Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Hope and Change

Wir kannten nicht sein unerhörtes Haupt,
darin die Augenäpfel reiften. Aber
sein Torso glüht noch wie ein Kandelaber,
in dem sein Schauen, nur zurückgeschraubt,

sich hält und glänzt. Sonst könnte nicht der Bug
der Brust dich blenden, und im leisen Drehen
der Lenden könnte nicht ein Lächeln gehen
zu jener Mitte, die die Zeugung trug.

Sonst stünde dieser Stein entstellt und kurz
unter der Schultern durchsichtigen Sturz
und flimmerte nicht so wie Raubtierfelle;

und brächt nicht aus allen seine Rändern
aus wie ein Stern: denn da ist keine Stelle,
die dich nicht sieht. Du mußt dein Leben ändern.

When I first encountered Rilke's poem (English translation below) at about the age of 18, its meaning, particularly the last sentence, was totally lost on me. Poetry is hard; it takes work to understand it. Changing your life, as the poem admonishes, requires real work, too.

At 18 I wanted to change my life, break out of the provincial background in which I had grown up. I went to college and studied German, never having heard of Rilke or Goethe or even knowing a thing about Germany. I think it was the funny letters in the textbooks that intrigued me, what we used to call "Gothic" script. My life certainly changed because of that decision, though not in any way I could have imagined. And it has been work, all along the way. One works to make some change, and the achievement -- sometimes good, sometimes not -- is often unexpected. It is a risk one takes. 

There is of course the kind of change that one experiences simply by living. We are born, we immediately begin to change. We move from infant to toddler to pre-schooler and so on. In traditional society the change in one's outward condition may have been more a function of outside forces: parents, caste, class, and so on. One didn't even have the opportunity to be different from the situation into which one was born. Something like fate operated.

In modern secular society it is easy enough to go along with what are more or less traditional expectations, but should you wish something out of the ordinary -- should you wish to change yourself and your condition -- you will discover yourself on a long, hard road. Others may travel on it with you, but you are the one who will have to do the hard work of change.

Doug Van Benthuysen, to whom I owe the above image of Apollo, has many translations of Rilke's poem at his website. My favorite is this one by Stephen Mitchell:

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, or could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast's fur;

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

Picture: MySpace Impact

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