We have been telling the story wrong all along,
how a king took Philomela's tongue after he had taken
her body, and how the gods turned her into a nightingale
so she could tell the night of her grief. Even now the streets
wait for her lamentation—strays minister to bones abandoned
on a stoop, a man sleeps on the ghosts of yesterday's heat,
pigeons rest on top of the church and will not stir until
they hear music below them. Inside, a woman warms up
the organ and sings Via Dolorosa about a Messiah
who wanted to save everyone from the wages of pleasure.
But how can I keep a man's fingers from my mouth?
How can I resist bare trees dervishing on the sidewalk?
A woman outside the train station asks, Is there a city
underneath this city? I say, Let me tell you a story,
and tell her that after Longfellow put out the fire
in his wife's dress, after he buried her, after his burns
turned to soft pink skin, he translated the Inferno.
There is a place deep in the earth for the ravished
and ruined where everyone is transformed by suffering.
And the truth is that Philomela originally became
a sparrow stuttering in the laurels, but the story
changed with the telling. Someone wanted to give her
mercy, a song. Now the truth is a red stain on her breast.
Now truth is the pulse where her tongue used to be.