Saturday, July 17, 2010


 [Image: Deer in a Forest, Franz Marc. I chose this image because of its beauty, and because the elusiveness of deer seems to match the elusiveness of Rilke's Beloved. ]

Initially I had only two of my poems in this post. Only later I realized that the first poem, Eurydice to Rilke, needs Rilke's poem about his elusive ideal beloved in order to be more fully understood. Here is the poem. I do not list the translator, since to the best of my recollection I combined Stephen Mitchell's translation with that by Edward Snow, slightly modified by me.

 [You Who Never Arrived]

You who never arrived
in my arms, Beloved,
you who were lost from the start,
I don’t even know what songs
would please you. I have given up
trying to recognize you in the surging wave
of the next moment.  All the immense
images in me – the deeply felt
faraway landscape, cities, towers, bridges,
unsuspected turns in the path,
and those powerful lands that were once
pulsing with the life of the gods –
all rise within me to mean
you, who forever elude me.

You who are all the gardens
I have ever gazed at.
An open window in a country house –
and you almost stepped out to meet me.
Streets that I chanced upon –
you had just walked down them and vanished.
And sometimes, in a shop, the mirrors
were still dizzy with your presence and,
startled, gave back my too-sudden image.
Who knows?  Perhaps the same bird
echoed through both of us
yesterday, separate, in the evening . . .

                ~ Rainer Maria Rilke, 1875-1926


Rilke's poem presents the Magical Other who is not really out there, but only within. We suspect the speaker knows that, but doesn't wish to break the spell of waiting for this Beloved who will never come. 

In life we settle for approximations (we better settle for them if we are to have any relationships at all). Even partial soulmates can bring ecstatic joy. We believe in Rilke's longing and understand that his Beloved will never arrive, but we also nod as we read one of Rumi's best-known poems:

The moment I heard my first love story

I started looking for you,
not knowing how blind that was.

Lovers don't finally meet somewhere.
They are in each other all along. 

-- hence the feeling of recognition that new lovers often wonder at: they have just met, and yet it feels as though they have known each other for a long time. 

It could be argued that all this is delusion, and that romantic love is a mutual exchange of delusions. There is no Magical Other who will transform our life; there is no Beloved who is exactly as we imagined him or her for years. We might as well believe in Santa Claus. Disappointment is bound to follow; romantic love has to die if more mature, realistic attachment is to develop. This is certainly true of marriage: it's the victory of affection over passion. Unwillingly, we grant a good marriage more dignity than to a romantic storm not yet tested by time. Simply "being there" for another person has an enormous dignity. Ultimately, it's not about being adored; it's about not being abandoned in times of need. 

(I want to emphasize that I speak only of "good enough" marriages. Marriages conducted as warfare as a different and very sad story.)

Jungian psychologists have argued that religion has failed in the West, and the needs of the soul that used to be satisfied by religion have been transferred to romantic love, which cannot live up to such huge longings. And yet, and yet . . . someone wisely observed, "If but once you have been loved, you can never be totally unhappy." 


Religion in its usual sense may have failed in the West, but artists represent a special case of the religious impulse. Their agony and ecstasy comes from art. An earthly beloved may be very important, but ultimately art comes first. By "art" I mean not only painting, music, poetry, theater, and so on, but any creative work done with passion and at the level of excellence (at least that is the ideal). 

There is also a continuity in art, a continuity of influence. For instance, a poet finds her masters, whose words arrive in her and transform her. For me the first such great arrival was  Rilke. Rilke knew his words would live on. I think that is the meaning of his Rose epitaph, which in part inspired the poem below:

Rose, o pure contradiction:
joy, to be no one's sleep
under so many eyelids. 


Orpheus, the archetypal artist, has been the subject of countless poems, paintings, at least two operas, and even modern movies. The role of art in human life is of unending interest. By connecting us with beauty and love, art makes it easier for us to endure the dark side of life. During my worst years, I still had Rilke; I still had Mozart. 


Eurydice to Rilke
Because staying is nowhere
Your face not yet

as real as in a photograph,
your one good coat,
your pockets full of ticket stubs.

Your train is leaving soon.
The wheels groan and lurch.
I wave. You wave back,
your hand the grain of smoke.

You say the hand disappears,
only the waving waves.
When words begin to breathe,
the mouth is erased.

Everyone has his lost bride,
the beloved who never
arrived – the sleeping girl
who would not wake,

whose eyelids turned
each into an infinite rose.

Like a pietà I hold you now.
Petal by petal, your sleep
unfolds. You arrive in me.

~ Oriana



The first thing to do
is to close the eyes of the dead,
so they don’t stare like that.
We don’t want heaven,

we want life,
we don’t want oneness with All –
greeting as cosmic x and y,
without faces and arms.
It used to be more picturesque:
black sheen of a black river,
a black boat,
the dignity of twilight –

birdless, breathless air,
shadows crowding on the shore;
in their mouth, like the last word,
a coin for the ferryman.

