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On a sunny day I would argue that the first 46 pages of William Gass’s Reading Rilke: Reflections of the Problems of Translation, which outlines the major themes of Rilke’s art and gives a nice summation of his life, as well as a number of poems by the master, is as essential as reading Rilke himself. It’s not exactly critical biography and not by any means hagiography–it is prose, by turns heavy and lumbering/light and lucid, but always lyrical, startling and stunning in grandiose swaths of Gass consonance (Gass consciousness).

Certainly the most influential poet of our time (possibly the most influential writer too) deserves such a tome. Gass’s glorious sentences about a usually stolid topic, theme (Rilke’s), are exemplified early on:

…the significance of the rose, the mirror, the unicorn, the puppet, the fountain, or the pathos (as for Poe) of the death of a young woman; his increasing “belief” in animism (that all things, as well as the parts of all things, are filled with life); the notion that we grow our death inside us like a talent or a tumor; that we are here to realize the world, to raise it, like Lazarus, from its sullen numbness into consciousness; that differences are never absolute, but that everything (life and death, for instance) lies on a continuum, as colors do; that we are strangers in a world of strangers; that simple people have a deeper understanding of their existence than most, and an insight into the secret rhythms of nature. These themes are like tides that rise and fall inside him, as if he were just their bay and receptive shoreline.   p. 9

On the subway I reread the sections of Rilke’s troubled, unsettled existence. Tears powered out my eyes as I found my own mirror and poised the book to cover my public face, while secretly chanting McCarthy’s (via Wordsworth) “the child the father of man” to terrify myself into thinking we are ancestors all. Nonetheless a sweet connection. And if Rilke or Apollo’s Torso could tell me, “You must change your life,” Gass adds, “This is how he changed his.” Here is a recounting of Rilke at an artist’s colony near Bremen, a place rich in roses:

Blooms, as Rilke knew, are all business; they exist for butterflies and bees, but only incidentally for us, for whom flowers are fortuitous. Autumn’s hues are even more serendipital; the function of the leaves has been fulfilled, so they are discarded, they are finished, and their colors are the result of useless residues. The beauty of the world happens only in our eye; even the allure of women is as utilitarian as a wagon’s wheel.   p. 20

Nature, art, looking, love. This is Rilke. But love is that slippery subject and Gass interjects his own philosophy when talking of it–sentences that turned my tears to stone:

Ich liebe dich. No sentence pronounced by a judge could be more threatening. It means that you are about to receive a gift you may not want. It means that someone is making it very easy for you to injure them–if they are not making it inevitable–and in that way controlling your behavior. It means that someone wants you as an adjunct to their life. It means that they can survive, like mistletoe or moss, only on the side where the rib was removed. It means that one way or other they intend to own you.  p. 23

Can it be said that no one wants to be told what their love means? This is an admittedly harsh view of the joyful disorder and his pissy and punchy claims will never land him a position as a couples counselor. But perhaps it’s easier to hear such claims in posey and a few pages later he softens to say (and echo and alter the Bard), “…love alters its lovers even as they love, so that their love is also altered and the next kiss comes from a different mouth and is pressed to a different breast.” p. 28


Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

It seems the wonder of literature is how often it echoes. Lines can touch because we have heard them played before in a different key. They have been handed down and cry out to be used and reused. Gass and the Bard are not saying exactly the same thing, but they get at a common sensation, love’s fear of love, harkening Rilke’s swirls and swerves portraying lovers and how they embrace, dare and yield in the Duino Elegies. Love, and it’s understanding, drips through this book–love of nature, love of one’s friend, love of one’s art (an art for Rilke all about seeing).

“To see” means to taste and thereby to “dance the orange,” to touch and feel at one’s finger end a little eternity, to smell ourselves cloud like steam from a warm cup, to hear voices, to listen so intensely you rise straight from the ground.       p. 41  NOTE: “dance the orange” is from number 15 of the Sonnets to Orpheus

As Rilke’s best art (The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, The Duino Elegies, his letters) carries inside declarations and methods of how to be an artist, this guidebook to one of the best loved and attacked (a curious ode to sour grapes by J.D. McClatchy) artists and his lyrics in translation (the bulk of the book) makes one excited about creation, about finding the muse through looking, about reading, about books, about why we are on earth and what we are doing. It’s a warm love letter from one master to another.

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