Translated by Sandra Dermark
freely from Ovid's Metamorphoses
18th of November, MMXVI
Dedicated to Liza Pluijter Izquierdo
with all of my sincere feelings.
The kudos received from my Hyacinth are impressive, and thus a new bunny grew from the first one; its title being this, The Two Made One. The story told, which I learned from Genesis's 1970s album Nursery Cryme, is far more obscure but nevertheless attractive. The spring in the poem? I have drunk from it on the Danish island of Mön. Shuttling a Danish spring to Caria, what is now called southern Turkey, may seem a bit of a stretch; yet the events in my retellings of Ovid's tales take place in an imprecise "once upon a time" universe of early modern belles infidèles, where gods and nymphs walk the Earth, play tennis and play the violin, and even spicy hot chocolate is drunk on Olympus, while flintlocks and cannons are fired upon the battlefields. Upon that I rely, and, starting as I must at the start, my poem gradually unfurls...
THE TWO MADE ONE
CANTO THE FIRST
All right, let us begin this story now;
and, when we've reached its end, we shall know more
than we know now. One day, the blond Sun-God,
the Leader of the Muses, drove his car
from dawn to dusk and westward, as he's done
always, when his bright eyes were caught by... what?
(This was before his serve killed Hyacinth;
the reason for his misfortunes in love
is one of the things this tale will explain.)
As I said, his bright eyes were caught by... what?
The sight, at sunrise, of two youthful forms,
fair and good-looking, clasped tight as could be:
the red-haired Warrior, wild and flushed with heat,
and a snow-white brunette with stunning curves,
who was no other than his brother's spouse.
The Leader of the Muses could not hold
the sight of this betrayal, so, at dusk,
he told the awkward, lame volcano smith
of how his wife turned him a capricorn,
a reindeer, a cornuted, corny twat.
(Pardon my French: the Sun-God didn't say
those words, but kindled rage within the chest
of our Levshá thus filled his clever mind,
rising up to his head right to expel
the mistress Reason from her rightful throne:
the artist or scholar, drunk or irate,
his brilliant wit turned clouded and insane,
is worth, at once, both compassion and dread).
As the betrayed spouse heard it, his heart sank
as his right hand dropped the device it held,
some cogwheels, and his left the tongs as well.
Now coming to his senses, as the Sun
resumed his westward journey, our Levshá
is filled at once with harsh, sinister thoughts
of how to smite his shallow, airhead wife
and hothead brute of a brother at once.
At length, the left arm's raised, wielding with skill
the sledgehammer, a-thridding subtle wire,
which he's quenched in a liquor he's distilled
himself, though not for drink, but for a use
less obvious; to lace and strengthen steel.
The result is a net like spider silk,
invisible and subtle, yet so strong
it'd hold twelve grown saltwater crocodiles
(though it is to the naked eye unseen).
Knowing the right spot where his wanton wife
and the brother his parents had preferred
(for whom he always forged good swords and guns,
quenched with the liquid we mentioned before)
are used to making the two-backed beast,
he sets the trap, then saunters home once more.
Of course, the spouse of Heph, the dark-haired Child
of the Wave, never knew her husband's ruse
(the lights are rarely on up in her keep),
and thus, that evening, in the twilit hour
when mating male frogs ribbit and the owl
will give the background music to the scene,
she calls her lover and brother-in-law:
"Hey A-re-es!" and the Warrior thus comes,
his breastplate and his sword still wet and warm
with the reeking, drying blood of the foe,
a proud Othello who his Desdemon's
embraced and clasped, and kissed, fierily:
then they undress, displaying the fair forms
of their physique (to make up with their minds),
her starting gun is a butterfly kiss,
(the two are one, though not the Two Made One
in our title), he's riding on her back,
and never was there such a lovely mare,
nor a more dashing rider straddling her,
his sword thrust, stabbing, in her derrière...
Their wits clouded, the lights put out up there
by passion (but to such hot-blooded twats,
their state of mind is not that different),
their breathing turns more shallow, heat and thirst
--as if febrile-- now choke the lovers' throats
with the blazing passion that rises up
from their vitals, their blood is seething... SNAP!
