Sibyl and Marsyas

by Anja Utler

Two sonic-mythological poems, written and read. Translated, with an introduction, by Kurt Beals.

“Sibyl – poem in eight syllables” and “marsyas, encircled” are collected in engulf – enkindle, published by Burning Deck.

"Sibyl and Marsyas" was commissioned by Triple Canopy as part of its Immaterial Literature project area, supported in part by the New York State Council on the Arts and the Brown Foundation, Inc. of Houston.

Johan Liss, Apollo and Marsyas, ca. 1627, oil on canvas.

Anja Utler’s poetry is rooted in the body. Her poems’ tendrils climb up the throat to the tongue, their rhizomes creep under the skin. They trace the origins of vocal expression to a point prior to language, where breath’s vibrations first give rise to sound.

In engulf – enkindle, Utler’s second volume of poetry and the first to be translated from German into English, the emergence of sound from the body is tightly interwoven with imagery of landscapes scarred by human intervention. Slagheaps, clearcuts, and river dams find their parallels in prelingual scraping and choking in the throat as speech seeks to issue forth.

The book’s second half, from which these selections are taken, consists of Utler’s reworkings of mythological motifs. Along with a cycle that considers the conflation of Kronos, the Titan, with Chronos, the god of time, Utler devotes cycles to three of Apollo’s victims: Marsyas, Daphne, and the Cumaean Sibyl. Included here are the Sibyl and Marsyas cycles.

The Sibyl, an oracle of Apollo, persuades the god to grant her one year of life for every grain of sand she is able to hold in her hand, and in return offers him her virginity. When she subsequently refuses the god, he punishes her by prolonging only her life, and not her youth. Thus the Sibyl shrivels away until only her voice is left. The sibilance in this cycle is an echo of the Sibyl’s name; it lingers even after the prophetess’s body has wasted away.

The satyr Marsyas, too, suffers on Apollo’s account. After discovering the aulos, a reed pipe, he loses a contest of musical skill to Apollo. The god wins by treachery, proposing that the two contestants play their instruments upside-down, a feat possible with the lyre but, alas for Marsyas, not with the aulos. This victory gives the god the right to do anything he wishes to Marsyas, and so he flays the satyr and stretches his skin on a tree.

In the paired stanzas of this cycle, the flaying occupies the top of each page, while a reed grows and is honed into a pipe in the bottom quatrains. Ingressive sounds (indicated in brackets) punctuate these stanzas. These sounds could perhaps be read as a pipe player’s gasps for breath between notes, but they are also Marsyas’s gasps of pain as the god carves his flesh. (The consonants are drawn from the surrounding words, so the English and the German do not always coincide.) The trembling air of the reed pipe gives way to Marsyas’s own cries, until finally his blood and tears flow forth in a river.

Each cycle uncovers a phonic remainder in language, a layer of sound that precedes or exceeds meaning. In my translation, I have sought to preserve these sounds, both the Sibyl’s hisses and Marsyas’s gasps. When the English translations are read alongside Utler’s masterly recordings of the German texts, these sounds resonate between the languages.

Kurt Beals

Click on the red text to read the full English translation and hear the original German.

sibyl – poem in eight syllables

                   Сивилла: выжжена, сивилла: сmвол.
                   Все пmицы вымерли, но Боƨ вошел.

                   Sibyl: in cinders, Sibyl: a trunk.
                   The birds incinerate, but God has come.

                                                            Marina Tsvetaeva

has touched the: grains, with her naked eye: naked mouth en-
kindled, sibyl, she shudders, she glows: the sand singes the finger
tips tongue it strikes sparks in the body: flares up

she: staggers, sibyl, struck down to: the sand falls she, streams
– myriads of pores – blasts through flashes through sibyl the sun – turns:
sunstorm – she murmurs she spits, knows: it no longer sets

has: burst open, sibyl, the: splinter in flesh is she – bleeding still? –
tinders – is severed, she gapes: like the lips, stump – is: lamella, lignified
slices: the light, drips: she screeches, it: springs forth