Charon, old miser,
what did you do
with all that money
in a country with nothing to buy?
We’re told the moth blesses
the flame, the cut worm
forgives the plow.
The image of the soul

is a man walking through hell,
making music –
(and the shadows listen,
even the monsters listen;

and then follows
the memory of having been loved.)

  ~ Oriana



Thank you for the translation of Rilke. I am so grateful for translators. How else would I know what all these wonderful poets were saying. As Jane Hirshfield says I'm greedy for poems in other languages.
In your “Eurydice to Rilke” I especially like “only the waving waves.” It’s such a visual image and yet so provocative.  In “Orpheus,” my favorite lines are “black sheen of a black river, a black boat, the dignity of twilight" and “the moth blesses the flame.” Beautiful.


I knew one person who strongly opposed translating poems from other languages, not so much on the usual grounds, because the music gets lost, but because, in his view, the existing poems in any given language already said everything that poetry, with its few eternal themes, says over and over. And while there are certainly poems about spring and autumn that are not worth the hard labor that translation is, I dare say that nothing quite like Rilke's moving poem already exists in English. He expresses a universal longing, and yet does so in a unique way that merits translation. When it comes to good modern poetry, the content tends to be novel and is worth translating, even if the themes are eternal. 

I hope your "Eurydice to Rilke" has been published.  That's an amazing poem.  I especially like the ending lines:

the beloved who never
arrived – the sleeping girl
who would not wake,

whose eyelids turned
each into an infinite rose.

Like a pietà I hold you now.
Petal by petal, your sleep
unfolds. You arrive in me.

An eyelid turning into an infinite rose might seem sentimental, but then look what you do with it: you use unfolding petals for Rilke's sleep!  That's quite a transposition.


The poem has not been published. I think it might have a chance if there was a way to bypass the young preliminary readers and place the poem directly before a senior editor somewhere, someone who happens to love Rilke, and (dream on . . . ) even knows the “rose epitaph” (Rose, o pure contradiction).

Michael Peterson:

I don't think religion has failed as long as we see it as an instinctual need of the psyche (though Christianity has failed for most). In this sense it functions successfully, as you've pointed out, through the movement of the gods, such as Eros. I like Freud's idea that all psychic energy is one--hunger, sex drive, anger, religious response, etc.

The anima and animus are paradigms of the ideal man and woman and with the intensity of a cinema projector, we light up our sought after love with our own film. Rilke had a very idealized anima, and I think, Why not? But as you've implied, balance is needed – a dialog between animus and anima. This would result in coming to the point of settling into "not being abandoned," as you so eloquently express, and sagely observe.

I am not much interested in using the word delusion for this phenomenon. Projection belongs. It is part of the sacred process of understanding mutual causality, or dependent co-arising. And being the thorough-going post-modern that I am, I am no longer interested in parsing truth and its side-kick reality. In fact, I am no longer interested in using either word but prefer to speak only of experience and knowledge.


Long live experience and knowledge!

In regard to religion, I used to think that in order to have a mystical experience one had to believe in some kind of deity. Then I realized that we can experience mystical bliss without having to believe in the Trinity, or Immaculate Conception, Jesus dying for our sins, karma, reincarnation, the necessity for making a pilgrimage toMecca, or any religious dogma whatever. We only need to "step to the right," in Dr. Jill Taylor's phrase -- meaning give dominance to the right-hemisphere through image, music, rhythmic movement, or just closing our eyes and deeply relaxing, so that the chatter of the left brain falls silent.

The right temporal lobe is our "God area." This is the area of the brain involved in mystical and erotic rapture, as well as in the delight we get from harmonious music (lovers of classical music are prone to identify music with God).

I did not mean to disparage romantic love. The enlargement of personality that happens as result of falling in love is deeply rewarding, and the whole experience is certainly one of life's greatest feasts. In poetry, however, it's often the lost or absent beloved who provides the most fertile material. As Milosz observed, "the secret of poetry is distance." Paradoxically, it's the greatest secret of love poetry. 
By the way, that insight about non-abandonment as the essence of mature love came after many years and a great deal of suffering. 
As a writer and teacher, I've learned that I can never predict which statement will have the most impact. One time I gave a few poetry workshops at Folsom Prison (located in Repressa, CA). During one of the workshop, I said, as an aside, "Anger is the emotion of a victim." The inmates filled out an evaluation form, and their comments were later conveyed to me. In the space under the question, "What did you learn in this class?" most wrote something like, "Poems need to have imagery" or "Poems need to have specific details." But one prisoner wrote, "Anger is the emotion of a victim." And that was enough: it was all the reward I needed.  
Another point about lasting love, the kind that’s deep and quiet, and makes both partners blossom. I think a person needs to be “married” to something besides the spouse or beloved. I used to fall in love quickly and vehemently, and because my inner life was practically my only life, such love was too intense and overwhelming. Once I was sufficiently engaged in writing and other activities, I became less susceptible to being the storm-tossed victim of passion. So I strongly advocate being “married” to something else, so that the spouse or the beloved is not the sole source of happiness – an unbearable burden that no human should bear. 

Yet another factor is deep respect, and being non-judgmental. How long it takes us to learn to love! It’s a lifetime task.  


