Jane Alison
  • Jane Alison
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  • When Narcissus had just turned sixteen
  • he looked as much a young man as a boy.
  • Many girls, many boys wanted him badly,
  • but (in his lean body was such cold pride)
  • that no girls, no boys could touch him.
  • Seeing him drive frightened deer into nets
  • was that chattery nymph who couldn’t keep quiet
  • or start talking herself, poor clamoring Echo.
  • She still had a body, she wasn’t just voice,
  • yet could use her mouth then only as she does now:
  • helplessly repeating the last words someone says. . . .
  • When she saw Narcissus roam alone in the woods
  • she was excited at once and secretly trailed
  • and the closer she followed the hotter she grew,
  • as when sulfur is daubed at the top
  • of a torch and snatches the dancing flames.
  • Oh, how she wanted to go with sweet words and say
  • how she longed for him! But her nature stopped this,
  • would let her start nothing. So she would wait
  • and do all she could: cry back any words he said.
  • The boy had somehow lost his close gang of friends
  • so called, ‘Is anyone here?’ ‘Here!’ called Echo.
  • He was surprised, looked around, and then shouted,
  • ‘Come!’ — and she shouted it back to him shouting.
  • He looked again, and when nobody came, he called,
  • ‘Why stay away from me?’ — she called the same.
  • He stood still, tricked by the sense of an answering voice,
  • and cried, ‘Be with me, come!’ Never more lustily
  • would Echo cry anything: ‘Be with me, come!’
  • And she herself followed these words from the woods,
  • rushing to throw her arms around his sweet neck.
  • But he bolted and, bolting, shouted, ‘Hands off!
  • I would die before I’d give you anything.’
  • Stricken, she could only say, ‘I’d give you anything . . .’
  • Then she hid in the woods, kept her mortified face
  • muffled in leaves, and lived only in lonely caves.
  • But her love clung, swelled with painful rejection;
  • sleeplessness wasted away her poor body
  • and pulled her gaunt and tight. Her freshness and sap
  • drifted into air; only voice and bones remained.
  • Then voice alone — they say her bones became rock.

Jane Alison is the author of a memoir, The Sisters Antipodes, and three novels: The Love Artist, The Marriage of the Sea, and Natives and Exotics. Her poem is an excerpt from Change Me, her new translation of Ovid’s stories of sexual transformation, which was published by Oxford University Press last year. She teaches creative writing at the University of Virginia.

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