sibyl so: yawns so she, sighs: vocal lips, folds they: swing they
scrape: off over limestone, they scrub, rip a: crater from
basin to gullet the: voicecleft, so sibyl, she: oscillates, shakes

shaken: the quaking is, sibyl – shock – lurches: in sand eddies
air eddies gnashes she throws out: her joint buckles, wails so she: pines
wastes away to: spit, sand bar she – oscillates: uprooted jaw – she: erodes

sibyl she: towers up, turns to: cliffs hisses is: spindrift glows out in the
pores sprays out: sibilants, goes out -sss- ebbs
surges swells and: suspires

sibyl her: head swims, she: breaks in the swirling heat: whispers,
she whirs: sump, slough slick thighs the: reed belt she wets she en-
girds herself tongues gurgles – adder – she slips off and: sisses

and still. just the scent: fire site clearing to hear – once
a rustling – and spoilage: toes finger the stump:
fungous hollow, they probe cast-off skin: it breaks down
on the scaled soles and: crackles out

marsyas, encircled

                   Occasionally sound is also produced
                   [..] by
inhaling (ingressive speech).
                   E.g. an ingressive [f] is sometimes
                   used to express a sudden,
                   mild pain.

                                                              R. Arnold / K. Hansen

long after:

as if the breath: rattled, caught on and
the capsules the seeds at the borders they crack
they burst open they: spray, scatter deeper, from
waterline, over the land

the tongue edges the palate in whispers
in cooing in trilling in (..) in the heat so
it blurs – cut grass –
whirs through – an echo – the wind


shaded – embrace

marsyas, is: hung on the stem
to be flayed, is clawed to the branch – hide –
is: stretched, so the shadows they flee from the
armpits, soon: to be split by the knife,
– breath held – to see: how it opens the dimly
imagined: to streams of air and of light

so: fingers, they feel, want to: weave through the bark
scrapes the nails: breaks as if it were: loosed towards the light
– [ghh] – ripped, towards the rind, and beneath it the blind – [ss] –
sprouting wood swells still deepens – in silence – the darkening seed


reach through – remembered

just: rustles through: shoots through the spurge laurel sprouting stalks,
buds: early in the year rosy the: chalices opened – so feverish
bursts: on the fingers – [ff] – hermaphrodite – [pff] – featherlike, laced
through by light that: congeals into skin fiber, stonefruit


cleanly: cut

him: to see him his: limbs glint they
glisten in sweat – cramped – in front of the trunk
salt will bloom in the: armpit, white,
will be stiff, crystalline, then, when his skin
has been shriveled to parchment by wind beside it
hangs – fibrous – the carved flesh

so: reedy the: leafblades they spread from the swampground the: sedges the
sawgrass that sways: frozen spikelets – [kh] – prick so they
cut that cuts – [tsh] – hisses: whispers through –
corneal layer the finger buds – [pss] – scores itself: in the wind


broken out – run out

streaked, the swellings, the fibers released from the inside
enwombed: so they wanted to germinate, prickle-cells,
corneocytes: sprouting layers, they wanted to hem in
what will be named: countable strands, they: bud
on bone ridges on: thorny outgrowths and will
need to be deleaved and: should be called rhomboid, trapezius,
abdominal muscles, to lift and to lower the ribs
underneath is: the lung, now laid bare, but still bundled,
pressed under the air

stripped: sharp-cornered, leaves: from the panicled ribbed stem they
tremble – [tff] – between the fingers they swing in the wind pipe they
shake split they sever: the airstream – [ssh] – whisper the
reedbed like lips like the panicles parts then spills: back into one


whirling – lay waste

trembles – the air is flown through, is swept through by the birds –
finger through trace the darkening furrows serratus
abdominal muscles – they: feather, enfeather
the ribs are: like wings whirl and stream the: eyes wander
there press lose themselves in the swirl in the snare in the shudder the (..)
visibly driven stops short: this precipitous wound
the mouth: deepened still silent
– a sudden karst – dries out


is fully divested he – finally – plunges: towards it
and it wells out it gurgles it screeches out from him – a moan –
and for now just: unbound by the horror turns marsyas turns –
finally: flows out and into the waiting land
does not slip out he: springs forth