Sunday, February 13, 2011

Rilke: The Second Elegy

Every angel is terrifying. And yet, alas,
I sing to you, almost fatal birds of the soul,
knowing what you are. "Where are the days of Tobias,
when one of your most radiant stood at that simple doorway,
dressed for travel and no longer frightening
(to the youth who peered out curiously, a youth like him).
Were the archangel now to emerge from behind the stars
and take just one downward step this way:
our own thundering hearts would slay us. Who are you?

Favored first prodigies, creation's darlings, 
mountain ranges, peaks, dawn-red ridges 
of all genesis,—pollen of a flowering godhead, 
links of light, corridors, stairs, thrones, 
spaces of being, shields of rapture, torrents 
of unchecked feeling and then suddenly, singly, 
mirrors: scooping their outstreamed beauty 
back into their peerless faces.

For our part, when we feel, we evaporate; ah, we breathe
ourselves out and away; with each new heartfire
we give off a fainter scent. True, someone may tell us:
you're in my blood, this room, Spring itself
is filled with you ... To what end? He can't hold us,
we vanish within him and around him. And the beautiful ones,
ah, who holds them back? Appearance ceaselessly
flares in their faces and disappears. Like dew from the morning grass
what is ours rises from us, the way heat rises
from a steaming dish. O smile, going where? O upturned look:
new, warm, receding surge of the heart—;
alas, we are that surge. Does then the cosmic space
we dissolve in taste of us? Do the angels
reclaim only what is theirs, their own outstreamed essence,
or sometimes, by accident, does a bit of us
get mixed in? Are we blended in their features
like the slight vagueness that complicates the looks
of pregnant women? Unnoticed by them in their
whirling back into themselves. (How could they notice?)

Lovers, if they only understood, might speak wondrously
in the night air. For everything, it seems,
seeks to conceal us. Look: the trees exist, the houses
we dwell in stand there stalwartly. Only we.
pass by it all, like a rush of air.
And everything conspires to keep quiet about us,
half out of shame perhaps, half out of some secret hope.

You lovers, secure in one another, I ask you
about us. You hold each other. Have you assurances?
It sometimes happens that my hands
grow conscious of each other, or else my weary face
takes refuge in them. That gives me a slight
self-sensation. Yet who, from something so unwarranted,
would dare conclude, "I am"? You, though, who keep increasing
through the other's rapture, until, overwhelmed, each
begs the other: "No more"—; you who amid each other's hands
flourish like vines in vintage years;
you who disappear sometimes, only because the other
grows rampant; I ask you about us. I know
you touch so fervently because the caress preserves,
because the place you cover up, O tender ones,
doesn't disappear; because, underneath, you feel
pure permanence. Thus your embraces almost promise you
eternity. And yet, after you survive the terror
of the first look, and the long yearning at the window,
and that first walk-—the one walk-—-together through the garden:
lovers, are you still the same? When you lift yourselves
each to the other's lips—drink unto drink:
O how strangely the drinker slips from the sacrament.

Remember those Attic stelae, how amazed you were at the caution
of human gestures; at the way love and parting were
laid so lightly on their shoulders, as if made of other stuff
than in our lives? And their hands, how they touched
without pressure, even though such power resides in the torsos.
Those self-mastered ones knew: we can go this far;
this much belongs to us, to touch each other thus; the gods
can grip us more forcefully. The choice is theirs.

If only we too could find some defined, narrow, 
purely human place, our own small strip of fertile soil 
between stream and stone. For even now our heart 
transcends us, just as with those others. And no longer 
can we gaze after it into pictures that soothe, or 
into godlike bodies where it finds a grander restraint.

Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegies, translated by Edward 
Snow, North Point Press, New York, 2000

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