Her right foot strikes the trigger, and the snares
of the cuckolded spouse suddenly fall,
right when she cries a banshee-scream of glee,
right when both players in the game of love
had crowned their pleasure; unexpectedly,
the net's ensnared them, and there's no escape;
furthermore, his flesh-cannon has got stuck
inside her rectum, as the sphincter shut!
Their embrace has become part of the trap,
as the sun-car scatters the other stars
in the wake of its warm and golden light.
And thus returns the awkward master smith,
with all th'Olympian god-kin in his wake;
imagine what a shame they must have felt,
the lovers, since the whole heavenly court
now knows of their adulterous affair,
everyone's eyes and whispers filled with them
(there were no social networks in those days,
but given the way that all this played out,
I dub this trap the first one of them all).
That invisible, subtle cobweb net,
had thus into the harshest prison turned
for a warrior who on the battlefield
had neither known surrender nor defeat,
his brother's wife turned to his Waterloo
(thus said one who lost his sinister hand
at Lepanto, with few yet chosen words).
As the smith of the crater leaves the scene
to return to his duties in the forge,
with new-found strength in his irate left arm,
to vent that anger with sledgehammer blows,
he leaves free passage to a bold young cat,
a lithe, dark stripling with free, clever eyes,
tall and slim, his heels dight with rosy wings,
dark-haired, lively, mercury in his veins;
the messenger and runner of the gods,
also cupbearer, executioner,
valet, interpreter, claimer of souls,
lieutenant, teacher, student, diplomat;
long story short, their Jack of every trade.
Oh for that day when Maya's clever son
stepped forth towards the Daughter of the Wave!
"I bet," he told the Muses' Leader, "that
I'd feel awfully happy if I were
caught in that net with Aphrodite, right?"
Stifling a chortle that struggled to steal
through his lithe vocal cords and parted lips,
as his ankle-wings flutter wistfully,
he sets them free, his stepbrother and that
sensuous lady whom he barely knew,
yet hitherto shunned for her lack of wit.
Oh for that kindness that he now displays!
The worth that learned charity aye bears
(to quote the Bard); this is my guiding star,
for when both a bright mind and a warm heart
are joined as one, most prodigies occur:
and 'tis the fruit of learned charity
one of our two young leading characters.
It all begins when he frees her from the net,
touching her shoulders, now her derrière,
with the wistful excitement of a child
who cannot tell his left hand from his right.
He runs lithe fingers through her raven hair,
from nape to crown, and then from crown to nape,
as she her Fuji apple blush conceals
in veils of midnight tresses, awkward, shy;
yet her azure eyes and his hazel orbs
cross paths; and 'tis this all-consuming glance,
whimsical on his side, awkward on hers,
that kindles pleasure in both of their hearts.
As the gods scatter, e'en the Lord of War
(to seek worthy distraction on the front),
only the Wave-Child and the one who freed
her remain in the glen now, tête-à-tête.
He flings, kindly, his silver-threaded cloak
from slender shoulders round her snow-white waist,
as she, casting her hair back, mutters: "Thanks!"
For 'tis a kindly deed to clothe the nude
(even if this takes place in southron spring).
As for the net? The lad claims it himself,
as a keepsake from that exciting day,
and to research more on how it was made.
Thus she finds respite from despair and shame
in those slender, hairless, maiden-like arms
(unlike those of the Warrior and her spouse),
not showing up at court either of them
for a long while: confused and torn was she,
and whimsical and eager was the beau;
his wit and cheer dispelled her painful woe.
CANTO THE SECOND
Let us skip, friends, three quarters of a year,
into a dreary, bleak November night,
when the fruit of the gods of Wit and Love
first saw the dreary dying evening light,
as th'erring stars that bear his parents' names
hid in the fog and storm-clouds out of shame.
Child of betrayal, adorably fair,
crowned with locks darker than a raven wing,
he first opened large, clever hazel eyes,
the loveliest of bastards ever seen.
A living proof of infidelity,
since both his parents' bloodline could one trace
in his physique, in features of his face.
