Hey! Orpheus

Sometime afterwards I recall “Hey! Orpheus,” a song by Michelle Mae’s group The Make-Up.

Vocalist Ian Svenonius’s Prince-like, Eros-stricken shrieks of pain — a signature of his performance ever since the days of his band Nation of Ulysses — are put to good use throughout amid a sound aligned with and inspired by organ-laden psychedelic pop groups of the late 1960s. Michelle slides her finger down the neck of her bass and sets the song in motion, with drummer Steve Gamboa and the rest of the band leaping forth to join her moments later.

The band adopts the guise of a collective subject — Earthlings, mortals, “We the Living” — singing through Ian to an Orpheus other than the Black Orpheus of midcentury France.

“Hey! White Orpheus,” he sings,

“Do you remember us?

We’re up in the sunlight.

You’re down in the furnace.

Hey! White Orpheus,

in the Earth’s crust,

open up all the doors,

come on and bury us.

Living there, down below,

gave your soul to Pluto,

all for your Eurydice.

I want to eat pomegranate seeds.

White Orpheus,

don’t be so jealous.

Up here it’s the age of elephant ears

laced with angel dust.

Hey! White Orpheus,

from dawn to dusk,

you’re oblivious

to anything other than

your sacrifice for love.

Living among stalagmite floors,

bellows pumping Devil’s calls.

To be like you, what must I do?

I wanna eat the pomegranate, too.”

Organist James Canty interrupts to deliver a punchy, powerful organ solo mid-song — perfect for a work that revels in speed and brevity. Contemplating the song now, though, I find myself wondering after the whiteness of its Orpheus. Why does the band recast the color of Orpheus from black to white?

Black Orpheus is a 1959 film made in Brazil by French filmmaker Marcel Camus. The film reimagines the myth of Orpheus set amid a favela in Rio de Janeiro, so it has its hero Orfeo descend into the underworld by attending a Macumba ritual to save his lover Eurydice on the night of Carnival.

The Make-Up, meanwhile, a band based in Washington, DC, preached a variant of liberation theology that they took to calling “Gospel Yeh-Yeh.” Might their recasting of the color of Orpheus teach us something about the tenets of the band’s theology?

My inquiry leads me to “Black or White Orpheus: Votive Transmutation Shrine,” a 34-minute jam by Portland-based artists Corum & Zurna.

Orpheus in Hades’ Lounge

There’s a parking, a journeying outward. Up and out we launch past West End Mill Works, off on tonight’s adventure, beginning with an evening stroll. Graffiti marks the spot. Stream to one side of us, water rushing over rocks. Spotify shifts from Steely Dan’s “King of the World” to Jan Hammer Group’s “Don’t You Know,” voices and cars in the distance. Looking both ways, we cross the street and rush down onto a shaded path through a nearby park, crickets singing in parallax with Neil Young’s “Computer Age.” We turn off the song and continue for a moment in silence. Upon arrival to a crossroads, we ask of each other (like Ginsberg to Whitman in Ginsberg’s “A Supermarket in California”), “Which way now?” Looking up, we rise and step proudly toward pink clouds. Conversation turns toward Old & Used Books as we pass a graffiti-clad muffler shop. Bulldog with paintbrush arrives as comic relief — reality for a moment a goofy animal fable whodunit. We grab beers as day turns to night. Ginsberg’s “lights out” reverberates, hangs in the air after us having heard earlier in the day Let’s Active’s “Orpheus in Hades’ Lounge,” featuring hometown hero Mitch Easter.

Can Orpheus be told anew? We recall to each other the character’s many forms. Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus (1950), Marcel Camus’s Black Orpheus (1959). Also Jean-Paul Sartre’s essay of that name. And let us not forget Samuel R. Delany’s Lo Lobey, the Orphic protagonist at the heart of Delany’s 1967 novel The Einstein Intersection. Hoots is a Hades’ Lounge, is it not, with its red light hanging above its corner booth? So we think as we drink, glorying finally in each other’s presence. “What would happen if our Time Traveler were to stage the scene again?” wonders the Narrator, listening alone now, seated at the same booth many months hence. With “King of the World” still fresh in our ears, members of Steely Dan singing, “No marigolds in the promised land; there’s a hole in the ground where they used to grow,” we restate the refrain of Jan Hammer Group’s “Don’t You Know.” Amid Orpheus wailing away on his flute come the words, “You’re to know that I love you. You’re to know that I care.”

