Angels to Radios: On Rainer Maria Rilke
The Book of Hours, Snow argues, attempted things that had never been done before in German poetry: "It opened up whole new lyric possibilities for saying 'I' and 'You.'" A literal reading would map "I" onto the persona of the monk, "You" onto God. But "I" doesn't really know what he is ("am I a falcon, a storm/or a sovereign song?"), and "You" may also (sometimes) be Andreas-Salomé. If "the day" in the artist's hands is "malleable," so is identity itself. When "I" swaps places with the unresponsive Creator ("What will you do, God, when I die?"), the reader still feels the shock of the unexpected. Snow remarks that The Book of Hours is defined by its voice, "untethered from both the person writing it and the person speaking it," and locates the creation of this voice at the moment when Rilke decided to cut a series of narrative glosses (much like those of Dante's Vita nuova) that accompanied the original draft. Stripped of that prose scaffold, wherein the monk had a name ("Apostol"), the poems became what we think of as Rilkean: "untethered" from any particular person. And in the fictive character, Apostol the monk/maker, one can hear intimations of the poet's mature oracular voice.
In Ovid's Metamorphoses--a sacred text for Rilke--persons become objects or animals. In Rilke's transformations, objects become animated, not with human consciousness but with a mutable transpersonal consciousness that is amazed at sheer existence; the amazement is frequently mingled with terror. In "The Rose Window," from New Poems (1907), a signature feature of cathedral architecture is imagined as a dilating eye, sucking one's gaze upward into divine belief, in a total loss of will. The same action, a dilating pupil, also draws in the observer of a panther in the zoo. That famous poem offers circle inside circle capturing contradictory qualia: enclosure and endlessness, perpetual motion and paralysis:
His gaze has from the passing of the bars
become so tired that it holds nothing anymore.
It seems to him there are a thousand bars
and behind a thousand bars no world.
The supple pace of powerful soft strides,
turning in the very smallest circle,
is like a dance of strength around a center
in which a mighty will stands numbed.
The panther, one Rilke actually observed in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, is incapable of attack, but the observer is consumed by its gaze--and vanishes into the heart of mystery.
Radiating outward and being closed in: to oscillate between these antipodes is a recurring state in New Poems, where Rilke envisions "heavens that closed nowhere" ("Tombs of the Hetaerae") and takes us, frame by frame, through the process of roses opening ("The Bowl of Roses"). Two longer poems, "Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes" and "Birth of Venus," are the apotheosis of these contradictory movements: in the former, a woman cannot escape the enclosure of the underworld, and in the latter a woman bursts from a cloven sea into the open. The paradoxical trope continues in New Poems: The Other Part (1908), where existence is so naked that "there is no place/that does not see you" ("Archaic Torso of Apollo") and yet where, in "Buddha in Glory," "all this world out to the farthest stars/is the flesh around your seed."
Rilke had been fascinated by the formal conundrum of enclosure and freedom at least since his tenure as Auguste Rodin's assistant. In 1902 the poet was commissioned to write a monograph on the great sculptor. Exhilarated by his visit to Rodin's studio, where fragments of the massive Gates of Hell met him in the courtyard, he entered into the older man's employ and observed the rules of genius--the first of which was not to wait for inspiration. Rilke, whose fame thrives on the legend of his creative outbursts and angelic dictation, learned from Rodin that daily labor is necessary preparation for the moment of insight. He also learned that art is about the struggle with materials. Yet how does one make an analogy between sculpture and poetry? Sculpture has mass; language is mere air. As William Gass, a devotee of Rilke, remarks in his essay "Rilke's Rodin," "All of us have emotions urgently seeking release, and many of us have opinions we think would do the world some good, however the poet must also be a maker, as the Greeks maintained, and, like the sculptor, like every other artist, should aim at adding real beings to the world, beings fully realized."
But how can "beings fully realized" be fashioned from language? It was this question that provoked Rilke to delve more deeply into his subjects, to release the invisible being in them the way Michelangelo "freed" the angel in the stone by carving. Though they are known as his "thing-poems," what is original about them is that their still lifes are dynamic; it's as if Rilke translates the seemingly random movement of their atoms. In "Archaic Torso of Apollo" the torso "burns," the gaze "holds fast and shines," the breast is a "surge," the slightly twisting loins make a "smile." And if still lifes are dynamic, conversely, living beings are captured in states of arrest, or extracted from the general buzz of life and held up like rare objects, apotheoses of inwardness, by the connoisseur-poet. In straining against naturalism and creating crossings between the animate and inanimate, Rilke demonstrated that language can appear to free a hidden being in an object that has acquired its own freestanding splendor, separate from authorial ego and what Gass calls "a message in a bottle" or "feelings raised like a flag." These crossings are not descriptions but enactments of form coming to enclose as the chisel comes to liberate--two motions that are essentially one in the imagination.