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Freddie Omm, Franz Kafka, and the Sirens

“… the Ommnian multiverse at its most Kafkaesque” (Philippe de Saint Maurice)

Henrietta Rae, The Sirens

Lately I’ve been much taken by poems in an upcoming collection—Sicilian Haiku—Migrant Shadows, by Freddie Omm, for which I am writing an Afterword—in which the modern world is seen as a continuation of the heroic age of myths, or myths recast, intertwined through the fabric of our modern age.

Myths have been developed and embroidered since their earliest beginnings, and Omm’s work progresses that tradition in characteristic, authentically vital poetry. One of the poems—Siren Song II—The Sirens’ Silence—is a case in point.

Like most of the book’s poems, it is a haiku chain, one of Omm’s signature forms.

It begins:

The Sirens’ silence

More surely than their singing

Seduces our sense:

*

Aroused, we merge with

Their still reposing beauty

Mute, sexual psyche

*

While sound is unheard

As we kiss, drumming hot blood

Discomposes us

*

Where beach-borne kisses

Sound like sand that sings the shore

Enchanted, unreached

*

You stretch your senses

To bask in the Sirens’ presence,

Naked, beautiful.

While the (human) sense central to this poem is that of hearing, with sound and music the dominant key or metaphorical tonic, the other senses are surely implied in the idea of arousal, basking, kissing, drumming hot blood, and merging with Their still reposing beauty.

It climaxes in an ecstasy of all the senses where thought is not, and the rational mind is scattered:

The Sirens numb us

In sensual euphoria

Our minds dissipate

The numbness that comes with some forms of delight, which could also signify a numbness to merely mental matters, combines with the throwing away of thought and a dismemberment of experience itself (rather as the Sirens dismember their victims) in a musical metaphor of transposition, changing the very key of life:

Experience torn

Dismembered, scored, transposed like

Life’s tentative notes

The poem’s final haiku again turns humans into music, but comes with the uneasy suggestion that “we” long for our lives to be “Sirenic silence”:

Our music is us:

The song we so long to live

Sirenic silence

This may mean that the Sirens are no longer able to tempt us, or that we actively wish to stretch all our senses into the dissipated ecstasy of a silent, irrational music. I cannot tell, and (which is a separate item) I cannot read the mind of Freddie Omm—even if he is, in most respects, a character I have created. The field for potential interpretation is vast and surely fertile, though some might think that that way madness lies—wholly apt, given that another Sirenic attribute is to drive humans insane.

Which brings us to Franz Kafka. Because Kafka, when he wrote about the Sirens, also seemed to be implying that an excess of interpretation—too much zeal to explain meaning—can lead to meaninglessness.

The conceit that the Sirens’ silence is more dangerous than their singing is posited by Kafka in his enigmatic short story, Das Schweigen der Sirenen (The Silence of the Sirens). In it, he writes that while some people may conceivably have saved themselves from the Siren’s song, it’s inconceivable that anyone could save themselves from their silence.

The teller’s take in this tale is elusive: possibly because one of its themes is unknowability—any interpretation seems valid because all are unknowable, the subject being mythical and infinitely open to riffing and variations. The world of myth, in this respect, has always been post-truth avant la lettre.

In line with that, Kafka’s own splurge of interpretation sounds satirical, like a lampoon of academic analysis:

For he also suggests that the most dangerous thing about overcoming the Sirens is that it would delude you into feeling you had superhuman powers that nothing earthly (or mortal?) could resist—insane delusion.

In addition to silencing the Sirens, Kafka alters the Homeric plot by making Odysseus put wax in his own ears, rather than his crew’s and, in an even more reckless improvisation, by making it the Sirens who are seduced (by Odysseus’ baby-faced, wide-eyed look), while Odysseus himself is left unmoved, only pretending to hear the singing in their silence.

In suggesting that Odysseus’ whole gambit with the wax and being tied to the mast is a hoax—an elaborate double bluff based on Odysseus’ foreknowledge about the Sirens’ silence—Kafka adds an enigmatic twist to the tale’s hermeneutics, creating a paradoxical parable in which Odysseus’ story fools not only the Sirens, but the gods (and us, as hearers and readers of his narrative).

As with Omm’s poem, the scope for interpretation is limitless. In both Omm”s poem and Kafka”s story, we are confronted with the endless pliability and fecundity of myth. Kafka’s story plays fast and loose with almost all the elements of Homer’s story, while Omm’s poem sticks to them with the single if crucial exception of the danger of Sirenic silence, rather than their singing. Kafka is free with his own interpretations, Omm dives deep into the silence. Both add new twists to the myth. In any case, the poem shows the Ommnian multiverse at its most Kafkaesque.

Philippe de Saint Maurice

Sicilian Haiku—Migrant Shadows, by Freddie Omm, will be published by Mad Bear Books in Autumn 2021

William Etty, The Sirens and Ulysses

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