Thus did the Maid of Cyprus wrap her boy
in a costly green silk shawl, as her winged
sweetheart lightly and swiftly flew the three
to a cool, lovely glen of caverns old
and ruined holdfasts, where the local nymphs
of the rill that stole through this blessed glen
promised to raise the fruit of that affair.
For being of his mother and his sire
a combined mirror-image, he was named
by th'eldest of his guardians, after both:
he was a fair and dashing, clever boy,
both curious and eager for more glee,
lively, confident, cheerful, and carefree.
Yet many nights he'd sleep under the stars
clutching the shawl of shimmering green silk,
his first garment, and, sunk in rêverie,
wonder what his true parentage might be.
Thus sped, dear friends, a decade and a half,
until his yearning turned the most intense,
and too narrow the reach of childhood's glen;
no longer a child, not yet a young man
was our hero; on the threshold stage
he stood, and thus, suppose him at sixteen:
a slender stripling, though his fine physique
has broader shoulders and developed thighs;
already shaded was his upper lip
by dark, soft fuzz; while the soft throat below
now bulged, and rose and fell when down he let
ripe blackberries or a sip from the rill...
within, the supple vocal cords unfurled:
sometimes he speaks like a young boy once more,
or his voice darkens like never before.
As for the raven locks with shimmer blue
and those large hazel eyes full of esprit,
they crown the portrait of our fair male lead.
Then of his caring guardians he took leave,
eager and restless, wearing for a kilt
his green silk favour, while a cloak of reeds,
deftly woven with a nymph's loving care,
covered his lovely shoulders; nothing more
but these, and a knapsack, were what he wore.
The lad, excited, left his native seat,
thinking no more of childhood's cool retreat,
and southward, without steed or car, he traced
his strides, for he had heard the southron were
cultured and fond of everything that's fair.
Thus, he might find a clue to his descent,
and the young, restless heart might be appeased.
Yours truly will not tell of all strange lands,
all unknown regions, all the various folk
with all their various customs, various looks,
accents, and even languages they spoke,
and surging rapids he braved on two feet,
and shelters that he sought from storm and sleet,
for then this song we'd carry on forever;
we'd better reach its coda late than never.
What matters is that, to his eager heart,
walking through thorny patches is just like
on a wildflower meadow; surging streams
of rapids crossed as easily as rills:
good cheer and youthful impulse give him wings.
Suppose him still as a trilustral youth,
three quarters of a year after he left.
Suppose him in the southron summer sun,
when even frogs do strive to find a pool,
and the sun-carriage rays like plummets fall,
and thyme, and rosemary, and lavender
gather fresh sap within their hardy leaves.
Then, with exhaustion from but half a day
spent on foot, and with want of friendly shade,
his throat parched by his breath and kicked-up dust,
his once lilywhite face and arms ablaze,
perspiring thus through each and every pore,
shimmering droplets streaming down his face,
his raven locks damp, clinging to his brow,
and his damp kilt and cloak glued to his back,
his once bold strides turned heavy, painful steps
of reeling shapely legs already weak,
his heart pounding against the left-hand ribs,
his thirst increasing every time he breathes,
the now light-headed stripling's ears perceive
a tinkle of freshwater to receive.
Still reeling, though hell-bent on his new goal,
soon the trilustral's hither traced his steps,
following first the friendly tinkling stream,
then, a glitter and shimmer in the woods
that now denser with chevrefoil appear,
fighting his way through thorns and climbing plants;
sparkling like diamonds in the August sun
is the prize for the weary to be won.
And now he stands before the long-wished spring,
whose beckoning call he has just heard sing:
no spear-like reeds or pike-like canes arranged
in a harsh tercio frame it; the moist ground
is fresh and soft and scented with spearmint,
and the crystal-clear liquid, pure and cool,
not looking-glass-steeled like most springs should be,
through which fine quartzy pebbles can be seen,
entices the young quester: "Take a sip!
Drink from my draught, refresh your weary frame!"
