Saturday, April 20, 2013

What can’t they be? - every Rilke poem refers to every other Rilke poem

New Poems, the first book, begins with a paradox, a statue that communicates without words, a description that is entirely negative – “nothing in his head \ could obstruct the splendor of all poems \ from striking us,” “there is still no shadow in his gaze,” “and only later from his eyebrows’ arches \\ will the rose garden lift up tall-stemmed.”  “Early Apollo” is about an object and describes an object, while seeming to be and do neither.  Come to think of it Rilke never actually says the Apollo is a statue, although that is an obvious interpretation.  Apollo’s mouth “is still quiet, never-used, and gleaming…  as though its song were being infused in him.”

That bit at the end could apply to most of the New Poems.  The object “speaks” even when it cannot.  The poem itself is an object, a new object.

In the 1907 book the blooms from Apollo’s eyebrows have been cut and arranged in a bowl.  “The Bowl of Roses” is a strange poem, beginning with boys fighting (“like an animal attacked by bees”), actors, and “raging horses” before the flowers appear, “this full bowl of roses \ which is unforgettable.”  Like the blue hydrangea inspected forty poems ago, the roses move

with such tiny angles of vibration
that they’d remain invisible, if their rays
did not fan out into the universe.

and have blooms that “blissfully unfolded.”  The poem turns into a defense of metaphor, of the core of the book: “What can’t they be…  And aren’t all that way: simply self-containing (Sich-enthalten).”  The object of the poems (and also the poems) are simultaneously uniquely themselves and at the same time everything.  “It now lies carefree in these open roses,” the poem ends.  I am not sure to what “it” refers.  Whatever has been the point of New Poems, perhaps.

Once Rilke had written the carefully constructed, ordered, and inter-connected  New Poems he did something strange.  He immediately rewrote the book.  More plainly, another burst of inspiration struck, “forty poems in August 1907 alone, followed by another forty-six in the summer of 1908” says Edward Snow.  He did not just write more poems in the same style, but a collection that subtly comments on the first book.  I only have the slightest sense of the complexity of the associations among and between the poems of these two books.

“Early Apollo” concentrated on the statue’s head and face.  The “Archaic Torso of Apollo” that begins New Poems: The Other Part (1908) has no head (“We never knew his head”), yet somehow it still smiles and “surges” and “burst[s] forth from all its contours \ like a star.” The poem has a startling ending that must be one of Rilke’s best known lines: “You must change your life.”  Who, me?

The second collection does not end with more roses, although both books are full of roses, but with another sculpture (probably), “Buddha in Glory” for whom “this entire world out to all the stars \ is your fruit-flesh,” making the object both vegetable and stone.   Unless this Buddha is based on a painting.  Or is simply meant to be the person.  Anyway he or it is also bursting like the Apollo and his rays are expanding like the roses.

And from outside a radiance assists it,

for high above, your suns in full splendor
have wheeled blazingly around.
Yet already there’s begun inside you
what lasts beyond the suns.

Again, the “it” is tricky, and by the end of the poems so is “you,” which may well be the same “you” who must change your life, which seems to be changing already.

I have not even mentioned the poems written in sequence.  It would be nice to revisit these poems within the lifespan of Wuthering Expectations.  They are a little too complex for whatever I have been trying to do with them this week.

The translations have all been from the Edward Snow New Poems and New Poems: The Other Part.


  1. Interesting...I coincidentally have been reading Rilke lately, had a good laugh when I saw all your recent postings...
    I love the vague you(s) and it(s), that allows or expects, really, the reader to become the voice. I know who you is, I know what it is, RMR speaks for me, to you.

  2. He is ambiguous enough to allow me to resist, too - no, you change your life! My life is great.

  3. It is all a reaction to the insistence that my life is not great. You can't boss me around, headless statue!

    1. I hate it when statues boss me around

    2. Although I will admit that sometimes the statues are right.