Once, in a dream,
pushed off from the shore.
You at the prow were the man -
all voice, though silent - who bound
rowers and voyagers to the needful journey,
the veiled distance, imperative mystery.
All the crouched effort,
creak of oarlocks, odor of sweat,
sound of waters
running against us
was transcended: your gaze
held as we crossed. Its dragonfly blue
restored to us
a shimmering destination.
I had not read of your Nile journey,
the enabling voice
drawing that boat upstream in your parable.
Strange that I knew
your silence was just such a song.
DENISE LEVERTOV A Door In The Hive
To Rilke is the very first poem in Denise Levertov's 1989 collection, A Door In The Hive. Just a few thoughts that occur to me...
Rilke was a keen traveller, visiting France, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, Spain, Russia, Scandanavia and North Africa. He actually did make a trip up the Nile - in a felucca with sixteen oarsmen. During this time he immersed himself in Egypt's culture and mythology, and his fascination with the Egyptian cult of the dead became a major influence behind his great work, Duino Elegies.
In traditional Nile boats the man in the prow would 'sing' from time to time - it was a kind of unearthly, wordless vocalisation - and this 'song' was supposed to assist the boat upstream in its battle against the current. Hence the enabling voice. But Levertov, in her poem, makes a connection between the Nile 'singer' and Rilke in the prow of her dream-boat. Just like the prow-singer's voice, Rilke's voice - his poetic voice - is also enabling. This poetic voice can counter prevailing currents, can help us see more clearly. This is the voice of the seer and the Romantic poet, the poet of Shelley's assertion that Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.
However, there is one important difference. Unlike the prow-singer's voice, the Rilkean voice of Levertov's dream is silent. And Rilke's gaze seems even more eloquent than his silence: ... your gaze / held as we crossed. Its dragonfly blue / restored to us / a shimmering destination. (By the way, how wonderful that dragonfly blue: the one transforming streak of colour - and how necessary and uplifting that splash of colour - in this misty, mysterious, toiling dream-world.)
Perhaps Rilke's voice is silent because poetry is the silent voice that is heard everywhere inside of us? Perhaps his silent voice speaks of his creative, interior transformation of the world - it's his inner voice? Perhaps this is the still, silent voice of God? (Or of Orpheus having left his lyre at home that day?) Whatever our interpretation - of course, his voice is not silent. It sings.
I cannot read this poem without thinking of the mythical Charon ferrying souls across the river Styx from the Earth to the Underworld. Or of Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha working with the ferryman Vasudeva and gaining enlightenment from the river.
And that mystical blue keeps flashing before my eyes... Blue, the colour of German Romanticism, symbol of love and desire, the infinite and the unreachable...