Stephen Sexton

The Deaths of Orpheus

Stephen Sexton

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1. A Flattering Look

                                                                                                  Look  when my head washed up on the shore
                                                                                              I was singing through the salt – they seem sure,
                                                                                          and it’s mostly true – but by then I was mostly salt,
                                                                                             I meaning head and what remained of my throat.

                                                                                                 When my eyes opened, finally out of that wine
                                                                                           fucking dark sea, pipers commanded the battered
                                                                                               coves in a moon-shaped bay, though by moon-
                                                                                                        shaped, we mean only a part of it. Clouds
                                                                                                             were squandered by the coastal gales.
                                                                                                      Evening. I realised where I was in the arms
                                                                                                                   of a woman in whose arms the roll
                                                                                                                and loll of my head ceased its hymn.
                                                                                                          She carried me on the strings of my lyre
                                                                                             and though I couldn’t see it, you’ll know it’s noted
                                                                                        for nacre inlays on spruce and willow, my signature
                                                                                              in pearl on the rosewood tailpiece. They evicted
                                                                                            a tortoise for his hollowed resonator, for the tone.
                                                                                                           And – I should settle this – three strings,
                                                                                                  though I could have made you weep with one.
                                                                             My hostess, with her dark-ringed eyes, had been weeping.
                                                                                            Her pinafore was the green of hunters and olives,
                                                                                       ferns and forestry, patterned with viburnum, haltered
                                                                                  by copper brooches at the shoulder over a rather suave
                                                                             gainsboro undershirt the unlovely shade of the underworld.
                                                                             She wore lilacs, mint, fennel in a bunch at her solar plexus
                                                                                       and I smelt the brightness of lemons from under me
                                                                             and the broad freshness of their leaves. I sensed tortoises
                                                                                               on the ground. It made me so sad knowing she
                                                                                                 was going to bury me here among the lemons
                                                                                                      and the olives, with my lyre, in some lonely
                                                                  adventureless grave. I’ve become the death again in every glance
                                                                                                     backwards. I’m brave enough to do it twice.

                                                                                                                                       after Gustave Moreau


2. Nymphs Finding the Head of Orpheus


Always becoming, always becoming, instar
to instar, the salmon-pink sky runs
a jealous parallel along the mountaintops,
the mountaintops envy the scum of the sky –

each is envied by the black ash trees
swooning in their gothic copse
which only for context sharpens as a spear
the narrower birch with its adolescent rings

of years which longs for touch and hands
and more touch than the hands of nymphs in rockeries
and nymphs in the stream
with their torso-sized bronze water jug filled

and the opening covered by one girl’s hand
which is envied by waterlilies and peonies
and aconite for its transport – they itch to work
their frenzy of medicine elsewhere than this fresh pool

which seethes at everything other than itself
for being various and loathes in its algal
green flotage that depends on sunlight
resented by the accumulating moon

whose caprice impulses the currents around
whose currents I admire for their powerlessness
which is me half-drowned at the bottom and jealous,
O insects, jealous is what death is.


 After John William Waterhouse


Stephen Sexton


Stephen Sexton lives in Belfast and is working towards a PhD at the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry at Queen's University. His poems have appeared in The Open Ear, Abridged magazine, and as part of the Lifeboat series of readings. Image courtesy of Malachi O'Doherty.