Wednesday, April 22, 2009

R. M. Rilke: The Second Elegy

Every angel's terrifying. Almost deadly birds
of my soul, I know what you are, but, oh,
I still sing to you! What happened to the days of Tobias
when one of you stood in a simple doorway, partly
disguised for the trip, radiant, no longer appalling;
(a young man to the young man as he looked out amazed).
If the archangel, the dangerous one behind the stars,
took just one step down toward us today: the quicker
pounding of our heart would kill us. Who are you?

Fortunate first ones, creation's pampered darlings,
ranges, mountain tops, morning-red ridges
of all Beginning - seed of a blossoming god,
hinges of light, hallways, stairways, thrones,
spaces of being, force fields of ecstasy, storms
of unchecked rapture, and suddenly, separate,
mirrors: each drawing its own widespread
streaming beauty back into its face.

But we: we vanish in our feelings. Oh, we breathe
ourselves out, and out; our smell dissolves
from ember to ember. It's true, someone may tell us:
"You're in my blood, this room, Spring floods
with you ... " What good is it? He can't hold us.
We vanish in him and around him. And the beautiful,
oh, who can hold them back? Some look is always rising
in their faces, and falling. Like dew on new grass,
like heat from a steaming dish, everything we are rises
away from us. 0 smile, where are you going?
O upturned look: new, warm, the heart's receding wave –
it hurts me, but that's what we are. Does the cosmic
space we dissolve into taste of us, then? Do angels
really absorb only what poured out of them,
or sometimes, as if by mistake, is there a trace
of us, too? Do the contours of their features bear
as much of us as that vague look on a pregnant woman's
face? Unnoticed by them in their whirling back
into themselves. (Why should they notice.)

If they were understood, lovers might say marvelous
things in the night air. Because it seems everything
wants to camouflage us. Look, trees exist;
the houses we live in still hold up. But we
pass by all of it like an exchange of breath.
Everything conspires to ignore us, half out of shame,
perhaps, half out of some speechless hope.

Lovers, satisfied with each other, I'm asking you
about us. You hold each other. What's your proof?
Look, sometimes it happens my hands become aware
of each other, or my worn out face seeks shelter
in them. Then I feel a slight sensation.
But who'd dare to exist just for that?
Yet you, who grow in the other's ecstasy
until he's overcome and begs: "No more!'”;
you, who in one another's hands grow
more abundant like grapes in a vintage year;
you, who sometimes disappear, but only when the other
takes over completely, I'm asking you about us.
I know why you touch each other so ecstatically:
that touch lasts. That place you cover with such
tenderness doesn't vanish, because you feel a pure
duration there. In your embrace you almost find
the promise of eternity. And yet, when you've survived
the fear of that first look, the longing at the window,
and that first walk in the garden, once: lovers,
are you still the same? When you lift yourselves
up to each other's lips and begin, drink for drink -
oh how strangely the drinker then slips from the role.

Didn't the caution of human gestures on Attic steles
amaze you? Weren't love and separation placed
on those shoulders so lightly they seemed made
of other stuff than we are? Remember the hands:
despite the power in the torso, they lie weightless.
The self-controlled knew this: we can only go this far.
All we can do is touch one another like this. The gods
can press down harder on us, but that's the gods' affair.

If only we could find something pure, contained,
narrow, human - our own small strip of orchard
between river and rock. For our heart rises
out of us as it did out of the others. And we can't
follow it any longer into figures that tame it, or
into godlike bodies where it finds a greater mastery.

Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegies and the Sonnets to Orpheus,
translated by A. Poulin, Jr., with a forward by Mark Doty,
A Mariner Book / Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005

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