Which of the angels (Duino Elegy #1)

(Rainer Maria Rilke: Duineser Elegien – Kapitel 1)

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And say I screamed aloud, let it all out —
Which of the angels, orderly and chaste,
Would even hear? And say one did, what then?
Say one broke ranks, took me in its embrace—
I’d be undone, as surely as a matchstick thrust into the sun.
Such beauty, unrelieved, could wreck our minds.
It’s why we worship them. Still, every angel terrifies.

And so I hold myself together: never cry,
Swallow my sobs before they have a chance to rise.
Anyway, who’d sympathize? Not Angels; people, no;
Nor yet the clever animals, who realize
That we’re beyond their help, we think too much to be
At home here in their world. What’s there
To cling too, then? — perhaps that solitary tree
Perched on the hillside, that we see day in, day out?
Maybe that street we walked down yesterday; maybe
A comfortable habit that wears us the way we’d wear
A favorite shirt threadbare — perhaps we can rely on these?

But then Night comes on — like a wind from space
Slapping and chafing the faces we display,
Night comes — and always slightly disappoints — but stays;
Before whom each must stand with downcast gaze.
Loners, lovers, we share a common fate.

Now do you understand? Then throw your two arms wide,
And fling the empty space, that fills you, to the sky!
– the while imagining the birds in flight
Buoyed up, and up, on the expanding air!

The springtime itself needed you. Also, the stars –
They twinkled when you noticed them.
Oh, and that wave — remember it? —
That heaved up from the ocean toward you, long ago?
And then the time you passed the open window,
And the violin shuddered its strings
And sang to you alone… It’s what those things
Were meant to do. But did you take it in?
Weren’t you rather waiting, always waiting, waiting
As if for your one true love to come? (Yet — had she come,
Could you have hidden from her those strange thoughts
That wracked your sleep, then haunted you by day?)
Do you long so for love? Well, then,
Extol the star-crossed lovers, surely they
Could stand to be a bit more recognized;
Yes, sing the lovelorn, whom you find
So much more satisfactory than the satisfied;
But think on this ere you begin
The usual lamentation: that heroes strive and die
To earn the right of being born a second time;
When lovers fade, it’s because Nature’s done with them:
They’re all used up, the sap’s dried in their veins,
They’re good for nothing. Gaspara Stampa—
You remember her? Then you’ll recall
How many young girls, jilted, thought she was the all-in-all,
Thought: “Now, like dear Gaspara, I have lived!” And there:
Isn’t that wisdom, of its sort? Shouldn’t such pain
Be put to use? It’s high time we, who suffer so for love,
Got free of any one particular beloved. For, you know,
You don’t see arrows cleaving to the bow
That sends them forth:
To stay put is — of course — to go nowhere.

These voices, voices — Oh, my heart! Would you could hear
As the saints heard — who, being called, were taken up
Still kneeling, raised bodily to heaven
But all the while so intent on their listening
They knew not they were taken. Not that you,
My own un-saintly heart, could thus endure the voice of God.
It’s just that – listen! There’s that sound! It rises
Out of silence, never ending; it’s speaking yet,
With all the tender voices of the newly dead.
Hear, how they call to you, my heart!
As in that quiet church in Naples,
Or the chapel once in Rome —
As in those words carved in the stones
Of Sant’ Formosa, where the voices spoke before;
They’re speaking; can you hear? My heart!
Are not they clear? And thus they bid me: that I must
Absolve the dead, remit the sin that clings
To them like cobwebs, hinders them like dust.

So strange not to inhabit the world anymore,
And to abandon customs barely learned;
Not to read omens in a rose’s blossoming,
Nor hope, nor anything else of that sort;
Not to be what one was, back when everything
Seemed infinitely fragile; yes, even
To lay aside one’s own name like a broken toy.
Strange, to be a stranger to desire; strange,
To see each thing that seemed to matter so, cast loose
To flutter away in the wind. And also, death
Is tedious: one dithers, hems and haws,
Before accepting that this is — as it is — eternity.
The living are mistaken if they think death’s not about the same
As life. Indeed, the Angels (so I’ve heard) can hardly say
If they’re among the living or the dead, since the same tide
Sweeps them the same; rocks them the same;
And drowns them all the same.

At last they have no need of us, these too-soon-dead.
They wean themselves from worldly things,
Just as a child outgrows its mother’s breast.
But we, who need a sense of Mystery —
We, for whom grief sometimes shows the forward path —
We need them—how else could we get along?
Here’s no vain tale: when god-like Linos — best
Of all men living — died,
And when the mourners came to cry him to his rest—
Then Music filled the emptiness he’d left:
Shivered the dying land, shocked space,
As it entered the world for the first time,
Then, as ever after, to enrapture us; enfold us; give us aid.

 

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You will never be able to

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“The dancers themselves are careful not to disturb the trance subjects while their souls are in the spirit world.”

James Mooney, The Ghost Dance Religion and Wounded Knee (Characteristics of the Dance)

You will never be able to strip away the spirits of the dead from the living.

