Tuesday, May 21, 2013

She was already root - Rilke, story-teller

I missed or skipped or forgot something about the New Poems (1907, 1908) of Rainer Maria Rilke during my last attempt on them.  They demonstrate that Rilke is an extraordinary story-teller.  On the one hand, this is a minor element in Rilke’s work; on the other he is surprisingly good at it.  Reading about Rilke, about the New Poems, I do not remember seeing anyone emphasize it.  So I will.

The New Poems are sometimes described as “thing poems,” since many or perhaps all of the poems are about isolated objects, something outside of the poet, a statue or a flower or – this broadens the concept of a thing – a story.  Classical Greek stories like Orpheus and Eurydice, or Biblical stories like the death of Moses or the Prodigal Son, or in one case Shakespeare, The Tempest.  I am actually wandering away from the New Poems, into other books and “uncollected” and “unpublished” poems, all of which I read in Edward Snow’s The Poetry of Rilke (2009).

Orpheus, Eurydice, Hermes

This was the souls’ strange mine.
Like silent silver ore they wandered
through its dark like veins.  Between roots
the blood welled up that makes its way to men,
and it looked hard as porphyry in the dark.
Nothing else was red.

The New Poems are typically short, formal, and rhymed.  The story poems are long (two pages, even three) and irregular in stanza and meter.  So after another stanza about the rocks, and the “unreal forest,” and “the pale stripe of a single path,” the characters in the title appear:  “And up this single path they came.”

If it was not clear before it is now  - the word “up” does so much work – that the strange mine is the path to and from the underworld.  The blood that is pumped through the rock up to mankind is Rilke’s invention, as far as I know.  These strange original touches are Rilke’s claim to the stories, although it is exactly the familiarity of the tales that make them objective “things.”

Orpheus is in front, “His stride devour[ing] the path in huge mouthfuls \ without slowing to chew,” yet desperate for some sign that the Eurydice is following – “his hearing, like an odor, lagged behind.”  It for some reason seems logical to me that the center of the story should be Orpheus’s fatal impatience, the reason he looked back.  Rilke is not logical and not me; he understands how Eurydice, guided up the path at the side of Hermes, is more interesting.

Eurydice, after all, died, and is being led back from the dead. 

She was in herself.  And her having died
filled her like abundance.
Like a fruit ripe with sweetness and night
she was filled with her great death,
which was so new that she understood nothing.

I suppose we have all read enough mythical stories to know that Orpheus was mistaken to want to seek Eurydice after death.  She is merging with the world spirit of Lucretius or the Will of Schopenhauer. 

She was already root.

And then without warning
the god stopped her and with pain in his voice
uttered the words: He has turned around-,
she didn’t understand, and answered softly: Who?

And of course now the point of view returns to Orpheus as he watches Eurydice turn and descend.  Eurydice’s single word reply seems sublime to me.  The line about Hermes, the sole fragment of characterization he gets, is also surprising – he was rooting for Orpheus, apparently.

Who knows if I captured the effect here.  I will try another Rilke story tomorrow.

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