The Siren Song


Arts & Culture

Gustav Wertheimer, The Kiss of the Siren, 1882

Four surfboards leaned against the wall in an unfamiliar room on the far edge of the city. I’d woken up after two hours of sleep in a bed too small for two people. The concert the night before had been loud, the sound had come in not just through the seashell curl of the ears, but through the skin to the guts and the bones. It was December and before heading north toward home, we walked the beach—it’s easy to forget in the compression of steel and cement that the city touches ocean, too. We were quiet, tired, and stunned by the force of our recent collision. I squinted in the light, that unforgettable light, that pure, so-bright December light, there on a beach at the far rocky edge of the city.

“I need you to know that I’m vulnerable to you,” he said. “You have a power over me. Please use it wisely.”

This is not what one wants to hear.

Sirens sang at the edges. They sang on far rocky cliffs overlooking the ocean. The men who heard their song, it is important to note, were already at sea. Literal sea. Figurative sea. If you hear the Sirens’ song, you have already unhooked yourself from life on land, from the familiar conventions and constraints of family and routine. If you hear the Sirens singing, it means you’ve placed yourself in earshot, opened yourself to new music. It is important to note, too, that what looked like an edge to the men was the center for the Sirens. They sang, laughed, remembered to buy paper towels and to get the exercise they needed. What seemed so exotic to others, so enticing, was life as usual on the cliff.

Who were they, the Sirens? Let’s look back.

I spent some time with Ovid recently, and in his Metamorphoses, the Sirens are not lurers, not mondo-babe seductresses. They were the girls in the meadow when Persephone was kidnapped by Hades and they went in search of their lost friend. All over land, high and low, they searched and sang so she might hear their song and sing out in response. When they couldn’t find her, they asked Demeter, Persephone’s mom, to change them into birds so they could extend their search and look for their friend over the ocean. Golden-feathered bird girls who sang to find their friend.

In the Odyssey, in Emily Wilson’s translation, Circe tells Odysseus what’s at stake: “If anyone goes near them/in ignorance, and listens to their voices/that man will never travel to his home.” The words in ignorance raise themselves off the page to me now, glowing and throbbing. They suggest that there’s another outcome possible, that if a person were to approach in knowledge, with an understanding of the stakes, they might not smash into rocks or rot on the shore. What might happen instead? A new sort of knowing, an arrival, a return.

The Sirens are explicit about what they offer. Not seaside sex, not carnality on the cliffs. The Sirens know and they can tell you what they know. They can tell you anything. They sing to Odysseus, roped to the mast, “All those who pass this way hear honeyed song, / poured from our mouths. The music brings them joy, / and they go on their way with greater knowledge.” We know about what happened in the Trojan War, they tell him; in other words, we know your story, we know what you’ve been through, we understand, “and we know whatever happens anywhere on earth.”

To have someone understand our story, to know what we’ve suffered, experienced, endured, and to sing it back to us, isn’t this, in the end, what we long for? Is this, then, the ultimate seduction? Is this what’s so terribly irresistible? To have our own story told to us? As Daniel Johnston, another sort of Siren, sang, “To understand and be understood is to be free.” It is to be released, unbound, to return to the place we belong.

It’s the longing for this return, too, I think, that the Sirens speak to. A longing that’s deeper and harder to know. Not just to be understood, not just to have your life story sung back to you, but to arrive back to an original home, way back, when there were no words, just the dim, dark, rushing echoes of sounds absorbed through skin, cosmic blood rush rhythm, whoom whoom whoom. This, I think, is the sound of the Sirens. It’s the original sound. Approach in knowing and you can edge up to it, right up to the lip of the abyss, be absorbed—with another, through another—into the pure tissue from where we came. Listen. Closely. Can you hear it?

The Sirens’ song changed in time. They became different beasts entirely.

James Joyce writes, in the Sirens chapter of Ulysses, of barmaids and their “longingdying call.”

Flood of warm jamjam lickitup secretness flowed to flow in music out, in desire, dark to lick flow invading. Tipping her tepping her tapping her topping her. Tup. Pores to dilate dilating. Tup. The joy the feel the warm the. Tup. To pour o’er sluices pouring gushes. Flood, gush, flow, joygush, tupthrob. Now! Language of love.

This is the longingdying language of love. Joygush, tupthrob, and it’s true, I love it. (“I haven’t cared for music any more,” Joyce said after finishing this chapter. “I see through all the tricks and can’t enjoy it any more.”) Longing and dying are jammed up against each other, and Joyce is onto something here. The longing isn’t pouring forth from the mouths of the Sirens—that’s all in the ear of the beholder. But the men don’t quite know it, or aren’t brave enough to admit.

Same thing in James Russell Lowell’s poem “The Sirens.” “Voices sweet, from far and near, / Ever singing low and clear / Ever singing longingly.” This longing dying call: it’s the listeners becoming acquainted with their own longing. It’s not the Sirens’ who long, but those who hear them, who hear their own longing in the song they can’t sing themselves. Maybe none of us can sing it to ourselves, maybe all of us need help to hear it.

How easy it is to go off course, to want to put the power in someone else’s hands. But then you smash on rocks, but then you waste away, but then you never get to touch again the center, or approach the abyss, or hear the song that was always sounding somewhere in your mind, too far away to reach. But it’s always there somewhere, deep in. Inger Christensen knew it. From her poem “Sorrow”:

Find the concise
Expression for sorrow:
a slug with its slime
and reflex mechanism
in meaningless order,
the feelers out
in time, in time
drawn in again
and inside the body
used precisely
as a pregnant siren
whose falling tone
falls and falls
down through all
Oh skin
my outermost
radar screen

The Sirens’ power is in knowing, but it’s a power that can only be realized when approached with one’s own power, with one’s own knowing. Not, “You have power over me,” but “I see your power and I meet it with my own and let’s see where we can go.” There’s fear in the approach, naturally, as there should be: it’s the kind that signals something significant is at stake and there’s no knowing what will happen. And if there is longing in the Sirens’ song, it’s for someone to come along and understand the stakes, to be ready for what’s possible when, as Octavio Paz writes, our masks crumble, and “for one enormous moment we glimpse / the unity that we lost … the forgotten astonishment of being alive.” Did you forget? Did you lose track of that astonishment? What happens when you hear something that reminds you of what you always knew without knowing?

Listen. Listen. Feel it. The Siren lives inside you, inside all of us, right now, already, always, singing the song of our longing, singing a song without words that has been there from the start. Do you hear it?

It’s not easy. It’s there in the silence of the scallop shell which holds the ocean’s echoes. It’s there in the silence between two people, when words give way and the language of blood and heat take their place. It’s there in the silence of an apricot, soft sunset flesh. It’s there in the silence of the sunlight on a beach in December, lighting up our half-known longing for that song we know we know but can never, on our own, remember.


Nina MacLaughlin is a writer and carpenter in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her most recent book, Wake, Siren: Ovid Resung, is on sale this week.