May 1, 2011

Tell Me, Orpheus


Tell me, Orpheus, what offering can I make
to you, who taught the creatures how to listen?
I remember a spring day in Russia;
it was evening, and a horse ...

He came up from the village, a gray horse, alone.
With a hobble attached to one leg
he headed to the fields for the night.
How the thick mane beat against his neck

in rhythm with his high spirits
and his impeded, lurching gallop.
How all that was horse in him quickened.

He embraced the distances as if he could sing them,
as if your songs were completed in him.
His image is my offering.

Sonnets to Orpheus I, 20


  1. It's uncanny how Rilke expresses what I cannot express. He taps into what I feel so accurately (and I know he works like this for others too, judging from the comments made in this blog's liminal space.) I suppose all great artists do this - reveal to us what we didn't quite realise we knew and felt. In this poem for instance: how much I identify with that idea of the horse-ness of the horse, that feeling of the wildness of wild creatures, of embracing the distances, of trying to sing like Orpheus despite being hobbled by temporality and human limitation.

  2. I have much the same response as you, Robert, that Rilke seems to speak with my own inner voice. To me the lines that jump out and into me are

    How all that was horse in him quickened.
    He embraced the distances as if he could sing them,
    as if your songs were completed in him

    Again and again, Rilke's approach seems to tell us that it is by fixing our attent and intense gaze tenderly on all the things of the world around us that we will somehow transform them into elements of the eternal. By concentrating with his artistic eye on one horse, he sees and lets us see and feel the essence of all horses, the "horse-ness of the horse", as you say. And this applies to all things and beings around us. Poetic concentration makes their essence quicken in us. The essence of a horse, a rose, a tree is no abstract 'perfect' platonic ideal, but something to be found imbued in every horse, rose, tree. Perfection is thus everywhere, and not less so in a hobbled horse.

    And the idea of a galloping horse, with his impeded gait, embracings distances as he if could sing them verges on the thrilling. How often, Robert, have you felt that on your treks and walks, though perhaps never thought to express it in those words? I think of my runs and bike rides, when I am feeling strong, embracing the distances as if I could sing them. And this is followed by the thought that the horse gallops and embraces the distances, singing them as if he was thus completing Orpheus' song, the great song all of us participate in, a song so beautiful that no creature, beast or devil could resisit it, but a song that was unable to save Orpheus' love or eventually his own life.

    Truly, I feel that everything that is me in me quickens when I read lines like this, and that each and every one of us, in our own way, are essential to completing the song.

  3. I must say, what a wonderful response, Lorenzo. It quickened me when I read it.

  4. I want to gallop! Eagerly to hold the distance (like reins to my chest?)! Waking up to this stampede of hearts of Rilke, Orpheus, a horse and all creatures, and Robert and Lorenzo, who wouldn't want to go for a ride, a run?

    The only thing I'll add at this moment of quickening is that I love the first couple of lines (in addition to all you two have expounded upon, and much more because you did) because of how he speak of the horse learning how to listen. This is first, always. Oh the horse was hobbled, and yet he listened, beyond himself, and he loved what he heard. He loved it so much that his spirt galloped, even as his legs couldn't.

  5. Perhaps it goes without saying, but the image of Chagall's horse is that spirit of the hobbled horse. The challenge, I feel, is to listen so well that we hear the song, even when we are impeded by physical or emotional circumstances, and that our spirit manages to gallop and dance, and do the impossible. I don't mean that we must always be happy. But in some sense, maybe our spirit can always find joy, even in the darkest of times.

  6. rilke knows these things and yet i wonder how he lived them. i wonder how troubled he was. for to know something and yet not see it come to fruition might be more troubling than to not know it at all.

    i love the horse-ness of the horse, as well. this causes me to look down and see my skin, my bones, my muscles. yesterday i stood with my son looking down on the rotted through and gone carcass of a deer. we had been waiting for two years for it to rot through. he bent and waded through the bones with his fingers as though the forest floor was water. it was uncanny. i said, imagine, in two years, after we're dead, we will be this clean. i want to teach him to not fear death but rather that it is natural. we have bones in our yard now, skulls on shelves.

    and so in this living we are intrinsically rooted to our bones, to the meat on them. there is this relationship between our meat, our heart, our mind, our soul. to be in our horse-ness, i think, is to be conscious of this fleeting pleasure in this finite being of body. yesterday i walked and ran through the forest. let this be my forever, i thought, and then let me die. i do not want to be anticeptic in a shiny floored home with breathing machines. let me be wild until i am done. it is a celebration of being and an acceptance too, of our limitations.

    the importance of the hobbled horse, i think ruth nails it, The challenge, I feel, is to listen so well that we hear the song, even when we are impeded by physical or emotional circumstances, and that our spirit manages to gallop and dance, and do the impossible. there are times of darkness which seem to take us away from the celebration. this is what i opened wondering about rilke. there must be times. it seems we oscillate between the celebration of horse-ness and a darkness of either sadness or a fight of acceptance, but we don't maintain in that enlightened place always - it is as though revelation itself breathes, needs time to exhale. but even as failed humans, isn't it good to know that we can always turn to the fields? perhaps even the horse doesn't always exist there, as he is observed going to the fields. perhaps no one can.


