Pamphile divested herself of all her garments, and having opened a certain small chest, took from thence many boxes, from one of which the covering being removed, she rubbed herself, for a long time, with an ointment contained in it, from the extremities of her feet to the crown of her head. When, also, with the lamp in her hand, she had said much in a low voice, she shook her limbs with a tremulous agitation; and from these, lightly fluctuating, soft feathers extend themselves, and strong wings burst forth, the nose is hardened and incurvated, the nails are compressed and made crooked, and Pamphile becomes an owl. Being thus changed, and emitting a querulous sound, she made a trial of herself, and gradually leapt from the earth ; and soon after, being raised on high, she flew out of doors, with all the force of her wings. Thus she, indeed, was voluntarily changed, by her own magic arts. From The Metamorphosis, Or Golden Ass, of Apuleius.
The poem Metamorphosis from my upcoming collection See the Wolf was inspired by the story of Pamphile from The Golden Ass, but also by other Pamphiles throughout early history. Pamphile, the daughter of Platea of the Greek island of Kos, was said to be the first person to spin silk. The Egyptian historian Pamphile of Epidaurus saw her publications attributed to her husband. There seemed to be a lot of female independence and power packed into this unassuming ancient name. I appreciated the juxtaposition of the sorceress Pamphile, with the spinner of silk Pamphile, and the historian Pamphile. I mashed them all together into one speaker and threw in a dash of 80s pop culture with the Man Eater T-shirt. Of course I took a little poetic license along the way, turning the historian into the author of On Sex and the spinner of silk into the designer of revealing fashion. I wanted to imagine the amalgam of these three Pamphiles transcending the binds of ancient womanhood, both in their more contemporary iterations as well as their literal final transcendence at the end of the poem. Bird imagery is irresistible to me. In this instance, I got to be both scientific (45,000 nerve endings is a fact!) and purely imaginative (sharp quills pierce from the inside out). A metamorphosis is a birth, thus not without its fear, pain and unknowns. Births chosen voluntarily, as Pamphile's, also seem more blessed, more courageous. This poem could be classified as retold or reimagined myth or fairytale, as many of the components from The Golden Ass are in place. In a poem like this, the artistry lies in taking 'Pamphile becomes an owl' and fleshing it out. Of course, I didn't think about any of this while I was writing. Taking the three Pamphiles and making them one happened pretty rapidly and in one swift motion. I had to look it all up again to refresh myself, to re-member the parts. Call that creative amnesia I guess.
I wrote the book On Sex
published under my husband’s name,
of course. I invented the technique
for weaving silk, fashioned a dress
like the finest spider’s web to cover a woman
but reveal her completely. The all-
lover, rapacious, some whispered; as if
I could be defined—
shamefuller and shamefuller, by my appetites.
In modern times, I’d be that woman
wearing the parchment-
thin t-shirt: man eater; and braless.
Solanum, aconite, somniferum,
belladonna, opium, the baby fat of girls:
for skin, when skin
isn’t wanted. A salve for encouraging
When a man rubs it on, he turns into an ass,
hide-bound, ridden by fleas. On my skin
it glimmers, it glimmers
in my hair, causes convulsions.
My arms lift without consent, spread
to test their span, great muscles form
at the hinges. A burning, an undulation wracks my body;
sharp quills pierce from the inside out,
blossom into intricate bracts and branches,
the downy bloom of breath feathers gently blown.
My nose hardens into sharp beak, pink nails to talons.
Permeable skin, which relies on the touch
of another for electricity, can’t rival my 8,000 feathers,
45,000 nerve endings aroused by the wind.
No mortal woman has felt the pure, burn-through
lambence of mounting the wind.
Else, there would be no mortal women.