A lithe and slender sapphire of the spring,
a dragonfly that dipped its feet, retreats,
ere he arrives, in quick projectile's flight,
as soon as it discerns the stripling's steps,
his tread on ground, his febrile heated breath;
and now the lad stands on the spearmint bank,
not thinking aught but of the crystal draught.
Desiring to cool and restore his frame,
he bends the knees, as if on sacred ground,
and cups his left and right hand, joined as one,
plunging this cup into the soothing stream:
with great pleasure, the thirsty stripling quaffs
the cool, spearmint-laced liquid; even cools
his brow and cheeks once the throat has received
this soothing blessing, downed in eager haste,
at deepest draughts, without stopping to breathe,
kissed and then swallowed within seconds' lapse,
as, outwardly, the draught's passage is marked
by the lad's throat, its rise and fall in waves.
For these few instants, both the taste and cool
enter his system and flood his worn heart;
right then, he splashes on his sun-kissed face
and feels the coolness on th'outside as well.
There he sits down, once he has quenched his thirst,
and washed the perspiration off his face,
under the shade of two entwining pines,
to rest his weary limbs, and to enjoy
such a sight, seen but once in a blue moon.
And, suddenly, a mezzo voice is heard,
as liquid as the tinkling of the spring,
yet darker, with sinister undertones:
"Fair stranger, welcome: I've waited for you
ever since I heard your faltering steps."
Startled and curious with the sudden call,
he looks over his right shoulder, to see
a maid like others there will never be.
CANTO THE THIRD
The stripling thus surveys the maiden fair
that's, traitor-like, popped up behind his back:
a damselfly-like, slender, whimsical
young female, eyes shining with confidence.
Thus yours truly will honestly describe
the lovely sight that has surprised the lad:
her fair hair flows in waves of liquid gold,
decked here and there with blooms of chevrefoil,
and those eyes which shine like the brightest stars
are as green as the spearmint on the banks;
a button nose and little petal lips,
and a rosy complexion, of the shade
that we usually call peaches and cream:
just like they're in a fairytale or dream.
Her snow-white feet are bare, and two full moons
peek out from the outré décolletage
of her reed-dress, a belt of chevrefoil
makes a loose girdle where her figure eight
narrows, between the fair and turgent chest
and the thighs where her short skirt meets its end.
Like open flowers' calyces, she's plied
with her nectar the stripling; now she's done
her hair and set her girdle the right way,
to give a first impression that may please.
She's never thrown a spear or exercised,
and neither had her hand in needlework:
her dress is made by other, blue-eyed nymphs
(she is the only one whose eyes are green),
who rally her to train the art of war,
to take a quiver or a spear in hand,
strengthen her arms and train in self-defence;
for in springtime, summer, winter, or fall,
she stays at ease and splashes in her spring,
or makes with flowers a li'l dainty thing,
like a corsage, a hairpin, or the like,
or runs her fingers through her golden hair,
while asking the spring's freshwater (at night,
unlike by day, in the light of the moon,
it makes a clear and perfect looking-glass,
as well as an advisor she can trust)
who is the fairest maiden of them all;
or suns herself, or now enjoys the shade,
while lying on the spearmint, fresh and green;
thus she enjoys, in peace, her paradise.
And she was picking lavender that day
to make herself a cool, perfumed corsage,
when she heard, from her spring, the gulping sounds
of a drink down a thirsty stranger's throat,
and, curious, she thus sauntered to the spring,
to view the lad, a lovely, dashing thing.
At first, on seeing the stranger from behind,
she doubted if it was a lad or maid,
yet, as he turned around, and she beheld
his strong features, the dark shade on his lip,
and her doubts were thus instantly dispelled,
she felt a fire kindle; 'twas just like
a gunshot in the middle of her chest.
And as he drank his fill, she drank as well,
though through her eager eyes; instead of cooled,
she was ablaze, her thirst could not be quenched.
She ties her hair into a golden knot,
held by a fine lavender kanzashi;
sets her chevrefoil obi right and tight,
checks her cleavage, essays a lovely smile,
that may the dashing stranger's heart beguile.
