Saturday, December 20, 2014
RILKE: IF DRINKING’S BITTER, TURN INTO WINE
Silent friend of many distances,
feel how your breath still enlarges space.
Let your presence in the belfry of the night
ring out like a a bell. What feeds on your face
grows strong from the nourishment.
Move back and forth into transformation.
What is the deepest loss that you have suffered?
If drinking’s bitter, turn into wine.
In this uncontainable darkness, be the mystery
and the power at the crossroads of your senses.
Be the meaning of their strange encounter.
If the world no longer knows your name,
to the motionless earth say: I flow.
To the rushing water speak: I am.
~ Rilke, Sonnet 29, Sonnets to Orpheus, Part II
In her free translation, Joanna Macy simplifies certain lines in a way I like — especially these:
Let this darkness be a bell tower
and you the bell. As you ring,
what batters you becomes your strength.
~ but this inverts Rilke’s meaning: what feeds on you grows strong. The dead feed the world; they even enlarge space.
The speaker is instructing Vera, the dead young girl who was going to be a dancer until leukemia cut short the thread of her fate (foreshadowing Rilke’s own illness, still unknown to him). Knowing this makes “what feeds upon your face” more literal than we can bear, but we must think more broadly — perhaps in terms of Heidegger’s “Being.” All of existence feeds on what the dead offer, in all possible ways. They are the “friend of many distances.” They touch every shore. “They have connections everywhere,” as my mother learned in a dream about her dead mother.
I confess I was tempted to commit infidelity to Rilke’s text. The first line is literally, “Silent friend of many distances.” It’s easy to see that by uniting with nature the dead become part of “many distances.” But one translator made it “Silent friend who has come so far.” It’s more human and endearing. The word “distances” keeps the vanished girl literally at a distance. And yet, and yet . . .
I also confess that “Silent friend of many distances” is how I continue to name this poem to myself. In part it’s habit. But also, since it’s the last of the Sonnets of Orpheus, I’ve come to see Rilke as my own “friend of many distances.” The encounter with his work changed my life, showing me what poetry was. Above all, it taught me seriousness.
This is a strange and astonishing comfort poem. Our having been here on earth doesn’t go to waste, Rilke seems to be saying. We become the nourishment for what exists after us. Our breath “still enlarges space.”
At the same time, we must remember that Vera is only a pretext for composing this poem. She can't hear or feel anything. Like all poems, this is a poem for the living. We are the ones who should feel at ease with transformation. We are the ones who need the rise to the challenge of the question: “What is the deepest loss that you have suffered?” And once we have the answer, how do we transform the loss from bitterness into wine?
For me the answer has always been ambiguous. Arguably no loss is as great as the loss of one’s homeland, language, and culture. However I imagine what my life might have been, the only certainty that seems to shine through the cloud of unknowing is the knowledge (perhaps false) that I would have been happier if I had stayed in Poland. Here should follow a long list of explanations, which would be of little interest to the reader. Let me just say that no one can know the pleasure of speaking in one’s native tongue unless that daily ease and perfection are lost.
I can turn this loss into wine if I think of my poems in English as having sufficient value to outweigh my suffering. I might still have become a poet had I stayed, but I’d write as a different person. I was very drawn to Polish language poetry, and had a gift for transforming words in a playful way. At its very best, language poetry can have a mysterious depth; for the most part, though, it evades seriousness.
Would I have ever encountered Rilke? Most likely I’d have chosen French rather than German, and not likely strayed into a class on modern German poetry. Of course it’s impossible to know. Maybe an encounter with Baudelaire would have been sufficient to teach me seriousness. How much in our lives is sheer chance . . .
Mostly likely I’d have had at least one child, and that brings up the question of losses and gains. Here the cloud of unknowing thickens. It is possible that preoccupied with professional work and family life, I would have not had the time for developing as poet.
So ultimately my “turning into wine” turns back to what it always was: the enlargement and friction caused by dealing with another culture formed me into the kind of poet and a writer that I’ve become. And now that the worst suffering is over, now that I mostly feel happy — yes, perhaps it’s been worth it. Perhaps.
I can never know with any certainty. But to live a life of regret is to lose the miraculous gift of existing at all. While the poem is about loss, what I have gained is remembering the beauty of the streets and the lilacs. The lilacs now bloom in my mind.
EVERY SPRING I REMEMBERED LILACS
sweet sticky purple mouths
kissing me back after rain –
not barren peach blooms
fevering Los Angeles.
I could count what I had
on my fingers: one table,
three chairs, twice-a-year love life,
ten cents above the minimum wage.
I should have never left Warsaw –
that pavement ticking with anger,
those clouds like billowing archangels.
I should have married the green-eyed
motorcycle rider I met in Mazurian woods –
we were married by the wild swans
that whooshed over our heads –
I should have had my Janusz and Danuta,
taught them the leafy legends of their names.
Each morning I’d open the balcony,
gauze curtain like a shining wind.
I tried to check myself, imagining
my husband would have an affair
with a woman dentist, a neighbor
watch soccer full-blast on TV –
and I, like a character in Chekhov,
above a river of lilacs,
would wander through atlases and whisper
the ecstasy of foreign vowels.
But the long street called Childhood
is not on any city map. And yet
every spring I remember lilacs,
chill droplets of rain I’d kiss
from the brief, boundless blossoms –
my heart calm before sorrow,
my face pressed into flowers,
mouth grazing clusters of moist stars.
~ Oriana © 2014