Five Poems from The Tongue of Narcissus by Jennifer Bullis


Echo’s Letter to Cassandra

I can’t say I blame Hera for punishing me with this voicelessness,
this accursed repetition. She has run out of ways to punish Zeus

except by afflicting those in whom he takes his delights.
Take them he does: he does charm, but never asks

consent. Leda, Leto, Metis—not one of them told him yes.
Yes, Zeus rewarded me for covering for him, for his dalliance

with the water-nymph. But I should have refused
the token—his sapphire ring—which Hera recognized later

on my finger. When my finger pointed her falsely to Olympus,
I didn’t consider the damage—to Hera, to myself. I thought

my small lie would avert big harm. Harm spreads
when the powerful battle each other: mountains rumble,

skies roar, markets plunge, riots erupt in Sweden. Trying
to prevent those eruptions involved me in his transgression:

his transgression against Hera prompted my lie. My lie
abetted his power to deceive. When the powerful deceive

to take what they want in secret, lies spin off like eddies—
and in concealing the deeds, cloud the water.

The water: mine is a drowning by silence for misusing
the gift of speech. My speech is now diminished to duplication

and whatever words I can put in ink. Dear Cassandra,
keep them and repeat them. Repeat everything!

Please, make a written record of what you know and publish it,
broadcast it fast. Let’s not be like Narcissus’s suitors,

who look upon his beauty and faint. I looked upon it
and spoke to him—did me no good, but maybe he will listen

if I approach him again and try his ear
more appealingly. I tell you what, never again

will I float a mistruth for the benefit of a power.
Do you hear me? Never again.

Narcissus, Lost and Thirsty, Approaches the Stream

I cannot believe the nerve of that nymph.
Mocking me by repeating my words back to me!
Sad. I was only asking her for directions.
No GPS—I left my phone in Ameinias’s pocket
so I could ditch him along with the other parasites
pestering me for time. They want access,
they need to fall into line, talk nice about me!
Reflect my true nature, my heart of gold.

That nymph was worse than the girls
who faint at my feet. She hurled my words back
and then tried to kiss me!
I flung her away. So unworthy.
This part of the woods is quiet and hot.
It’s like I can hear her mocking me still.
I’ll rest here and drink from this clear pool.

Wait, who are you? You are the finest
and fairest. Let me touch your perfect face!
Hold on—stay and talk to me. Hold still,
that’s it. Now: let me gaze at you. I will
stay right here till you love me back.

Narcissus, Lonely and Afraid in the Federal Penitentiary, Is Counseled by the Ghost of Heinz Kohut

You see, during early infancy, an infant perceives
the whole world as part of the self.
Parents, too, are seen not as separate others,

but as parts of the infant’s self, “selfobjects”:
people (or ideas or objects) one uses in service of the self
or experiences as part of the self.

Optimally, an infant’s parents (mother, father, any dedicated caregiver)
attune empathically to the infant:
respond to and anticipate the infant’s needs.

Part of your pathology, Narcissus, is that even as an adult, you see
your surroundings and other people as extensions of yourself.
Thus your fondness for mirrors,

which reflect back to you
your own wholeness,
as though they were the loving face of your mother.

When people disobey, disagree, or fail to cooperate
with your wishes, worldviews, or whims,
you react with infantile rage.

Thus, too, your propensity to lie:
since you see reality itself as an extension of yourself,
nothing you say seems inconsistent with your reality.

This is likewise why you seem to have no inner life,
and why you hardly hear the outrageous utterances
of your own mouth:

there is for you little filter
between the inner and the outer,
so you process your thoughts by speaking aloud.

What functioned best as a mirror, and what you liked best, was an audience—
faces and voices of a crowd to reflect back to you your own worthiness,
as though they were the loving face of your father.

Narcissus, Lonely and Afraid in the Federal Penitentiary, Is Counseled by the Ghost of Heinz Kohut

The ground was laid for your personality disorder
if your parents or caregivers failed to respond to your needs
for merger or mirroring (picking up, mirroring, affirming, praising):

if they couldn’t respond to you,
were unavailable to you, if they traumatized you
or were lost to you.

Narcissus, your father’s river-coldness—his formality and strictness,
his disapproval of your wildness—
may have a bearing here.

Your pathology may have arisen also if, during what ought to be
the transitional phase, you were not subjected
to optimal frustrations—

that is, if the you were spoiled, smothered,
unselectively praised beyond infancy.
If so, you failed to develop the transitional selfobjects

that replace archaic selfobject functions performed by parents
(picking up, mirroring, affirming, praising).
The gifts of gold, later of millions, may have a bearing here.

More commonly, personality defects such as yours arise from disruptions
during the process of transmuting internalization,
when you were integrating your transitional selfobjects

as psychological structure. The lengthiness of this crucial stage,
extending through late adolescence, makes it vulnerable to disruption.
Then, as in infancy, unavailability of, disappointments in,

or trauma inflicted by your parental selfobjects may have severely interfered
with psychological structure-building. That you were sent away
to military school at age thirteen

as punishment for disobedience may have a bearing here.

Narcissus, Lonely and Afraid in the Federal Penitentiary, Is Counseled by the Ghost of Heinz Kohut

If, as a child, you did not develop, or if,
as an adolescent, you did not internalize
the necessary psychological structure,

your psyche remained fixated on an archaic selfobject
(your mother’s or father’s loving regard),
and your personality has, throughout your adult life,

retained its intense object hunger.
Thus your acquisitions and constructions,
your supermodel wives.

Thus your eponymous towers,
their golden letters and glittering surfaces
reflecting, affirming: Mine.

Your media attention. Your vote-tally obsession.
Your cabinet yes-men
Your actual, deadly power.

Jennifer Bullis is author of the chapbook Impossible Lessons (MoonPath Press). Her poems and essays appear or are forthcoming in such journals as Tinderbox Poetry Journal, Water~Stone Review,, Iron Horse Literary Review, and Tahoma. She was inaugural winner of The Pitch contest at Poetry Northwest and is recipient of an Honorable Mention for a lyric essay in the 2017 Gulf Coast Prize for Nonfiction. Originally from Reno, Nevada, she holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of California Davis. She lives in Bellingham, Washington, where she taught college writing and literature for fourteen years.

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