orders? And even if one of them pressed me
suddenly to his heart: I'd be consumed
in his stronger existence. For beauty is nothing
but the beginning of terror, which we can just barely endure,
and we stand in awe of it as it coolly disdains
to destroy us. Every angel is terrifying.
RILKE The First Elegy from Duino Elegies (translated by EDWARD SNOW)
Where Is The Angel?
Where is the angel for me to wrestle?
No driving snow in the glass bubble,
but mild September.
Outside, the stark shadows
menace, and fling their huge arms about
unheard. I breathe
a tepid air, the blur
of asters, of brown fern and gold-dust
seems to murmur,
and that's what I hear, only that.
Such clear walls of curved glass:
I see the violent gesticulations
and feel - no, not nothing. But in this
gentle haze, nothing commensurate.
It is pleasant in here. History
mouths, volume turned off. A band of iron,
like they put round a split tree,
circles my heart. In here
it is pleasant, but when I open
my mouth to speak, I too
am soundless. Where is the angel
to wrestle with me and wound
not my thigh but my throat,
so curses and blessings flow storming out
and the glass shatters and the iron sunders?
DENISE LEVERTOV A Door In The Hive
Inspired by the current readings in A Year With Rilke, I thought it might be illuminating to explore a little the relationship between Rilke and Denise Levertov - in my view one of the finest, profoundest, most spiritually questing American poets of the last century. She's on record as considering Rilke her mentor, and many of her poems bear direct or indirect testament to this.
The angel in the poem above is recognisably Rilke's angel. (The title of the 1989 poetry collection from which it comes, A Door In The Hive, is undoubtedly an allusion to Rilke's notion of 'The Bees of the Invisible': We are the bees of the invisible. We ceaselessly gather the honey of the visible to store it in the great golden hive of the Invisible. RILKE)
Far be it from me to give - or even to be able to give - an in-depth analysis of this poem, but here are some freewheeling thoughts and impressions written quickly and 'on the hoof'.
Where is Levertov here? It seems she could be in her car, stuck in the driving snow. But perhaps this glass bubble could also be a house - or even her body, or any 'safe' constructed world? (I'm reminded at once of Paul Simon's song, The Boy In The Bubble.)
There's no doubt that the world outside this bubble is uneasily threatening, violent even. Inside the bubble it's tepid, safe, but, to a great extent, cut off from feeling and a harsher yet more splendid reality. Inside it's a more pallid, altogether different order of existence (nothing commensurate). The whole world of history is out there, but its cries are muted (volume turned off).
In a further analogy of alienation, imprisonment and non-participation, Levertov likens herself to a split tree with a band of iron around it. This suggests perhaps the division of the human psyche, the mind/body duality of Descartes, the divorcing of reason and emotion, the mind and the spirit, the mundane/temporal and the eternal/divine.
Within this bubble world she is speechless. She wants to speak, but no sound is uttered. She wants to speak, but, in her present position, no angel comes to wrestle with her, to free her voice. And if that angel came, she says, it would be a wounding, physical, visceral encounter - but an encounter so momentous, so all-encompassing, so full of both curses and blessings (the two polarities absolutely essential to the whole of experience, the joy and the despair, the heaven and hell) that it would shatter the glass, break the iron bond, and release her into the whole, into reality, into creativity, into - ecstasy?
I would be really interested in anyone else's response to this extraordinary poem.