  7. oh, and everyone should watch synecdoche, new york. have you? i think those who gather here would enjoy it - at least to debate it's ending. what a ride!


  8. Oh god I love you, Erin. I will run today thinking of your bones, muscle, the earth, our life in it, our death in it (rejoice in it). Maybe I will even embrace the distance between here and there, this life and that death, and want it (not now, this moment, I pray, but want it all the same).

    I didn't know about Synecdoche, New York. I'll pull it up on the queue, thank you.

  9. ruth, i smile thinking of you there running wild and as untethered as anyone possibly can be. these are the moments, aren't they, these are the most important moments.

    i love you too ruth


  10. Wonderful verse and even more wonderful commentary!
    In our impeded lurching we still sing and this is our offering.

  11. It's a moving poem. And if it was really written during the time that it is commonly known to have been written, then I am convinced that a common theme of the poets that are considered by many cultures to be great, is that the poems have underlying stories that the author was not aware of the stories within the stories that are uncovered from the outward.

    The all have secondary stories that are much harder to understand that the primary stories told. And like the way all the languages that have terms for more modern knowledge seem to miraculously fit perfect (as if when the language branched from is ancestor tongue, it branched because it already had the words for what was to come)

    and there is no possible way for the author to know what he was writing, at least not beneath the surface. Not if it was written was it was supposedly cataloged as being written. And I am not trying to take anything away from or discredit Rilke or his living family or their ancestors in any way. I am just saying I can't fathom that he was completely conscious of what he was saying.

    and if he was aware, that would be defined as a miracle that Rilke began to piece together, way back when, but non-functional at it's beginning, upon arrival in the future (these days) it was somehow built for.

    talk about singing the distances, Rilke wrote into words something that he had to have known was broken (for his day and age) that would only be able to fit into time, during these more recent days.

    And I know he didn't write it because because it's pleasurable in any way. If any of you are relatives, thank you.

  12. I wasn't really clear in that comment. What I meant was, it must have been painful to write all the things Rilke did, knowing persons may not hear things the way he did.

    like when he talks of Orpheus being the one who "taught the creatures how to listen"

    when I read his translated words (which I am now motivated to learn German because of) and he talks about the horse's gallop being impeded, with a lurch, I get the feeling he is talking about sound. But not just because he describes the impeded gallop of the horse who "embraced the distances as if he could sing them, as if your songs were completed in him"

    from reading a lot of Rilke's writing, I get the feeling that Rilke hears this "song" of Orpheus's (or the divine)They way he writes, I believe he can hear it. To me it sounds like a song that sometimes crushes you, and other times saves you, lifting your spirits when your body is running on empty (like the horse quickening in it's lifted spirits) Hearing the songs is a lot like being manic.

    the songs are ever present, being sung even though it feels like you are the only one who hears it. It's maddening, and worse when you speak of it because that is when the world deems you crazy or evil. But it doesn't remove the song from the air, the songs are wind, or the motion of it anyway.

    the impeded gallop, is like a dam that blocks this wind, the motion that is the song of Orpheus that Rilke hears (a wind that is always blowing) But only heard by all when the dam impedes this wind. Like Teeth for a humans voice, the legible sounds are only heard when the wind of a voice meets that 90 degree wall (like a dam to the wind, our teeth are what gives our breathe a voice of understandable or clear, annunciated words) and only then are the sounds heard as someone speaking, when the wind from our breathe is forced to suddenly go over our teeth , it is this "bump" in the wind that facilitates communication.

    That "bump" is like that gimpy horse's rhythm we he tries to run. I feel like Rilke recognizes that to be an explanation of the sound, finally producing the words that everyone can hear, so that finally, this wind that Rilke has always been aware of can be heard by all.

    to put it simply, like Orpheus has been singing this whole time, but only when he puts his dentures in can others finally hear what he is singing about. The gimpy horse is like Orpheus's dentures. And Rilke gets awful excited when he realizes it (like he's found another way to explain something that nobody understands)I get the feeling it isn't exactly "fun" to be able to hear God without his/her dentures in.

  13. and now i wonder if Rilke was familiar with scriptures. To me it sounded like he was describing the blockcade, or wall that the wind or breathe had to travel over in order to yield a clearly heard by all sound.

    and then from Isiah 8,14 where it seems to describe a highly holy figure, who will be a stumbling block.

    and it makes me smile, though I wish if possible that it didn't have to happen, it would be better if the peeping, muttering wizards would just quit with the affliction of the innocent rather than have to ingest the whole of a humble sandwich.


"Everything is blooming most recklessly; if it were voices instead of colors, there would be an unbelievable shrieking into the heart of the night."

~ Rainer Maria Rilke

Go ahead, bloom recklessly!