Monday, January 14, 2013

the first elegy

Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels'
hierarchies? and even if one of them pressed me
suddenly against his heart:  I would be consumed 
in that overwhelming existence.  For beauty is nothing
but the beginning of terror, which we still are just able to endure,
and we are so awed because it serenely disdains
to annihilate us.  Every angel is terrifying.

And so I hold myself back and swallow the call-note
of my dark sobbing.  Ah, whom can we ever turn to
in our need?  Not angels, not humans,
and already the knowing animals are aware
that we are not really at home in
our interpreted world.  Perhaps there remains for us
some tree on a hillside, which every day we can take 
into our vision;  there remains for us yesterday's street
and the loyalty of a habit so much at ease
when it stayed with us that it moved in and never left.

Oh and night:  there is night, when a wind full of infinite space 
gnaws at our faces.  Whom would it not remain for - that longed-after,
mildly disillusioning presence, which the solitary heart
so painfully meets.  Is it any less difficult for lovers?
But they keep on using each other to hide their own fate.

Don't you know yet?   Fling the emptiness out of your arms 
into the spaces we breathe;  perhaps the birds
will feel the expanded air with more passionate flying.

Yes - the springtimes needed you.  Often a star
was waiting for you to notice it.  A wave rolled toward you
out of the distant past, or as you walked
under an open window, a violin
yielded itself to your hearing.  All this was mission.
But could you accomplish it?  Weren't you always
distracted by expectation, as if every event
announced a beloved?  (Where can you find a place
to keep her, with all the huge strange thoughts inside you
going and coming and often staying all night.)

But when you feel longing, sing of women in love;
for their famous passion is still not immortal.  Sing
of women abandoned and desolate (you envy them, almost)
who could love so much more purely than those who were gratified.
Begin again and again the never-attainable praising;
remember:  the hero lives on; even his downfall was
merely a pretext for achieving his final birth.
But Nature, spent and exhausted, takes lovers back
into herself, as if there were not enough strength
to create them a second time.  Have you imagined
Gaspara Stampa intensely enough so that any girl
deserted by her beloved might be inspired
by that fierce example of soaring, objectless love
and might say to herself, "Perhaps I can be like her"?
Shouldn't this most ancient of sufferings finally grow
more fruitful for us?  Isn't it time that we lovingly
freed ourselves from the beloved and, quivering, endured:
as the arrow endures the bowstring's tension, so that 
gathered in the snap of release it can be more than
itself.  For there is no place where we can remain.

Voices.  Voices.  Listen, my heart, as only
saints have listened:  until the gigantic call lifted them
off the ground; yet they kept on, impossibly,
kneeling and didn't notice at all:
so complete was their listening.  Not that you could endure
God's voice - far from it.  But listen to the voice of the wind
and the ceaseless message that forms itself out of silence.
It is murmuring toward you now from those who died young.
Didn't their fate, whenever you stepped into a church
in Naples or Rome, quietly come to address you?
Or high up, some eulogy entrusted you with a mission,
as, last year, on the plaque in Santa Maria Formosa.
What they want of me is that I gently remove the appearance
of injustice about their death - which at times
slightly hinders their souls from proceeding onward.

Of course, it is strange to inhabit the earth no longer,
to give up customs one barely had time to learn,
not to see roses and other promising Things
in terms of a human future; no longer to be 
what one was in infinitely anxious hands; to leave 
even one's own first name behind, forgetting it
as easily as a child abandons a broken toy.
Strange to no longer desire one's desires.  Strange
to see meanings that clung together once, floating away
in every direction.  And being dead is hard work
and full of retrieval before one can gradually feel
a trace of eternity. - Though the living are wrong to believe
in the too-sharp distinctions which they themselves have created.
Angels (they say) don't know whether it is the living 
they are moving among, or the dead.  The eternal torrent
whirls all ages along in it, through both realms
forever, and their voices are drowned out in its thunderous roar.

In the end, those who were carried off early no longer need us:
they are weaned from earth's sorrows and joys, as gently as children 
outgrow the soft breasts of their mothers.  But we, who do need
such great mysteries, we for whom grief is so often
the source of our spirit's growth -: could we exist without them?
Is the legend meaningless that tells how, in the lament for Linus,
the daring first notes of song pierced through the barren numbness;
and then in the startled space which a youth as lovely as a god
had suddenly left forever, the Void felt for the first time
that harmony which now enraptures and comforts and helps us.

~ Rainer Maria Rilke
from the  Duino Elegies
translation by Stephen Mitchell


erin said...

oh, god lord, how did he know? how did he have such lucidity and ability with language?

he gives me hope. this gives me hope. and yet it is strange to have hope in a man from so long ago. but he is us and so i rage forward into this difficult void.