In Love with the Earth
Tuesday we worked the theme of the joy that arises at the point where non-being meets being.
Anything spiced with the salt of our awareness is a possible occasion for this joy. “Ye are the salt of the earth”—Matthew 5:13
Wayne Koestenbaum remarked that he wanted to stay forever, like a surfer, riding the very moment at which a fresh idea is put into words or images – the incarnational moment, you could say, when what isn’t yet comes into being and exists. His joy on that surfboard is natural to Rilke’s operation: when we count ourselves as the negative that meets and annihilates the positive world. The result is not really nothing, but the new heaven and new earth when the former things have passed away.
In the last of the second series of Sonnets to Orpheus, Rilke hints in this direction.
It’s another poem with a lot of injunctions: Do this, Do that. Lyrical commandment is one of his favorite modes. Let’s take his several suggestions in this poem over the next several weeks. One by one, and then all together, we’ll try to do just what he suggests.
Here’s the poem:
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
It’s a Petrarchan Sonnet, two quatrains and two tercets. Notice that the whole poem takes place at night, like Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale,” so instead of overemphasizing sight, we get images of sound, of taste, and above all the recommendation that we feel (last word of the first line) all that is to follow.
The first eight lines (through the wine) are all about transformation, metamorphosis, interconnection. Your (probably out-)breath and the space around you grow together. You can ring as the bell. You can become the bitter experience. So far, so good: we know about trying to become stuff, we like non-duality. Even if it’s hard to do, it’s all approachable enough to this point.
Then Rilke takes us a step beyond our accustomed ideas. In spite of the over-production, over-hastiness, over-materialism of modern life (this night of excess), he asks us to become a magic power rather than a body. We are to become, specifically, the magic power at the crossroads (same term in German for the Way of the Cross) of our senses.
Normal perception, like non-dual perception, disperses our experience – of a person, of a place, of a process – into sight, sound, smell, thought, feeling, becoming the other, and so on. Somehow, though, Rilke is saying, it might be possible at rare moments to have all these perceptual modes as a single power – all the different senses of a thing intersecting in a single point or crossroads. What we would find there would be a total sense, a global meaning-potential. And Rilke is equating this meaning-at-the-intersection-of-the-senses with the magic power that we can be.
So if the first 8 lines disperse you, as you become first this, then that, then the other, spreading yourself all over in mental and sensory outreach, these next three lines (Be, in this night…..rare encounter’s sense) ask you to reduce yourself back to a dot. Reduce yourself back to the sense at the crossroads of your senses: a magic power.
Then things get even stranger. The last three lines seem to relate to death, or at least to a state in which the normal relationship to body, self, and earth has changed radically. You’ve left Earth, or Earth has left you (forgot you). And at this point, instead of becoming things as in the first 8 lines of the poem, and instead of just being a dot-power at the synesthetic crossroads as in lines 9-11, you now use this dot-power to form a counterpoint to earthly things, somewhat after the manner of the “Be ahead of all parting” poem. So to the still, quiet Earth you say, contrastively, “I flow,” and to the rushing water you speak, contrastively, “I am.”
Rilke gives the pride of last place, in this career-crowning series of poems, to the phrase “I am.” He certainly intended a resonance to the self-naming of the Old Testament God as the I AM as well as to the many I AM statement of Christ, particularly in the Gospel of John. Having gone through identification/dispersal and then synesthetic condensation in the course of this poem, Rilke is now asserting a responsive and eternal identity that can live beyond life, and that can assert itself beyond Earth while losing nothing in the way of relationship to Earth.
Over the next few weeks, we’ll be engaging in the “sandwich” meditation format with parts of this poem as our central focus. So each week, after some discussion, we’ll turn to a person we loved and who loved us, who has died. This focus is brief: a minute or two. Then we’ll turn our attention to a 15-20 minute central focus on a portion of the poem. Then at the sound of the bell we’ll turn briefly back to the person who has died (30 seconds or so).
The central focus is always an inner doing, as in playing music. You don’t just look at the notes, or name them. You play them. You do the music that is noted down there. The only way to read spiritual texts that will ever satisfy you is to read them this way, performatively.
For the first week of work with this poem, we will spend our central meditation on the breath. We’ll be willing for either the whole of the breath or some part of it (the out-breath, perhaps, or the space between breaths) to increase the very space around us.
All blessings to all,