Merely to Say

“Praise, but tell the angel about the world,

not the indescribable. You can’t impress him

with your lofty feelings; in the universe,

where he feels with far greater feeling, you’re

just a beginner. So show him some simple thing,”

And here Rilke inverts the tendency of some kinds of seekers, to skip past the thing-ness of things to exalt their essence. The tendency to dismiss form and utterance, in blind favor of the rarefied, featureless, unsayable.

The poet reclaims for us then, the power of encapsulation. To be contained he argues is not a limitation, but a privilege. To give voice not a reduction but a ripening. And maybe we exist for these very precise possibilities.

“Are we here,
perhaps, merely to say: house, bridge, fountain,
gate, jar, fruit tree, window
—at most,
pillar, tower? But to say them, you understand—
to say them in such a way that even the things
themselves never hoped to exist so intensely.”

I think of my niece whom I met in the middle of her second revolution around the sun. Words only recently being minted on her tongue, they slip out like new pennies, potent with un-use and their coppery original meaning. How she traveled on unsteady, eager feet alongside a wide pond, up a sweeping staircase, around the precipitously growing circumference of her days– pointing to and naming whatever was in her power to name. Urgent, insistent, daring, as though carrying out and protected by, a God-given duty. A small First Person tasked with the enormous responsibility of granting things their individual identities. As if aware that to name a thing was to call it more fully into being, was to release it, like bird from a net, into its consummate thing-ness, free it from the benevolent tyranny of being indistinguishable from eternity.

Chair. Chair. Chair. Apple. Apple. Apple. Dog. Dog. Dog. Broom. Broom. Broom. 

How the world brightened in her twinkling wake, how it rose like a long-limbed princess stirring from a centuries-old spell. Shaking off the slumber dust of familiarity, the reverie of accustomedness, throwing the casement window open to the moment’s infinite arrival, its charmed variety, its alarming aliveness.

“Show him how happy a thing can be, how innocent
and ours, how even the groan of sorrow decides
to become pure form, and serves as a thing
or dies in a thing, escaping to the beyond,
ecstatic, out of the violin. And these things,
that live only in passing, they understand
that you praise them. Fleeting, they look to us,
the most fleeting, for help. They hope that within
our invisible hearts we will change them entirely into—
oh endlessly—into us! Whoever we finally are.”

Whoever we finally are…how deliciously he leaves that ultimate identity unknowable, unnamed. And isn’t it unsurprising then, that identity and identical are twins who share the same cradle. Both springing from the Latin, idem et idem again, and again, over and over, the same. Identity a repetition a continuation, a fidelity to sameness, ‘the condition of being oneself, or itself, and not another,’ again and again. The difference that dances on the other side of sameness. Our identities are plural in identical ways, they grant shape to growing invisibilities.

“Earth, isn’t this what you want, to rise up in us
invisible? Isn’t it your dream to be someday
invisible? Earth! Invisible! If not this change,
what do you ask for so urgently? Earth, loved one,
I will. Believe me, you don’t need any more
of your springtimes to win me: one
is already more than my blood can take.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been yours
completely. You’ve always been right,
and your most sacred idea is that death
is an intimate friend.

Look: I live. But from where do I draw this life,
since neither childhood nor the future grows less . . . ?
More being than I can hold springs up in my heart!”

***

Look out your window. Be a First Person. Like a ruler portioning out her kingdom by the generous fistful, grant things their names.  Call them forth like gold medalists. Sky. Cloud. Tree. Street. Smokestack. Billboard. Old Man in a Beret. Let the names burst like first bite of an exotic fruit from a faraway land over your tongue.

May more being than you can hold spring up in your heart.


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