On Tuesday we completed our involvement with Sonnet II,29 (see bottom of the letter) bymeditating its three gestures:
First, in lines 1-8, there is expansion into identification, even with what is most painful. This gesture might be summarized in the formula,
“I am you,” or “I am that.”
Second, in lines 9-11, there is reduction into the magic power, the wish-fulfilling jewel of Buddhism, where all meaning-making and sensing capacities exist in a single point. A possible verbal formula:
“I am ready.”
This comes second because it is those earlier intentional acts of devotion, immersion, attention and concentration, resulting in identification, that gradually allow us to release all identifications and yet subsist as individual point-sources of meaning.
Only this form-free and form-building awareness is capable of love. Third, therefore, in lines 12-14, there is a transformed relatedness with Earth, “as if we were God’s spies.” (King Lear, V,iii). This gesture could be stated as,
“We are in love.”
Through our meditation, it became freshly clear that we fail to relate to the forces and beings of Earth, most of the time, because we fear improvisation and its many risks. We fear the living encounter, the divine or human gaze, for instance, because we don’t exist with sufficient sovereignty not to expire in its rough and tumble.
Instead of our usual focusing on a “dead” person before and after the central meditation, we bracketed it in a different way. We each silently brought to mind a real-life, everyday kind of problem, something difficult, or painful, or irritating. We thought about this situation for a minute or two before meditating the poem, then again for about a half minute after involvement with the poem. Several participants reported that their relationship to their problem was altered by the end. Lightened.
Hermann Moerchen, in his delightfully meticulous book on Rilke’s Sonnets, emphasizes the aesthetic and moral impact of the category of being. (Steiner: “A real consciousness only exists when it realizes itself.”) Rilke tried to promote the salutary shock of being in diverse ways. To end our work with his poetry for now, we’ll return to a poem where he does this. It is one of his most famous and beloved poems, especially appropriate for our moment in history, though it can seem less cosmic and epistemological than the sonnets we have been riding lately:
Archaic Torso of Apollo
We didn’t know his amazing head,
with its radiant eyes. Yet
his torso is still glowing like a candalabra,
in which his gaze is turned down low,
gleaming and steady. Otherwise the curve
of the breast couldn’t blind you, and in the light shift
of the loins a smile couldn’t go
toward that middle that held procreation.
Otherwise this stone would stand defaced and short,
under the shoulders’ transparent fall,
and wouldn’t glisten like a predator’s pelt;
and wouldn’t burst out of all its boundaries
like a star. For here there’s not one spot
that doesn’t see you. You have to change your life.
If we really see the statue—which has only apparently lost its senses – then it regains its sight and looks back at us. Apollo was a solar deity like Christ who sometimes walked the earth as the god of song.
In the face of this radiance—a glory as if the Earth had become a heavenly being or a star—we get a shock. It does not leave us as it found us, but impels us to action.
I first met this poem in 1977. Professor Dorrit Cohn had us read it out loud, then she analyzed it every which way, then patiently went over our questions. She startled us by asking, “Have you ever had an experience of art or literature that made you feel you had to change everything?”
What were we in that Sophomore German Lit class: 19, 20 years old? I don’t think a single hand went up—but not necessarily because we’d never had the experience of compulsion through art. We didn’t offer examples because it is a kind of experience that can be hard to notice, or to remember, or to admit.
“Archaic Torso” always makes me think of these lines from Case 89 of the11th Century Blue Cliff Record:
Yun Yen asked Tao Wu, “What does the Bodhisattva of Great Compassion use so many hands and eyes for?”
Wu said, “It’s like someone reaching back groping for a pillow in the middle of the night.” [Something totally natural]
Yen said, “I understand.”
Wu said, “How do you understand it?”
Yen said, “All over the body are hands and eyes.”
Wu said, “You have said quite a bit there, but you’ve only said eighty percent of it.”
Yen said, “What do you say, Elder Brother?”
Wu said, “Throughout the body are hands and eyes.”
The eyes and hands are thought of here as used for perceiving the world’s need and performing acts of compassion, respectively. But instead of these capacities being localized in one or two places, or even covering the body, they permeate it through and through. The earth is one total organ of compassion, a soulful endeavor.
Next Tuesday, we’ll take the last sentence of “Archaic Torso” as our meditative focus, and even put words to the direction in which we feel compelled to change.
All blessings to all,
Sonnet II, 29
Still friend of the many distances, feel
how your breath increases space still more.
In the dark bell tower’s timber,
let yourself chime. What consumes you 4
grows strong on this kind of food.
Go in and out of transformation.
What is your most agonizing experience?
If drinking is bitter to you, become the wine. 8
Be, in this night of excessiveness,
the magic power at the crossroads of your senses:
their rare encounter’s sense. 11
And if what is earthly forgot you,
to the still earth say: I flow.
To the rushing water speak: I am. 14