A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Monday, 24 January 2011

Through A Glass, Darkly

Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angelic
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?


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. 


Ruth said...

Oh Robert. I am profoundly moved by this poem and your post. Is it because Rilke has done so much tilling in my heart?

I didn’t know this about Levertov and Rilke. Thanks for that. I’ve never studied her, though I’ve read a few poems. I see that I will have to read more, after this poem and your strong recommendation.

I think all your close attentions and reflections of the poem make sense and are very well observed. I’ve felt that sense of being cut off from the miseries of the world – thankfully of course, and yet, and yet . . . there is something in a person that wants to partake in the suffering so that what she has to say means something in the larger scheme. (Much guilt over this gets allayed too easily through donations.) There are times, many, when we feel so small, too comfortable, and saying anything seems paltry, weightless.

Rilke sees angels as those who are endlessly aware, beautiful, terrifyingly real. They are the ones in whom the transformation from the visible to the invisible has already been consummated. (From the letter Lorenzo quoted in the Jan. 22 “If I Cried Out” post. In the face of that consummate fire, we might find all the truth of history, and be wounded by it, and thus feel justified in speaking. This is how I take this.

Thank you for this beautiful, further exploration of the thought-paths sparked by the Rilke readings, and again, for the encouragement to read one of my own country’s poets whom I don’t know well at all.

And get this. The Word Verification: sparbox

Is this box where we meet the angel?!

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks for this, Ruth. Do read more Levertov. I have a feeling you would get so much from her. She means so much to me.

Grizz………… said...

I would say first that the "glass bubble" Levertov uses is a snow globe, one of those rounded, liquid filled objects—often a paperweight—with a a miniature scene inside and lots of white, sparkling glitter; you shake to suspend the glitter and make it "snow." In Levertov's poem, "No driving snow in the glass bubble…" could mean her world is not being shaken, or that the bubble currently lacks glitter/snow. In fact, she says it's "mild September" and " breathe a tepid air, the blur of asters, of brown fern and gold-dust," and goes on to describe her view of life and the world through "clear walls of curved glass."

From inside this small insulated refuge she finds safety, though she can see the "violent gesticulations" while feeling longing "Where is the angel for me to wrestle?" Later, there's the matter of "History mouths," which speaks, I think, directly to the reason for her retreat into the glass bubble—and by how I read it, stems from a wounded heart, now encircled so the two pieces might remain whole and possibly begin to heal, with a "band of iron."

Yet, though patched and safe in her shelter, she longs to be released—and as a poet, asks for that it be through words and not flesh—"curses and blessings flow storming out"—that freedom might come, the "glass shatters and the iron sunders."

That's my take, anyway…but I'm unquestionably less qualified than you to offer an in-depth analysis of the poem.

The Solitary Walker said...

Oh, Grizz, that was such a percipient and wonderfully written comment on Levertov's poem... I'm quite speechless! That 'snow globe' thing hadn't ocurred to me at all.. Thanks so much for this.

Loren said...

I copied the poem and will consider it in greater detail shortly, but I'm always slow to focus, and not fond of blurting out my first response.

Unfortunately I've never been fond of Rilke, though Levertov is one of my favorites, at least one of my favorites that I discovered after finishing all my college classes.

Lorenzo — Alchemist's Pillow said...

Quite an interesting and welcome exercise here, Robert. Since some of us are on such a Rilke kick, it is gratifying to surf the energy his writing has given us to the shores of poets who are more or less new to me, like Levertov, save for some mentions and quotations (at George's Transit Notes, for one).

The very first line brings in a Rilkean angel and, also, the idea of wrestling with such angels, something touched on by the very recent post at the Rilke blog (The Man Watching). My gut sense, certainly more intuitive than learned, is that the poetess is perhaps very steeped in Rilke and hence wanting to tussle with an angel, to feel that beauty that is but the beginning of terror, but feels nothing. And this causes a certain frustration. Things 'inside' are mild, tepid, pleasant, gentle. Outside, there are stark shadows, violent gesticulations, but inside her gentle haze she feels nothing commensurate with all that. She is not unaware of what is outside, but temporarily (seasonally perhaps? September?) unable to feel it as forcefully as she normally does. History is only mouthing the words, the volume has been turned off. She, too, is silent, with the iron band encasing her heart, and when she opens her mouth, she is soundless.

Is this her peculiar take on something like "writer's block"? The poet's sailboat is in the doldrums and she longs for the fury of an angel-storm.

That wonderful ending ...

... 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?

... is striking. From her tedium, she is crying out for that angel, and the raw power of the cry reminds the reader of the strength of the sap inside the tree. It might be mild September or winter even, but come spring there will be wounds and cursings and blessings blooming recklessly (to quote another Rilke line). The early buds are already showing in that last stanza.

Anyway, estimado amigo, there you have my very subjective take on a fascinating poem and exercise.

The Solitary Walker said...

That was such an illuminating and poetic take on Levertov's poem, Lorenzo, and I'm so grateful to you for it. That writer's block idea, I hadn't considered at all. (And it does make so much sense on one level.) And your picking up on the sap inside the tree.

Yes, that ending is quite strong and wonderful, I think. So powerful.

'The poet's sailboat is in the doldrums and she longs for the fury of an angel-storm'. How often have we felt like that!

George said...

There is so much brilliant analysis in your comments and those of the other commenters that I can add really nothing, with one exception. It seems to me that Levertov is influenced not only by Rilke, but by the biblical story in Genesis of Jacob wrestling with the angel (i.e., God). You may recall that Jacob wrestled with the angel throughout the night, and in the process, Jacob's thigh was wounded. The angel demanded to be released at daybreak, but Jacob refused until he received a blessing. The angel obliged, changing Jacob's name to Israel, saying that the blessing was given because Jacob had struggled with God and men and had overcome both.

Levertov's poem says asks, "Where is the angel to wrestle with me and wound not my thigh but my throat. . . ?" When wrestling angels and wounded thighs are mentioned, it's hard to believe there is not some connection to the Jacob story. It is noteworthy that Jacob prevailed after the thigh wound. Could it be that Levertov hopes to prevail — perhaps be liberated — by a throat wound?

Who knows? I just thought I would throw these reactions into the wonderful mix of thoughts by others. Perhaps I am totally off track.

The Solitary Walker said...

Oh yes, of course! I missed the blindingly obvious here, and thanks for putting me back on track with your comment, George! Levertov turned from agnosticism to Catholicism around 10 years before this collection was published, and there are other Biblical allusions throughout the book. Levertov's angel seems to contain aspects of the Rilkean angel (which some think is rather like an Islamic angel) and the more conventionally Christian one.

Amanda said...

i had to visit the person who directed me to iris, goddess of the rainbow, through lorenzo's blog. thanks for setting me straight.

rilke brings one to one's knees in this poem and i couldn't get past it. how painfully ecstatic it is to realize this dichotomy at the core of humanity? yin-ying, pain-pleasure. or as kazantkakis said best, the full catastrophe.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks for commenting, Amanda! Just had a peek at your own blog, which is terrific. Will pop back soon for a deeper visit!

More Than Meets the I said...

This post has been a revelation to me. I am so excited about the spiritual association between Levertov and Rilke! Thank you.
One of the first Levertov poems I studied was: 'A Tree Telling of Orpheus'(:http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/a-tree-telling-of-orpheus/),
which I shall be reading in a whole new (Rilkean) light.

The Solitary Walker said...

MTMTE - Thanks for your comment, and welcome to this blog. I think the Rilke-Levertov connection is a fascinating one. Hope you liked my later posts on this too!