And thus she speaks in a confident voice:
"Fair stranger, you're at least a demigod,
yet, no matter if god, half-god, or man,
blessed your homeland, and those who gave you care,
be they your birth parents or guardians,
blessed be your siblings and the friends you've made,
if you are not a lonely only child...
yet far happier, love, your fiancée,
the maid to whom you give your heart and soul!
If you've got one, you wouldn't mind to leave
her for a while for an affair with me!
If not, behold your maidservant and wife;
I will stay true and by your side for life!"
He shyly looked away as his face flushed
just like a Fuji apple ripe and red,
or a farm peony in its full bloom,
as he has his head buried in his hands;
yet awkward boys can be charming as well
in their reactions when they shy away...
She cannot hold herself, and flings her arms
deftly, just like a noose, around his neck
and tries to kiss his lips; he quickly turns
his head to the left: thus, her brand of love
but strikes his right cheek; he tries to escape,
unused to her straightforward, open ways
and to the words of love adressed to him...
That heart's as icy as the draught he's drunk,
as if he'd downed enchanted mirror shards
upon quenching his thirst, and they had lodged
within his bosom, turned a keep of ice!
Thus, at last the lad stammers this reply:
"L-l-leave me al-l-lone, or I will l-l-leave this pl-l-lace!"
"Thy will be done, fair stranger!" she responds,
turning her back on him, sauntering off,
yet hidden in the underbrush, concealed
by rosemary and lavender, yet unseen
by her beloved, she has stayed to watch
his every movement, kunoichi-like.
CANTO THE FOURTH
"At last alone!" the stripling, unaware,
thinks, as he throws his reed-shoes on the bank
and plunges his right toes into the spring,
then, pleased and soothed, lets the whole foot sink in,
and then the left; he wades into the pool,
throwing on the spearmint his kilt and cloak
when the level, right at the deepest point,
reaches his thighs. Then, he slaps his chest
with both his palms, plunging his whole self in,
quenching the heated blaze upon his skin.
The kunoichi nymph's bright eyes of green
are embers, as the lad kissed by the spring
divides the liquid glass with his lithe limbs,
with all his strength, turning to left, to right;
the naked swimmer, glittering and cool,
looks as fair as a greenhouse lily or
a porcelain doll shut in a glass case.
Thus, as he cools himself, she is on fire,
retracing every muscle of his frame
and following his wake where he careens,
dazzled by his white form in liquid glass.
Now he looks fairer than dressed and on land!
Her peridot orbs blaze with lightning flash,
like mirrors facing rays of th'August sun,
showing through these twin window-panes the flame
that rises within her and can't be quenched
but with his presence. And yet the high ground
is hers: who's she? The Lady of the Spring,
with webbed fingers and toes just like a frog's,
and gills to breathe with as well as her lungs,
and in that freshwater, power is hers.
And she cannot delay her thirst, no more!
"He's all mine! Victory! Game, set, and match!"
she roars, flinging her belt and kanzashi,
and her little green dress, at one fell swoop,
among the lavender and rosemary,
as she leaps up like a jack-in-the-box,
glitter and flutter in her golden locks!
The stripling's scarcely had time to react
when he feels lithe, strong arms around his waist
and slender female legs tying his own,
and she steals kisses from him, left and right,
as she plunges his head into the spring,
putting a strain and pressure on his lungs;
he kicks, and writhes, and struggles all he can,
yet she won't care if he's dead or alive,
no matter how much for freedom he'll strive.
She now kisses his lips, sealed up well tight
so that no liquid may enter his lungs;
he'd gasp in shock, yet, fearing for his life,
he lets himself be kissed against his will,
lest precious air escape and cold draughts kill.
She's like an anaconda, tightening
her coils round a capybara or fawn;
the strength that he's recovered now begins
to fail, and finally, the fair lips part
as sparkling gems of precious air rise up
to the surface, and he gulps down once more
from the spring, a cold draught flooding his lungs...
As he's about to surrender his life,
she watches his last breath rise to the sky,
and, in a rueful, threnody-like voice,
she regrets, with a prayer, such a choice:
"Should I have brought my beloved's demise!?