As well try to use a net to carry smoke
As well try to remove the destination from the road
As well try to pull a single strand from a spider’s web

You will never be able to strip away the spirits of the dead from the living.

See where bright motes are dancing in the spring air
And you have parked your car on the sand near the ocean
The ocean rises and eats the land
The land rises up out of the ocean again

You will never be able to strip away the spirits of the dead from the living.

Somewhere a single flower has sprung up suddenly in a meadow already full of flowers
Somewhere a star is burning the universe
Somewhere the body of a red-winged blackbird is being disassembled by ants
Somewhere a girl plucks a single flower and discards it

You will never be able to strip away the spirits of the dead from the living.

You have tried to make your song without any singing
You have tried to make your dance without any dancers
But now Spider Woman is making her web again

You will never be able to strip away the spirits of the dead from the living.
You will never be able to strip away the spirits of the dead from the living.
You will never be able to strip away the spirits of the dead from the living.

 

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Paris was fine

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Paris was fine,
though the girls stared at us
whenever we took the bus,
and the bus we boarded
was never going to our destination.
(Paris was fine,
and then we left it)
and haven’t thought of it once since then.
Until today
Paris was just fine.
But today there were
these girls on the bus
who cast knowing glances at me
all the way, who giggled and
who as they got off
spoke loudly to each other
in a language I didn’t understand;
who left me on a bus
that wasn’t going to my destination.

 

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The Dead

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In this dance with the spirits of the dead, no formal dress is worn.
All ornaments are cast off in the dance, no drum
Or rattle is used, nor is any other instrument required.
She has been at it since yesterday morning,

Look, now it is full midnight, look, now another morning has come!
Surely she is dancing with the spirits of the dead
Surely she is dancing with the dead who never grow tired
Surely she is dancing this morning with the spirits of the dead!

 

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Puella Mea

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she was a marble
she was a plate
a bowl of stars covered her
a moon danced for her and her alone
she was a womb
she was a grocery store
her children loved her
her children wrote graffiti on the walls of her house
she was whimsical
she took her time
the wind blew across her
the unrelieved desert sun drove her to despair
she took her lumps
she was excessive at times
she wasn’t going anywhere
she doesn’t care what you think about it

 

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Scylla and after

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Εὐρύλοχος:

… and said, “Trust me so all ends well!”
So we prepared to follow, yet again, Himself.
Turned out he was no wiser head, who, wanting but support,
Would steer us safely through the strait.
We hesitated once, though, I recall

And might have done any of three things, then:
The first thing, or the second one,
Or else what finally we did, which now
At least we can rule out
As an effective plan.

We could have fled; we could have gone
A longer way around; or else we could have done
What, as I said, we did, which was
To follow orders, rise above,
Pull oars, and carry on —

Only to see our best snatched, one by one,
To die in horror as their ship raced on.
Now, his crew starved and marooned,
Captain Nobody gone off to commune
With some god or another, what’s there to be done?

These farting cattle, said to be the Sun’s,
Grow fat as we grow leaner — come!
Has any sign we’ve had yet been this clear?
Men live on beef, not prayers.
Then let us do what’s clearly to be done.

***

Their Captain slumbering in the hills, his men
Put flint to iron, steak knives to the hone;
Meanwhile the gods, as ever fanciful and grim,
Brush up on animating carrion,
Seeing (they always see) what’s to be done.

 

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The Poet’s Progress (from the Old English)

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Word-whip went under world-hearth
Worm-pullers gave turf-warnings
Traveled he the truck-river
Till body-boats grew blistered
Yeast-sweat he yearned for
Work-markers sore missed.

 

Free translation:

The poet went out on a sunny day.
Birds were singing.
He walked down the street
Until his feet were sore.
He wanted a beer,
But had no money.

Blame NaPoWriMo.net, whence I was urged to write “a kenning poem. Kennings were riddle-like metaphors used in the Norse sagas; basically, ways of calling something not by its actual name, but by a sort of off-kilter description.”

Image: Beer Cap, by Jim Titulaer,  published under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) license.

The Art of Verse, a Progress

devilWe didn’t talk funny once upon a time
The way the kids do now
We spoke in even meter, perfect rhyme,
Made sense to sentence bow.

We knew a careless word might be the bell
That rang a god awake –
To what end, none could ever quite foretell;
A chance, then, not to take.

But careless we grew
and after a time, unsure what to do
or say, how, or to who
And latterly the language is grown askew.

And now, look. The gods awoke, all right,
and drank and danced and sang.
The gods went out, stayed out all night
wouldn’t go back to where they came.

They’re out carousing now no doubt.
Oh hell, oh where’ve they gone?

And what have we to say for ourselves
anymore? Nothing, and more
nothing, the Devil’s taken the words,

Oh what were we talking about again?
Oh when did we lose track?
It’s too late to take care,
We’ve gained something
and we can’t get it back.

 

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