Monday, February 28, 2005

Rilke's "To Music" and My "Ode: To Blues"

I hadn't realized, until recently reviewing a manuscript of my poems I've had sitting around for a while, that one of the pieces I'd written was in part a response to another poem that endlessly casts a spell over me: Rainer Maria Rilke's "To Music" ("An die Musik"). RilkeRilke never collected this poem in a volume during his lifetime, in part because it didn't fit the programs of his various books and in part because it is so far out there in its abstraction and attempt to capture an "essence" (of music), to embody the thing itself. (Rilke (1875-1926) often went way out there, though; he's the poet who, let's not forget, after telling us that a "tree ascended there" in the first "Sonnet to Orpheus," has poor Orpheus sing: "O höher Baum im Ohr!" (O taller tree in the ear!) Hello? You know that hurt!)

But seriously, his "To Music" is a strange poem, a haunting one, for me indelible. In fact, it so haunted me that I ended up unconsciously writing a poem that, I believe, deconstructs it while simultaneously speaking directly to and mirroring it. (Ah mimesis, ah dialecticism, ah the agon.)

So here goes:

To Music

Music: breathing of statues. Perhaps:
silence of paintings. You language where all language
ends. You time
standing vertically on the motion of mortal hearts.

Feelings for whom? O you the transformation
of feelings into what?--: into audible landscape.
You stranger: music. You heart-space
grown out of us. The deepest space in us,
which, rising above us, forces its way out,--
holy departure:
when the innermost point in us stands
outside, as the most practiced distance, as the other
side of the air:
no longer habitable.

--Rainer Maria Rilke

(Translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Statues, paintings, stillness, where language ends, feeling that become landscape, which is to say, abstracted, into nature, art--pure, uninhabitable, except by the music itself. That's Rilke's take, and reminds me of another artist, his almost exact contemporary, whose later, 12-tone compositions actually do realize what Rilke's describing almost perfectly: Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951). (Interestingly enough, Schoenberg set some of Rilke's early poetry to music, although Schoenberg set his most famous pieces with lyrics either to rather banal poetry by the likes of Albert Girard ["Pierrot Lunaire," "Gurrelieder"] or to quite accomplished texts he wrote himself ["Moses und Aron," "Ode to Napoleon").


So back in 2000 or so, not consciously thinking of Rilke's poem, I wrote an ode (a commemorative poem that also sometimes marks a crisis, which this one did) to the musical form that underlines so much African-American art: the blues. But it's not in a traditional blues form, because I could not manage that; nor is it as abstract as Rilke's poem, I suppose because the blues are not abstract; Rilke was after "pure music"; my immediate aim was to reflect in some way a music that was "impure," rich, roiling, true to (my) (black) experience. So here's what I wrote, and the struggle remains in, is embodied in the poem itself.

Ode: To Blues

Blues: lived funk silence
Or: ancestral soul river,
brooding, bearing the lovechild
of sublime improvisation: jazz.
Fearless prophet of undertow, tones
blue and beautiful as welts, bayous,
the invisible routes slaves drew
and redrew on their dream maps.
Broken: renewed. Sung hard
and remixed, the trick's
in the shaping. Lover who leaves
and always returns. Sweet noose
cut loose, feet dancing over the coal
abyss, shout, beat, keloid, jig
and stolen jug. Dank cell and icy asphalt
road, shotgun shack cold as concrete
tower, cold bed where the heart lies
its diamond head unsure
it's gone rise again, back door
by which it slips away
when bad judgment hits
                      like a bullet
or a summons:  black
life, black art,
black life, black art,
this house standing
where the first one stood:
you could pass through, stay,
pass through. Stay.

--John Keene (c) 2000-2005

--John Keene (c) 2000-2005

Mine: life, blood, rivers, keloids, dancing, maps, love: you may keep stepping, but if you want to you can stay. Somebody's always building this house--the music does. All in all, I'll take both. I hope "Ode: To Blues" makes it into a book (the Indiana Review did publish an earlier version a few years ago), but even if not, it will continue to haunt me as much as Rilke's poem--it troubles not only his water, but its own.

1 comment:

  1. great post john....i didnt know you were a fan of Rilke' english major friend of mine gave me some of his books while in undergrad and i was amazed...i since gave those book s to someone else who was interested in rilke and i wish i hadnt...

    Rilke is a very unusual, yet very gifted poet..his use of words and imagery are quite powerful...

    and i love your "ode" of sorts to it...