Does my fiery heart betray itself!?
Gods of Olympus, hear this maiden's prayer:
let this young man and I for e'er be one,
and may our unity ne'er come undone!"
And thus, instantly, only Gods know how,
the two youthful forms are conjoined as one:
his and her legs fuse, like strands of warm wax;
so do their arms, their bellies, and their chests,
entering one another gradually;
she feels his youthful blood in every vein,
and he feels hers warm his cold heart again,
receiving from her warmth, and love, and life;
and last, two necks, two heads, are joined as one,
as lovely and as bright as twice the Sun:
the green-eyed nymph's will is finally done.
They are two, yet no longer form a pair:
a common frame that holds two spirits there,
both of them, and yet neither one, as fair.
At twilight, to breathe the sought evening air,
the young man surfaces, and then he sees
within the liquid mirror his dark hair
turned golden blond, his eyes a greener shade;
membranes connecting his fingers and toes,
and ripe, high-swelling bosoms on his chest,
where his iron-hard pectorals should be;
his shoulders still as broad, yet hips and thighs
curvily feminine: an hourglass shape.
No longer are they now a he or she.
Yet his muscular limbs and gill-less throat
are those he had before he became one
with the fair stalker; beholding this change,
they dons his green silk kilt and her reed gown,
and raises to the heavens, in despair,
a request that can well be called a prayer
(surprised at their contralto, half-way twixt
his tenor and her mezzo: their new voice
is fifty-fifty, half his, half her own):
"Gods of Olympus, you heard her request!
Yet heed the troubles now within my chest!
I'm no longer the stripling or the maid,
bereft by fusion of identity;
both of us died to be reborn as one:
thus, to remember this most strange affair,
enchant this spring, and hear my sincere prayer:
may every stranger, flushed with heat and thirst,
who dares to drink these waters or to wash
in them, turn half a man and half a maid!"
The Winged Trickster and the Queen of Love
hear their half-child's request from far above;
now they descend and stand before the one
who's half their boy, and half the fountain sprite;
she whispers in their left ear, he in their right;
and soon the lad's parentage comes to light.
Stirred by their double votary, the gods
of Wit and Passion lace the cool, fresh spring
with a strange draught, a formidable thing,
that has the right effect that's asked for:
and thus, whoever drinks or makes a splash
in these freshwaters turns half-man, half-maid,
which made those who knew the tale quite afraid.
Thus was the story for centuries told;
it never grew too tedious, nor too old,
and few hearts that retain it remain cold.
This uncanny tale of unrequited love and gender role reversal has been adapted so few and far between times because most people in the realm of literature through the ages could not make head or tail out of it. Yet still there were interpretations. Courtiers saw a whimsical fairytale in which she was for once the aggressive one and he was the victim, not to mention the surprise ending; life scientists saw in the two leading characters the sperm and the egg; but the most influential interpretation was the moralistic one, that has existed since the Metamorphoses were handwritten time after time in medieval cloisters and subsequently glossed as cautionary tales.
In this moral interpretation, Hermaphroditus represents any young person, male or female, who, feeling the reach of their childhood home too narrow and the youthful blood heat their veins, ventures forth innocently into the wide world, his thirst being the thirst of youth for excitement and experience; while femme fatale Salmacis is Pleasure personified, leading the youth on the left-hand primrose path, and, should the youth resist her temptation, snatching them out of the right way by ironically effete and bloodless force when they least expect it, ruining the life and health of the promising youth by insinuating herself into their bodies and their hearts. "Salmacis spolia sine sanguine et sudore," Salmacis strips the vanquished without blood, sweat, or tears. Just like Edward Moore would likewise warn centuries later, in the baroque era, saying that Pleasure:
Her glance with sweet persuasion charm'd,
Unnerv'd the strong, the steel'd disarm'd;
No safety ev'n the flying find
Who vent'rous look but once behind.
Who vent'rous look but once behind.
Any young person who has had brushes with serious fun and lost at least a little of their identity and their innocence, yours truly (at 25 upon writing this poem) included, may hold up this poem as a mirror to their more or less changed faces.