Interesting how the Rilke poem triggered a discussion on religion. 

So there, I say, on the great American experiment of rational religion and turning churches into social clubs, child care centers and voting machines. The only real mystery left is what Santa might be packing in his bag this year.


The Poland I grew up in was pretty much monolithically Catholic. I was extremely curious about Protestantism, so, once I was in the United States, as soon as it was possible, I went to a Protestant service. I think it was a Presbyterian church. I was burning with curiosity about this new, forbidden (at least to Catholics) way to worship God. It was terribly, terribly disappointing: bare walls, no beauty, no mystery, and yes, the atmosphere of a social club, especially afterwards, but even during the service, I thought. 

Scientists think that socializing is the best thing that churches provide -- hence the better health of church goers. I am more interested in that aspect of religion now that I have come to appreciate people more.  At seventeen I was a fierce little intellectual who craved the transcendent. No church satisfied me. This still holds true, but I wouldn't mind a harmless New Age community, if affection prevailed, beliefs being secondary, tertiary, basically unimportant. Affection is what is important. Great love has its place, once or twice in a  lifetime; it's affection that makes us strong enough to carry on, the small daily acts of affection. I have finally come to understand people's need for belonging to a family. 

(Added later) If I were to summarize this post, I would say: in order to be successfully "married" to a person in the sense of experiencing long-term love and the security of non-abandonment, be "married" to something else as well, the way we talk about the artist being married to his/her work. That might seem like a great obstacle to being truly married, but I've come to the conclusion that it's the very best thing. At the very least, be married to your own development. 


  1. It is like St. Augustine said: "restless is my heart until it rests in God" - but what is this "God" of rest? What Rilke writes about - loving every moment, every minute, loving everyone and everywhere. The Beloved will arrive in a minute because the Beloved is already here and has been here all along. The presence, if we open our eyes to it, that's the love sought by all. But we are deluded, we think a mere person may be that great, that infinite. Rilke, oh, Rilke...

  2. Somehow our brain is wired to project the divine onto a human beloved -- if only for the duration of the "in love" phase. And that's wonderful in itself, and the personality enlargement that happens when we fall in love is a priceless gift. The challenge is to continue to love someone on a realistic basis. That has more to do with friendship, deep respect, and what I call the "contract of non-abandonment" -- when you need me, I'll be there for you.

    I admit that it's only recently that I've become interested in being happy, so I have a convert's enthusiasm for that experience. It is indeed a loving mode of being. It seems to me that when we focus on making ourselves happy, we make others happy as well. And it occurs to me that those who are in love, and filled with that love, are more likely to be loving to others -- to dispense smiles and blessings effortlessly. Fortunately romantic love isn't the only source of happiness. It's beginning to strike me that trying to be happy is an ethical duty -- that's when we are our kindest "higher self."

  3. "If but once you have been loved, you can never be totally unhappy."

    Perhaps love is touching the ecstatic joy, the pleasure of meeting our Shams, the one who is us, not in manner or physical qualities but in the deepest duplication, the deepest understanding, the mirrors mentioned in many a poem of longing. I don't know if it takes the place of religion but I agree with your assessment of love's power. I have always felt, the more we can gain or regain our happiness -- the best parts of ourselves, the more we can give that love to others.

    I don't know why John Guzlowski pointed my compass in your direction. Whether it was a sense of knowing or just a hunch to expand the aesthetic waves you are aplty creating through your blog, but believe me when I say this: whenever I have traced any deepest river to its source (and these are few) it has been Rilke. It's almost heartpoundingly exciting. I turn the page, digging first into your post of Larry Levis's poem, then ensuing comments, then a dip into your own poem and the revelation and recognition of quality and then, to this page where everything unfolds in the rose's unconscious gesture.

    Rilke's French poems are amongst my favorite and one which I'll include. One I've read more than any other:

    What Survives

    Who says that all must vanish?
    Who knows, perhaps the flight
    of the bird you wound remains,
    and perhaps flowers survive
    caresses in us, in their ground.

    It isn't the gesture that lasts,
    but it dresses you again in gold
    armor --from breast to knees--
    and the battle was so pure
    an Angel wears it after you.

    Translated by A. Poulin


  4. Thank you, dear Lois, for the gift of the Rilke. And I deeply agree with what you say about the power of having been loved. Maybe that's what keeps us from committing suicide (no one has ever lacked reasons) -- this knowing that once we were loved, and we cannot absolutely preclude that we will never be loved again. And all the foolish things we feel ashamed of -- those may be the most precious in the mind of the one capable of tenderness.

    I write my posts in the spirit of "one for the Rose" -- the ever-unfolding rose being my symbol of the soul.

  5. How strange to be re-reading a fairly old post, and see how I keep circling around the same themes.

    "It isn't the gesture that lasts,
    but it dresses you again in gold"

    ~ how amazing, just those two lines, before the spoilage of "armor."

    1. Yes, how ever amazing. Just those two. Still.

  6. Yes, I like those lines very much. A gesture (which can be broadened to ritual) can lift us to a higher plane, can indeed "dress us in gold."