Just 51 years old in 1926, Ranier Maria Rilke’s major work was behind him, following the 1923 publication of his Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus. He suffered weariness, abdominal pain and ulcers of the mouth, faint signs of the leukemia that would kill in in late 1926. In the Rilke myth, the diagnosis would not come until one day when he was to be visited at his (loaned) chalet in Muzot, Switzerland, by Nimet Eloui, an Egyptian beauty who was even more renowned for her probing intellect. Rilke was gathering some roses from his garden in honor of the visit in early October when a thorn pricked his hand. The wound worsened, became infected, and soon his entire arm was swollen with sepsis. He recovered somewhat, but the leukemia at last had been discovered. He died shortly after, at the end of December.
As death approached, Rilke composed his epitaph:
rose, o pure contradiction, desire
to be no one’s sleep beneath so many lids
The pure contradiction: It’s how poetry arises, the thing of heaven on earth. In the droll and ordinary and fallen — our leaden existence — the artist creates gold.
It’s a tall order, these days. Much of the Northern Hemisphere is suffering an infernal summer, with temperature records breaking daily in China, the United States and Europe. On its hottest-ever day of 40C, 10 grass fires burned around London, igniting suburban homes. The heat has claimed 1,700 lives in Portugal and Spain. A heatstroke monitor by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Health Emergency Center showed that for the first six months of this year, the number of people who had heat stroke increased by 42.2 percent compared with the average level of the previous two years. The roof of the Forbidden City Cultural Relics Museum in the city of Chongquing recently melted in the heat.
More than 84% of Texas (in the U.S.) is in severe or worse drought conditions, the highest percentage in over a decade. It’s so dry in Fort Worth that the ground is shifting, causing a rash of water main breaks. Tulsa, Oklahoma, hasn’t recorded a daily high temperature below 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37C) in 10 days. On Tuesday, for the first time in 25 years of collecting air temperature data, all 120 stations of the Oklahoma Mesonet recorded temperatures of 103 or higher.
Combine all this with high energy prices and rising inflation due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the tenor of the time edges dangerously towards a shriek.
Recent research suggests that the asymmetric pattern of warming underway (with polar regions warming faster than middle latitudes) is altering the pattern of the summer jet stream. The growing pattern is one of high-amplitude meanders of stream, leading to persistent high and low pressure centers associated with extreme heat, drought, wildfire and extreme flooding. (Welcome to tipping points now in the rear-view mirror.)
And for anyone pining for relief, remember that we’ve yet to pass through the wall of wildfire and hurricane before our autumnals commence.
All this, we are repeatedly told (most recently by the latest IPCC report), is just a hot glimmer of things to come.
Oh well. For our friends in the Southern Hemisphere, we hope you are enjoying the respite. (How stark the contrast grows between summer and winter. Many now experience the onset of seasonal dread as summer rolls around.
Sherry’s IN THE WAKE OF PROGRESS challenge last week produced as much energetic commentary as poetry, a sign that Edward Burtynsky’s Anthropocene landscapes evoked a raw nerve. It is so a painful to see how vast these vistas ruined by human hands have become. The changes are ramping up far more quickly than we believed and will be with us far, far longer than any of us can imagine.
Our fraught awareness of this makes the central dynamic of earthweal between grief and hope a difficult one to sustain. Like our summers and winters, grief waxes and hope ebbs.
Perhaps it is a good time to address this perilous imbalance with this poem by Rilke, written a few years before the poet’s death.
AS ONCE THE WINGED ENERGY OF DELIGHT
Muzot, mid-February 1924
As once the winged energy of delight
carried you over childhood’s dark abysses,
now beyond your own life build the great
arch of unimagined bridges.
Wonders happen if we can succeed
in passing through the harshest danger;
but only in a bright and purely granted
achievement can we realize the wonder.
To work with Things in the indescribable
relationship is not too hard for us;
the pattern grows more intricate and subtle,
and being swept along is not enough.
Take your practiced powers and stretch them out
until they span the chasm between two
contradictions…For the god
wants to know himself in you.
(transl. Stephen Mitchell)
At the time of this poem, Europe was struggling up from the vast destruction of the Great War, trying to figure out if a future remained. He was aware that his greatest work of “passing through the harshest danger” lie ahead. But how to achieve that? He was humble enough realize that it was a “bright and purely granted” thing, “being swept along” by events “is not enough.”
His solution? Become the bridge which makes possible a deified awareness. I think of him taking his grief and hope and placing them on either side of an impossibility, so that we might behold the sacred glimmers of transformation.
Another poem I take for this is Mary Oliver’s “Foxes in Winter,” from House of Light (1990):
Every night in the moonlight the foxes come down the hill
to gnaw on the bones of birds. I never said
nature wasn’t cruel. Once, in a city as hot as these woods
are cold, I met a boy with a broken face. To stay
alive, he was a beggar. Also, in the night, a thief.
And there are birds in his country that look like rainbows—
if he could have caught them, he would have
torn off their feathers and put their bodies into
his own. The foxes are hungry, who could blame them
for what they do? I never said
we weren’t sunk in glittering nature, until we are able
to become something else. As for the boy, it’s simple.
He had nothing, not even a bird. All night the pines
are so cold their branches crack. All night the snow falls
softly down. Then it shines like a field
of white flowers. Then it tightens.
In my reading, the sacred glimmers aren’t revealed when snow “shines like a field of like white flowers”; rather, they come later, after and because “it tightens.” We’re sunk in this shattered, glorious majesty. How are we to sing of that magnitude, its failure?
