So I finally read “Duino Elegies”, in one sitting, on the tail end of the long holiday, a sunny afternoon in a random cafeteria. I have been reading Rilke for nearly two months now, on and off, reading different versions of translation, critics on him and on the translations, and tidbits of his life stories, mostly told in a rather unflattering light, but l’d been saving the Elegies for the last, patiently working my way up to the climax, sort of like Rilke himself waiting for the Elegies to come to him in his wandering years. Waiting, in silent repose.
I remember, as I sat there over a cup of Americano gone cold, of having this distinct sensation that rather than progressing briskly through the pages, I was sitting still, completely opening myself up and let the poem gush through me, washing away years of dust and crust, and when the bare core breathed the wintry air, I felt a shiver. A friend of mine said once that when he came to the last line of the Apollo poem for the first time, he had almost a physical reaction to it. Now I can attest to that power of Rilke’s, the power of delivering words with such intensity and directness he transformed them in something almost concrete, physical. The sensation (I don’t know if there is another less dubious word for it), more than its intensity, was surprising because of its sustainability. It’s as if your heart was all of a sudden lifted in mid-air by a big wave, and you got a glimpse of the horizon in the distance and for a moment felt the breeze on your face, the freshness and chilliness that only belong to a higher altitude, and then instead of coming down naturally with a crush you were carried higher and further away by another wave, an “uproar”. On and on it kept going, and finally when it came to the quiet proclamation: “We can go this far, this is ours…” I lifted my eyes for a moment because I felt my heart had soared to an altitude where the air was so thin, it beat like a drum but was still not drawing in enough air. I thought I’d be instantly safe again falling back into reality, but strangely what’s around me seemed so distant, so unreal. The chatter around me sounded indistinct, muted and remote, as if from the surface of the water. And the afternoon seemed empty of all meanings, people moving around in it as if floating in a timeless pit carved out from space. The reality, being there, being real, was pale in comparison. So I plunged back in, and turned the page, and realized I was only one fifth through the journey.
Later that afternoon I walked around in the shopping area as if possessed. I was not even thinking about the Elegies anymore, just bathed in the warmth of its afterglow. I had this strange sensation (again) that my senses were augmented a hundred folds, and time had slowed down to a crawl, a second was a minute long, so I could take in and examine every single detail around me: in that moment, I finally understood, became, a person on whom “nothing is lost”. I saw an unperceivable smile flickered across a girl’s face as she passed by, looking into the distance, apparently suddenly thought of something mildly funny. I saw a man across the street smoking while examining a stem of rose he was holding in his hand, hesitantly, as if trying to decide if it’s made of silk or plastic. I saw cars inched along the single lane and I saw the invisible faces inside frowning slightly. And I saw every light on the street, behind the windows, in people’s hands, light, in all their shapes and colors, flowing into the air and mixing into a winter night intimately lit.
And lights came on. Along the street there were young men and women selling roses, their faces growing faintly red from the cold, like a scene from a movie loosely based on a Dickens novel. It occurred to me that it was February the 14th. This being a hub for bars and restaurants of the city, the street lights were doing their best for the occasion. The trees that sandwich the sidewalk were each wrapped up by decorative lights, so meticulously going up and down the trunks and branches to preserve their individual shape and stance, and underneath them the young vendors looked angelic, with roses and smiles both of which I wanted to believe were genuine.
It was then the curious wintry hour when it was completely dark but still a bit early for dinner, so I walked into a Page One store. On the promotional desk near the entrance I saw a new edition of “On the Road”, on the sleeve it says “NOW A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE”. I pondered over this a bit. I understood that yet another book was made into a movie, but who made the call of it being major? Given my meager literature talent, maybe one day I’ll finally write a book that says “NOW A B-MOVIE”. And really that is what separates us, the magnitude. And the sensation of being wrapped in a protecting veil, if it can be called that, eventually started to wear off as I moved around the mountains of obscure books. So I stepped out into the street again, I sensed time flowing at a normal speed again, and I heard the the clatter at its due decibels. In the festively-lit street I felt the imminent darkness expanding inside of me as the ember died down. I knew it would hit me, and I was just grateful it lasted this long. Yes, I had gone this far, from the coffee shop to the book store, a whole three blocks of blissful half-awareness, and internally, a light year. In this late afternoon/early evening of winter, I had made a giant leap into the air, and after I gradually came down by gravity, my existence had already been expanded by an amazing extent. I sensed the distance, I Knew. Isn’t “not knowing” the major bane of existence? “I don’t know my destination,” Tennessee Williams said, “but I’m trying to follow the right direction. I’m more faithful than I intended to be.” Like fireflies we dash in total darkness, but every now and then, when we mustered enough warmth and there comes a sparkle, being a song, a poem or a pretty face, we light up from inside and for a short moment we ourselves become a source of illumination, people around us see it, or not, but it attests the moments we experience of our beings. Even after the light burns out, for a while the trace of light path lingers, evidencing the short distance of past where we came from. Then we turn around and brace the cloaking darkness again, trying to continue on the direction the best we can. Along the way we chance upon other sources of light, for the whole last month I saw Larkin flickering alongside of me like a will-o’-the-wisp, “an indigestible sterility”. It’s beautiful in its own way, eerie, ethereal, giving me the comforting thoughts that I am not the only one heading in that direction. But too many, too many, I’ve seen too many of these phosphorescent lights they start to creep me out. Everywhere you look there they are, Raymond Carver, Charlie Kaufman, Paris Review, New Yorker, I begin to feel I’m flying in a vast cemetery among insatiable ghosts. And of course there are Samuel Beckett, T.S. Eliot, and even Emily Dickinson, who like aurora hanging at the far end of the boundless pit, far and away from the maddening crowd. Their lights are grand and strong, blue and green and ever shifting; but they are also cold and distant, the closest thing to the terrible angels Rilke envisioned: even though they forever beckon you near like sirens, you know going that direction is terminal. They are departed prophets, whose voices still remained with the human race they have already abandoned. Your own existence screams “away, away” as you fight the innate urge to turn your head for another fatal look.
But suddenly there is the Elegies, a bonfire that burns unyielding in the distance, just the sight of it promises unbounded warmth. You look at the faint light you harbor inside yourself and wonder who it is so: that kind of intensity and sustainability has to be divine. But he promises, “We can go this far. This is Ours.” Even when he talks about our failure, his voice is filled with bravery:
“We are not in harmony, our blood does not forewarn us
like migratory birds’. Late, overtaken,
we force ourselves abruptly onto the wind
and fall to earth at some iced-over lake.”
This aimless flight in the darkness, felt forced upon us all along, is out of our own volition after all. In the end, we still might not have a choice, but it is because we have to force ourselves onto the wind, not because we have to negotiate the wind whichever way it blows since we are already in it. What is our real nature? When Larkin ruefully states “those [spring] has least use for see her best”, Rilke claims “Yes—the springtimes needed you.” When Larkin looks out from the shore and sees a “proud unfruitful sea”, Rilke see “a wave rolled toward you out of the distant past.” In the end, I might take my dwelling in this endless darkness besides Larkin, but I would rest with the thoughts that somewhere down the line, it’s time for “this most ancient of sufferings finally grow more fruitful for us.”