It must be going on 50 years ago when I first read anything by Rilke, sometime in my late teens or early twenties. The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge and selected poems. I didn’t understand him at the time and it made no great impression. It was only many years later that I rediscovered his works – and then, having arrived at a different understanding of my own life – and life in general – it left me thunderstruck. And still does. His poetry – and I can think of no other voice than his that does so in such a convincing way – manages to depict the reality of an inner, ephemeral world that is a true reality. He doesn’t look at things and describe them. He shows us the meaning behind the appearances. Lacking his gift, my attempt to describe what I see in his words falters, but it has something to do with the realization that nothing we perceive reflects reality. That is an evident fact, although one that is all too easily forgotten. Nothing we perceive through our senses is the real thing, because it all comes to us as a translation. We only see what our brain interprets from the signals that arrive from the outside. Other than indirectly, we cannot perceive the swirls of energy and particles that surround us, fill the world with energy, and are the foundation of our being. Other than Rilke, there is, perhaps, William Blake, who wrote “How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way, Is an immense world of delight, clos’d by your senses five?” but, somehow, Blake’s strange imagery never spoke to me, nor does he, to my mind, hit that invisible mark so consistently as to reveal its secrets.
Rilke’s poems sing to me and I’ve set many of them to music. My favorite of many volumes is “The Poetry of Rilke” as translated and edited by Edward Snow. It was working from that volume that I composed my cycles of Rilke Songs, Songs of Loss and Remembering and selections from the Sonnets of Orpheus, not daring to attempt the Duino Elegies (maybe one day).
But the Snow edition only includes his poetry in German and it was only recently that I’ve begun devouring his French poems, having not previously realized that, after descending from the mountain of the Duino Elegies and the Sonnets to Orpheus, he wrote over four hundred poems in French. I am now threading my way through the labyrinth of “The Complete French Poems” as translated by A. Poulin. The volume begins with “Les Roses” in which, over the course of 27 poems, he explodes the image of the rose into a metaphor for, well, everything. Worlds lie within the folds of this many-petaled flower. Yesterday, I set the 2nd poem to music –
Je te vois, rose, livre entrebaîllé,
qui contient tant de pages
de bonheur détaillé
qu’on ne lira jamais. Livre-mage,
qui s’ouvre au vent et qui peut être lu
les yeux fermés…,
dont les papillons sortent confus
d’avoir eu les mêmes idées.
Such images, of petals like pages in a book of wisdom, opened by the wind, out of which emerge stunned butterflies…
More songs to come, but I haven’t yet decided on the instrumentation. Any of you out there who sing – and want to sing these songs to come – write back.
Then, after roses, come windows!