I’m retiring this Friday from a 45-year career of warehousing someone else’s goods and selling their soap. It’s provided well enough; I can retire at the age of 65, bolstered by Social Security and Medicare and supported by pensions and savings. Yet I feel it’s an accomplishment of time, not talent; my labors strengthened a company’s bottom line for some while, until the inevitable came to pass. I did some creative things, made this or that, spent an infinity hunched over a computer moving things around on a screen – numbers, text boxes, photos, layouts, Web pages, naughty nudies, mindless diversions. Now that the necessity of it passes (I will freelance, do this and that, but unless circumstances change there will be no more careering someone else’s careen, I wonder what achievement it represents, if any.
Jack Gilbert grew up in the industrial city of Pittsburgh, and the raw steel of its foundries gave him a scale to understand magnitude:
SEARCHING FOR PITTSBURGH
The fox pushes softly, blindly through me at night,
between the liver and the stomach. Comes to the heart
and hesitates. Considers and then goes around it.
Trying to escape the mildness of our violent world.
Goes deeper, searching for what remains of Pittsburgh
in me. The rusting mills sprawled gigantically
along three rivers. The authority of them.
The gritty alleys where we played every evening were
stained pink by the inferno always surging in the sky,
as though Christ and the Father were still fashioning the Earth.
Locomotives driving through the cold rain,
lordly and bestial in their strength. Massive water
flowing morning and night throughout a city
girded with ninety bridges. Sumptuous-shouldered,
sleek-thighed, obstinate and majestic, unquenchable.
All grip and flood, mighty sucking and deep-rooted grace.
A city of brick and tired wood. Ox and sovereign spirit.
Primitive Pittsburgh. Winter month after month telling
of death. The beauty forcing us as much as harshness.
Our spirits forged in that wilderness, our minds forged
by the heart. Making together a consequence of America.
The fox watched me build my Pittsburgh again and again.
In Paris afternoons on Buttes-Chaumont. On Greek islands
with their fields of stone. In beds with women, sometimes,
amid their gentleness. Now the fox will live in our ruined
house. My tomatoes grow ripe among weeds and the sound
of water. In this happy place my serious heart has made.
— From The Great Fires (1994)
Likewise, a consequence I carry with me, even if it was an overwhelming failure: the magnitude of 100-ton press bays roaring out 300,000 daily newspapers every night, the rumble which echoes in my dreams where I walk through warehouses and offices I worked in my career, all gone now and dead, like the huge bay which sits silent and empty, the presses shut down, sold, disassembled and freighted to smaller opportunities elsewhere. Whatever news there was has become a silent, silted, fleeting ghost, no longer even white noise. Yet something leads me through those rooms, a tiny gold flame pacing slowly along, bidding me to look back and behold.
I am that contradiction.
Lammas approaches, the prechristian old European summer festival of harvest. As Sarah Connor wrote for this forum last year, harvest is a term with many meanings and amplifications:
The actual harvest of grain, the production of food and seed for next year; but also how our wishes, dreams, plans have ripened. The things that have given us a sense of achievement, the things that turn out to be rungs on a ladder to something new. The experiences we have transformed through our own personal water, yeast and time. Of course, we are not the only creatures who gather harvest – squirrels create food stashes, bears prepare for winter. Corn, barley, wild grass – they all sacrifice themselves to plant the seeds of the next generation.
We reap what we sow, and we sow what we reap.
I like to think there are glitters along the scythe-blade of harvest, poised between fullness and the fall. Sacred gleams. For this week’s challenge, look for the sacred glimmers hidden in the contradictions of our time.
A CERTAIN KIND OF EDEN
It seems like you could, but
you can’t go back and pull
the roots and runners and replant.
It’s all too deep for that.
You’ve overprized intention,
have mistaken any bent you’re given
for control. You thought you chose
the bean and chose the soil.
You even thought you abandoned
one or two gardens. But those things
keep growing where we put them—
if we put them at all.
A certain kind of Eden holds us thrall.
Even the one vine that tendrils out alone
in time turns on its own impulse,
twisting back down its upward course
a strong and then a stronger rope,
the greenest saddest strongest
kind of hope.
— from Flamingo Watching, 1994
A night without ships. Foghorns called into walled cloud, and you
still alive, drawn to the light as if it were a fire kept by monks,
darkness once crusted with stars, but now death-dark as you sail inward.
Through wild gorse and sea wrack, through heather and torn wool
you ran, pulling me by the hand, so I might see this for once in my life:
the spin and spin of light, the whirring of it, light in search of the lost,
there since the era of fire, era of candles and hollow-wick lamps,
whale oil and solid wick, colza and lard, kerosene and carbide,
the signal fires lighted on this perilous coast in the Tower of Hook.
You say to me stay awake, be like the lensmaker who died with his
lungs full of glass, be the yew in blossom when bees swarm, be
their amber cathedral and even the ghosts of Cistercians will be kind to you.
In a certain light as after rain, in pearled clouds or the water beyond,
seen or sensed water, sea or lake, you would stop still and gaze out
for a long time. Also when fireflies opened and closed in the pines,
and a star appeared, our only heaven. You taught me to live like this.
That after death it would be as it was before we were born. Nothing
to be afraid. Nothing but happiness as unbearable as the dread
from which it comes. Go toward the light always, be without ships.
— from In The Lateness of the World, 2020