Monday’s Poem: ‘Echo,’ by John Poch

I couldn’t understand the thing he told me.
He said he couldn’t make it any clearer:
I’d rather die of thirst than have you hold me.

Hold me, I said. His elegance consoled me,
and his refusal made him all the dearer.
I couldn’t understand. The thing he told me,

twice (how could anyone repeat it?), bowled me
over. I put it to myself, and queerer:
I’d rather die of thirst than have you hold me?

Give me a look at least, I wished. Behold me!
You wish, he mocked and looked toward his mirror.
I couldn’t understand the thing he told me.

Perhaps our likenesses, not love, controlled me.
Then something turned and spoke in me. I hear her:
I’d rather die of thirst then have you hold me,

is what I should have said to draw him nearer.
We have in common our redundant error.
I couldn’t understand the thing he told me:
I’d rather die of thirst than have you hold me.

©  by John Poch.  Printed by permission of the author.

John Poch teaches in the creative writing program at Texas Tech University.  His most recent book is Dolls (Orchises Press, 2009).  He is the editor of 32 Poems Magazine.

Arts & Academe‘s poetry editor, Lisa Russ Spaar, notes:  In November 2010, The New York Times ran a piece about the plans of the personality disorders committee of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders to eliminate “narcissism” from its fifth edition, due out in 2013. The removal of narcissism from this highly regarded list of personality disorders caused no small stir in the mental health profession, and a typical reaction among lay persons ran something like “narcissism must be so prevalent in our self-absorbed culture that it’s now considered normal and not an aberration.”

Whatever one thinks about whether or not narcissism should remain an acknowledged full-blown personality derangement or just one of an array of traits that might contribute one dimension to a complex “self,”  it’s worth remembering that the mythical Narcissus, at least in Ovid’s version, gets something of a bad rap in relation to the eponymous “disorder.”  The typical dirt on Narcissus is that he is so self-involved that he falls fatally in love with his own reflection, refusing food and punishing himself as he pines over an unattainably gorgeous image of himself. And in a way this is of course what happens. But Narcissus doesn’t realize that he is gazing at himself, at least not initially. When Narcissus leans down to drink from that “unclouded fountain” he is “astonished” by an image of an “extraordinary boy.” But he does not recognize the reflected image as himself. “Unknowingly,” Ovid writes, “he desires himself. . . . What he has seen he does not understand.” Addressing his reflection as an other, Narcissus cries, “Whoever you are come out to me!” And when he finally acknowledges, with despair, that “I am he,” Narcissus so much wishes to be not himself in order to know and hold his beloved that he cries “O I wish I could leave my own body!”

The villanelle seems new-minted in John Poch’s revisiting of the story of Echo and Narcissus. Both of the form’s requisite repeated lines end with “me,” and this self-insistent pronoun fittingly stalks a poem that concerns itself with narcissism and its “echo.” Cursed by jealous Juno, who robs her of normal speech and permits her only to “[repeat] the last of what is spoken and [return] the words she hears,” Echo, as the narrator of Poch’s poem, is allowed to generate thought, if not speech, in whole but incrementally repeated phrases, some of them her own statements and others the words of Narcissus, with whom she has fallen passionately, desperately, and unrequitedly in love. Rebuffed by Narcissus, Echo retreats, haunting caves and other recessed and secreted places, becoming all voice. But she is nonetheless present at Narcissus’s endgame, helplessly witness to his demise at the pond’s mirrored edge.

Formally, there is much to admire in Poch’s villanelle—his use of feminine rhymes, for instance, which keep more supple and mysterious the currents of desire, refusal, and misunderstanding that course within the psyche of each of the poem’s mythic players, and also between them. The plight of these two blighted figures is portrayed in moments of deft dramatic irony, as when Echo, who can only repeat what others say, says,

Hold me, I said.  His elegance consoled me,
and his refusal made him all the dearer.
I couldn’t understand.  The thing he told me,

twice (how could anyone repeat it?), bowled me
over.  I put it to myself, and queerer:
I’d rather die of thirst than have you hold me?

Perhaps the great achievement of this poem, however, is the way it reveals the connections between Echo and Narcissus despite the self absorption that effects and affects their utter separation. In doing so the poem says something essential about Eros, as well, which Sappho and others would suggest depends upon a finally unbroachable separation or distance.

Echo’s thoughts in the stanzas just above, for example, could well have been spoken by Narcissus to the beautiful boy he looks to in the water.  Echo says as much:  “Perhaps our likenesses, not love, controlled me. / Then something turned and spoke in me.  I hear her:  / I’d rather die of thirst then have you hold me, // is what I should have said to draw him nearer. / We have in common our redundant error.”  That slight but significant vowel change turning than into then, the conditional and idealized into the actual and temporal, the God-like into the mortal, is at the center of this poem. In her insights, Echo borders on empathy; by extrapolation, we feel this potential, too, in Narcissus’s pledge to privilege thirst over fulfillment. Conversation is suggested over mere mimicry—a sense that before one voices, one must listen. Poch grants his Echo something like introspection, the self in metamorphic dialogue with itself.

That the predicament of each of these mythic figures—the bodiless Echo, the beautifully embodied Narcissus—corresponds to the failures of imagination, misunderstandings, and self-involvement that can emotionally stall contemporary human relationships makes Poch’s redux of Ovid’s “strange prayer” timeless and arresting.  What lingers in the final yoking of the two repeated lines is not the onus of an entirely hopeless stalemate between two isolated individuals, but rather Echo’s transformation of Narcissus’s lines.  As Gaston Bachelard says in The Poetics of Space, “this frail, ephemeral thing, a voice, can bear witness to the most forceful realities. … But before speaking, one must listen”  . . .  must listen—to others and to oneself.  Poch’s poem acknowledges the empathetic power of listening, which at times feels to be an increasingly rare and important capacity.

(Illustration by Arts & Academe)

Return to Top