Thursday March 25, 2021

Time: an odd phenomenon in light of the way it communicates, deposits emblems, plays hide-and-seek with consciousness. “Let Your Dreams Set Sail” says one such emblem, printed on the wall above the bed in which I’ve slept of late. A box on the ground displays the Paramount logo, a mountain pointed toward an outer sphere, like a Bucky dome lined with stars. Outside the sphere pokes SpongeBob SquarePants: the Flammarion engraving rejoined or reversed.

SpongeBob disrupts the first sphere’s fourth wall, smiles at consciousness, injects among solemnity a spirit of mirth set free to roam the cosmos. He, too, partakes of the image’s directionality, the vertical ascent narrative involving spaceships: the thing toward which the parts of the emblem incline. Let us imagine among these ships of possibility that which is prophecied in the mythology of the Dog Star — black anti-slave ships, lines of flight like Marcus Garvey’s Black Star Line. Nathaniel Mackey fuses these symbolisms in his poem “Dogon Eclipse.” The poem ends “as if by then I’d / been thru / Hell / and back.” As if the “I” of the poem were Orpheus, the poet of ancient Greece, founder of the Orphic mysteries. Orphics revered Dionysus. He, too, is said to have descended into the underworld and to have returned. Through his poem, Mackey initiates those who read. So sayeth Michael S. Harper in his preface to Eroding Witness: “These poems are about prophecy and initiation.” Poems like “Dogon Eclipse” hint at mysteries; they transmit a secret knowledge. Other poems in the collection conjure loas from Voodoo and Vodou. Loas are the “mystères,” “the invisibles.” They act as intermediaries between worlds.

Tuesday March 24, 2020

Nap-time on a rainy afternoon, rain a surprise, though no bother, for we know it, too, will pass. Plus it affords the occasion for the baby to nap and for me to write. I look back at Samuel R. Delany’s The Einstein Intersection and study his depiction of telepathic communication between mutant beings, posthumans who have grown new organs and developed special powers, abilities that reveal themselves over time. Why does a Christ figure, a character named Green-eye, ride peripherally in this narrative, his life and death a mere subplot? And why does another of these mutants, a character named Spider, evoke the ideas of two twentieth-century mathematical philosophers, theoretical physicist Albert Einstein and logician Kurt Gödel? One expresses mathematically how “the condition of the observer influences the thing he perceives” (111). The other introduces uncertainty back into systems, phenomena in excess of all immutable laws, logics, and equations. When Einstein and Gödel intersect, says Spider, humans disappear into another continuum. Something else arrives to take over: the mutants, the posthumans. (Delany, by the way, deliberately avoids both of those terms.) What are we to make, though, of the fact that the character who informs us of this is Spider, the novel’s Judas Iscariot? And why is Lobey, the novel’s protagonist, both Orpheus and Ringo Starr? In a 2017 reassessment of “the fourth Beatle” for the Guardian, Ben Cardew claims that the public viewed Ringo as “a non-musician who got lucky, a journeyman alongside three musical geniuses.” Perhaps Ringo is meant to serve, then, as the “faux-Orpheus” within the symbolism of Delany’s novel, making Lobey neither Orpheus nor faux-Orpheus, but some irreducibly “different,” variant, third term, uncapturable by existing terms or by any binary logic that precedes him.

Monday March 16, 2020

Songs from baby toys replay in my thoughts as I think about Samuel R. Delany’s character Lo Lobey, the Orphic hero in his novel The Einstein Intersection, who performs songs telepathically overheard from the minds of those around him. Delany’s novel is set in a far future among beings who have replaced humans of ancient times, but who inhabit and perform the roles, live out the narratives and myths, of those past peoples. Delany interrupts this narrative with excerpts from a “Writer’s Journal” kept during a several-month tour of Mediterranean cities in the fall of 1965. Why is the Orpheus character of ancient Greece reinvented, re-imagined, reinterpreted as Delany’s character Lo Lobey? Orpheus is famous for his musicianship and his poetry. He’s one of the Western tradition’s archetypal figures, portrayed and alluded to in countless works of art, music, and literature across the centuries. Why does Delany reactivate this figure on a posthuman Earth of the far future? What might this setting tell us about what we can now recognize in hindsight as Delany’s emerging Afrofuturist sensibility?