May 2014

Will Rees

nonfiction

The Rilke Alphabet by Ulrich Baer, translated by Andrew Hamilton

In 1926, some months before his untimely death, Rilke picks a rose from his garden at Muzot to give to a beautiful Egyptian named Nimet Eloui. In his excitement he pricks himself with a thorn. The wound becomes infected. The infection spreads and for ten days he can't use his hands. He develops an intestinal infection and a fever. His condition declines. Eventually he dies: death brought on by the paroxysm of life; Eros approaches Thanatos. Thus reads his self-scribed epitaph:

rose, o pure contradiction, desire
to be no one's sleep beneath so many lids.

The story of course isn't true; the truth being more banal and more tragic than the myth it erases. On December 29, 1926 an open-eyed Rilke died in his doctor's arms, his body ravaged by leukemia too-late diagnosed. His life did not end by a thorn's prick (though the above tale did occur; the ease with which the infection took hold probably owing to an already lowered white cell count), but from a metastatic blood disease left untreated, probably leading to major organ failure. It's at romantic myths like this that Ulrich Baer's new book, The Rilke Alphabet, takes aim. Such myths he argues, which abound poetically and biographically, do the poet a disservice and obscure the quieter truths and beauties of the man and his work. Thus Baer aims to release Rilke and his poetry from the reductive confines of caricature.

The book comprises twenty-six short essays, each based around a single word that appears in -- and unsettles -- Rilke's corpus. If the structure sounds tiresome or gimmicky, that worry evaporates almost instantly; Baer's introduction makes the schematic structure seem not only reasonable, but necessary. After all, as Rilke himself argued, a "single word can change everything."

Like small coves or tiny shells sheltering another sense amid the vast sea that is Rilke's language, these words deepen the meaning of Rilke's oeuvre for us today. [...] They mark the places where his work bears witness to those haunting and hallucinatory, sublime and devastating experiences and sensations in life for which there are no words.

Rilke, Baer argues, reminds us that "life" is only ever understood from the dim obscurity of the inside, in and as the moments that interrupt its humdrum forms. The twenty-six words that Baer explores bear the same relation to Rilke's work as such moments do to life, at once interrupting and explicating.

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Baer's is a Rilke immanence, of the body, of "life, as it is lived." This reading of Rilke is dissenting as it is illuminating; Rilke, after all, is a poet of transcendence, the poet of transcendence. But consider the following verse, from "Lament for Jonathan":

for here and here, at all my shyest places,
you've been torn from me like the hair that grows
within my arm-pits and like that which laces
the spot whence sport for women rose.

In Rilke's lament loss isn't transformed into something that reaches beyond itself; it doesn't form the occasion for a transfiguring sublimation, a pursuit of the soul. Rather loss is a much smaller and unspeakably larger bodily experience, almost incommunicable. The loss of the loved one "hurts like having your pubic hairs pulled out, one at a time, endlessly, secretly," writes Baer. It is senseless and painful. For Baer this is emblematic of Rilke's anti- or retro-metaphorical poetry. What starts as a metaphor, a pubic hair, grows and becomes unwieldy. Outgrowing the confines of representation, it becomes brute and senseless, refusing to be transformed into poetic sense. Thus the image brings us back to the wholly non-intellectual and almost incommunicable experience of loss -- loss that is felt with the body, not understood with the mind.

On examination what initially sounds insignificant, ridiculous even -- the loss of the other as no more than the loss of one's pubic hair -- becomes very serious indeed. The trivial becomes essential. If poetry is the movement from the ordinary to the extraordinary, what's vital for Rilke is that this is precisely not the movement of sublimation. Quite the reverse; it is the movement of recapturing the extraordinary from within the ordinary, of bringing to light the incommunicable experiences that haunt the fabric of "life, as it is lived." Likewise, poetry wrests extraordinary meanings from ordinary words; it doesn't speak a higher language but recaptures something from within our debased, abused and outworn ones. "Just as an individual word can assume a new meaning as soon as it is cut out of the text that surrounds it, so can an individual hair -- as soon as it falls from its proper place -- often cross the border from desire to disgust. Their hair in a bowl of soup comes from a head you might like to nuzzle up to."

A similar message insinuates itself on the biographical level. Take for example the poet's name. Christened René, he only becomes Rainer Maria Rilke at the behest of his lover, surrogate mother and poetic midwife, Lou Andreas-Salomé. Baer is happy to refer to RMR as a label, a "brand name [that] guarantees quality." Why do comments like this make us wince? What are we trying to protect? It's almost certainly not Rilke.

Here is a boy called René Rilke. Tomorrow he will visit Lou Andreas-Salomé. They will discuss how he should rename himself -- a brand meeting with the one-man steering group. It is our obsession with cleanliness, with necessity and providence, which requires that we forget this story that proves that Rilke wasn't really a Poet. We strike it from the record. "The bumpy and often crudely opportunistic beginnings must be erased in order to cultivate in retrospect the myth of the poet's poet who fell fully formed from the skies." But doesn't this rather crude combination of cunning, conceit and -- above all -- chance, transform the straightforward story into something more? A story about the transcendental and the sublime that, with ingenuity and calculation, somehow survive in a world where everything is banal, debased, inauthentic? Baer reminds that Rilke and his poetry were extraordinary, where that "extra-" no longer stands in any simple relation of transcendence to the "ordinary."

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Baer's essays are deliberately short, elliptical, incomplete. "Rilke," after all, "did not want to believe in the end any more strongly than in the beginning." His book is like a beautifully winding path; a path that leads not from, but to, Rilke's poetry. Baer never attempts to use Rilke up, to have the last word, to usurp the necessary experience of engaging with his poetry on one's own. Instead each essay is a small door, opening onto and revealing new vistas on a well-loved landscape and announcing aspects that were hitherto hidden.

The Rilke Alphabet by Ulrich Baer, translated by Andrew Hamilton
Fordham University Press
ISBN: 978-0823256297
264 pages