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On Reading Rilke: The Delight and Terror of Mortality

And how bewildered is any womb-born creature
that has to fly. As if terrified and fleeing
from itself, it zigzags through the air, the way
a crack runs through a teacup. So the bat
quivers across the porcelain of evening.

— Marie Rainer Rilke, Duino Elegies, No. 8

I’ve been reading Rilke, driven by a bungled attempt to taunt Ray Wylie Hubbard on Twitter. I noticed Ray dropped the poet’s name from his version of “The Messenger” on Co-Starring. The lyrics originally were:

And the message I give you is by this old poet, Rilke
He said, ‘Our fears are like dragons guarding our most precious treasures.’

Suddenly, poor Rilke was reduced to “this old poet.” No namecheck. I promptly switched my Twitter profile to Ghost of Rilke and jabbed at Ray, which, heavyweight badass Tex-ahoma singer/songwriter that he is, he didn’t even dignify with a reply. But through that process it dawned on me that I’d never read Rilke. Had no real idea what he was about. I thought, mistakenly, that he was French, for that matter, not a German whose mother dressed him as a girl for the first year or two of his life, named him Marie Rainer, and took some perverted solace in the echo she felt of an infant daughter she’d lost previously.

Being me and being diligent, I researched a bit and settled on reading a collection of Rilke’s work with a forward by poet Robert Hass and extensive footnotes, largely primary source explanations from Rilke’s journals, letters, etc., that explicate the poems. I tried running headlong at them but bounced off, for the most part. There are sections that seem crystal clear, bristling with sharp imagery and brisk pace. Others, not so much. Like many great poets, his work is infused with a lot of his personal, first-hand experience, and you have to peel that back to really see what he’s getting at. Trying to sum it up, no doubt too broadly and with a blunted spear tip, I’d say he grapples with the core ideas of existentialism, but there’s an embrace of the eternal nothingness as a force to be embraced, something worthy of worship, worthy of, well, elegies.

So after reading Hass I decided my best approach would be to start with the Duino Elegies. I’ve come away impressed, but I can’t say I fully have my head around them. I’m chipping away, each reading revealing some new nuance. There still are stretches where I’m bewildered, but it’s worth the time. The words are gorgeous (I’ve not read other translations, but based on Hass’ praise and my first-hand experience, this one is good. Each poem appears in both German and English, so anyone who’s interested in the subtleties of the translating process can dig in).

I love the way Rilke throws his arms around our mortality, embracing it lovingly and then smiling as it slowly slides away, back into the nothingness of eternity. The work spawns associations in my head with Alan Moore’s amazing tome Jersusalem with its Builders and the living and the dead all wondering around simultaneously on different plains of existence. And in December, as I do each Christmas, I revisited James Joyce’s “The Dead,” only this time I zagged a bit and listened to the audio version. Very rewarding, mulling these themes of mortality and death and remembrance. Gabriel watching the swirling snow fall across all of Ireland at the end of The Dead is an image that sits atop all of the other scribbling on my palimpsest brain. I also conjure Samuel Beckett, whose response to the existential abyss was a sort of Irish jig with the absurd.

Why all this? I’m looking ahead at 20 summers, and wondering what I’ll do with them. How will I spend this time I have left? I recently listened to Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, where he was interviewing Wendell Pierce, hands-down one of my favorite contemporary actors (The Wire, Treme). This is where I was introduced to the 20 summers idea. Pierce mentioned it, can’t recall whom he attributed it to. He and I are about the same age, and this is the point where you realize life is finite. I’ll turn 59 this summer. Genetics and fortune willing, I have 20 summers left. Tops. I catch myself realizing the list of things I’ll get to comes with an expiration date that’s fast approaching. It’s already 2 years since I spent a summer in Costa Rica. Six years since I moved to Athens. Forty years since I staggered out of Swissvale High School, stoned, clueless, and utterly unprepared for reality. I’m honestly not sure how I’ve gotten this far. I’ve learned a lot along the way. But I want to learn more.

* * *

As COVID-19 grabbed us by the gonads and twisted, I retreated inward, a familiar route for me. My main realization has been that I am, at heart, a hermit. I really, genuinely prefer to be alone. I hate small talk. Socializing. Putting myself out there. I’m fine in my own head and for all those years that I was an exec or leader, it was excruciating to get out there and put on a gregarious grin. Even then, I failed as often as not. But I gave it the old college try, and overall the career went much better than I’d ever dreamed, a mix of good luck, good timing, and opening the damned door when opportunity knocked.

* * *

December 23 dawns in a bruise of purples and red teetering toward sun or gloom, still undecided. The nights are long, each now getting incrementally shorter. The wood stove is humming. After having lost my wood-stove mojo between seasons, I’m back, better than ever, cutting kindling and building coal beds that keep the house warm 24×7 without resorting to the grid. I no longer get up in the middle of the night to feed wood to the fire-belching beast. I let it go out and hop around in a hoodie in the 50-degree cabin while I reignite it each morning before dawn. Sydney the Cockatoo still slumbering in the Forest Room, his home and locus for destructive fun. Since Sunny’s death I’m letting him stay up later (He used to harass her mercilessly as sunset neared so I’d cover his cage and put him to bed for both canine and human peace of mind. Now he’s often up till 9 p.m.. And one thing we learned: He definitely needs his 12 hours of beauty rest or things can get pretty ugly.) This morning, 8 a.m. clicking into view, he is quiet. Not a peep. He’ll generally start clucking and making sweet, soft noises when he wants to wake up. This morning, all’s quiet on the cockatoo front. At least for now.

And I’m thinking. Taking stock. Wondering what the fuck the next 20 summers hold. Been thinking about Wordsworth’s Intimations of Immortality. But I guess my mental meanderings in this warming forest cabin that I call Innisfree are more accurately framed Intimations of Mortality. Intimations? Nah. More like that punch in the mouth Mike Tyson warned us about, the one that leaves all plans in a heap of blood and rags on the floor of a sweat-soaked boxing ring.

But the intimations, the punches in the mouth, they’re here. They’re constant, infused in everything I see. Everything I read. Life is ephemeral. But does it matter? Who really gives a fuck? Maybe Rilke has the answer, buried somewhere in elegies percolating with acrobats and Egyptian ruins and bats and all the baggage he built up in gathering the material for them.

I’ll keep looking. And keeping those 20 summers top of mind in everything I do …