Into the Open
Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus, their first half written in “a single breathless act” in February, 1922, are both his most mystical and his most interpersonal, humanly related compositions. The “you” they address doesn’t sit still, though. It hovers. It toggles between the reader, the self-addressing narrator of the poems, and various others including God or the Lord, Orpheus, and Vera Ouckama Knoop, a young dancer, friend of his daughter Ruth, who died at 19 of an endocrine failure, and to whom the collection is addressed as a whole.
Mark Twain once said that he’d rather decline two good cigars than one German article. It’s a complicated language. For example, there are at least seven ways to write what we think of as “you.” (If, like Twain, you don’t want any more German grammar or poetics at this point, please skip down a few paragraphs to the one beginning, “The 25th sonnet is the one….”)
Near the end of these first 26 sonnets – all hurled down in three days -- he begins three of them with the three ways of saying “you” in the singular, in its intimate or familiar form. There is the intimate “you” as subject of a sentence. There is the intimate “you” as direct object of a sentence. There is what we think of as “to you,” as a single intimate or familiar word in the dative case. And in this first line of each of these three sonnets, he uses one of these “you’s” twice over, as if to doubly and triply and therefore sextuply emphasize the you-orientedness of his speech. It’s such a pronounced, intentional act, that it should call our notice. Here are these three first lines in German so you can see what I mean:
XX: Dir aber, Herr, o was weih ich dir, sag….
XXV: Dich aber will ich nun, Dich, die ich kannte……
XXVI: Du aber, Goettlicher, du, bis zulezt noch Ertoener…..
The first of these is addressed to the Lord, the second to Vera, and the third to Orpheus. Each time, the second word is “aber” – but or however in English. It has a way of clearing the air and individuating the addressee, so as still further to focus on a singular you.
The 25th sonnet is the one most explicitly addressed to Vera, and along with the rest of the collection it makes good on Rilke’s promise to her mother that he would treasure and put to use the accounts she wrote him about her daughter’s death.
But you, now you, whom I encountered
Like a flower whose name I don’t know –
I want to remember you one time more and show you to them,
you turned-away one, beautiful companion of the unconquerable cry.
First a dancer, who suddenly, your body full of hesitation,
stopped – as if your youth were cast in bronze;
Sorrowing and listening – as, from the high empowerers,
music fell into your altered heart.
The sickness was close. Already taken by shadows,
your blood pushed darkly, but, as if fleetingly suspected,
drove on into its natural Spring.
Again and again, interrupted by darkness and falling,
it gleamed earthly -- then, after terrible pounding,
entered the inconsolably open gate.
We know from letters that the phrase [her blood] “drove on into its natural Spring,” means that she went through puberty, in spite of some kind of blood disorder that bloated her and stopped her dancing. The letters in which her mother described her death to Rilke don’t survive, but it was in response to them that he assured her he would care for Vera’s memory. This most Vera-related poem, as if in deference to her or to the mother, is the one in which Rilke dares to be inconsolable in the face of death, or at least to refer to that hopelessness, rather than claim some easy transcendence. It belongs to the many passages in poems, letters and his single strange novel, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, in which he faces a kind of ultimacy or abyss without flinching. In German, the last line of the poem is full of ominous O’s: “trostlos offene Tor.” It also has one fewer beats than the other terminal lines -- breaking the line off short as if breaking off a life.
Still, there’s that hint about the high empowerers (Vermoeger[n]). It is explicitly their music that falls into her altered heart. Our meditation will be:
sorrowing and listening
all blessings to all,