mourning is merely the process by which we remain stuck: the birds always in flight, the hoopoe continually in pursuit. O, could our mourning ease thy misery!

Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus, II, iv

One fantasy is that time itself stops. But Ralegh's point is that time never stops. Instead, it disorders, blunts, and numbs. Time is the subject that finally silences Philomela.

Compassion and retributive justice require that I hold multiple senses of time alive in my mind: the past event, the punishment's present, a future in which the crime can no longer be enacted. Compassion calls for complex responses where vengeance calls only for one: a raving.

I don't have compassion for my attacker, just as I don't have a word for that day, only a description of its unfolding. Behind these descriptions, you must invent the punishment you think appropriate. This act is done for yourself. It is not, though you may believe it is, at all useful to me.

Lucky, I think after he leaves, my shirt torn, nose running. Nothing stirs in the woods behind or in front of me. Still I sit on the forest floor, unsure where to run. Will he come back? Will he still be on the trail, will I see him in town? At the thought of town, at the thought of being seen by other people, I shake and burn with shame.

I suspect it helped me, not knowing what to call what happened in the woods. Not having the word, or refusing a word, allowed me both the privacy of my grief and the invention of private rituals to heal this grief. Keeping my attack secret also guarded me from the very real possibility of being called a hysteric. In that sense, silence protected me. Would I have grieved differently if someone had given me a legal term, a support group, a brochure? I don't know.

Over time, shame and rage have abated. But not the memory. And not, at times, the overwhelming certainty that one day soon I will not be lucky again.

The nightingale hovers between trauma and memory, its song meant to bring one into concert with the other, to integrate event into narrative, to bring pain out of the body and into language. But the song isn't heard, it's longed for. "Heard melodies are sweet," Keats writes, "but those unheard / are sweeter." The healing voice of the nightingale is more beautiful in the imagination than in reality ("Jug jug," Eliot writes). The song stops, the nightingale dies, and once more, we descend into silence.

Keats, "Ode on a Grecian Urn," 11-12 Eliot, "The Waste Land," II, 27

Sappho saw the nightingale as a messenger of springtime and renewal. Pliny the Elder said that the bird can sing more than one song, that nightingales engage in singing contests. The song, then, is not generic but individual, dependent on the time of day and also on the season. In poetry, the song may be one of loss, but in nature it may also be one of joy.

Pliny the Elder, Historia Naturalis, Book 10, Chapter 43

Does the bird sing or does it not sing? Is it a symbol for what threatens to overwhelm our senses, of what will permanently transform and silence us? The bird is death: no wonder Keats imagines himself dying when he hears its song. No wonder he scratches out the speech of Lavinia's tormentors: silence will come for him, as well as for her, and for us. Death attends our longing for the song. Sing, for you are voiceless. Sing, for it cannot matter. Sing, for soon no one will hear you again.

Perhaps, whether we are changed into our opposites or shrunk back into the creature that best resembles us, transformation is always a curse. I am what I always was. Perhaps it is sentimental to suggest violence can create meaning, that the heart of poetry is eternal silence. Madness to say, yes, there's pain, but would we change without it?

If the song is beautiful, you will listen to it. In the field one day outside the residency, I encounter, or think I encounter, the bird that's charmed the opera singer. I am near a row of acacia trees when I hear a sudden, piercing trill of notes rise and fall. It could be any kind of bird, any kind of song. A cry of sex or terror, a mimicry of its parents or an invention all its own. A flourish it will teach to its offspring, its own embellishments branching through the ancient notes. It is the sound of time. It is the sound of time passing.

I stand in the field. I whistle back.

PAISLEY REKDAL is the author, most recently, of Imaginary Vessels (Copper Canyon, 2016).
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Author:Rekdal, Paisley
Publication:The American Poetry Review
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:Sep 1, 2017
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