by Tatiana Retivov
i.m. Rainer Maria Rilke
Happy New Year – new sphere – horizon – haven!
This is my first letter to your new address,
– notorious region, misunderstood, unsettled –,
as clamorous and empty as the Aeolian tower;
my very first letter to you from the yesterday
in which I suddenly found myself without you,
my own homeland become one of the stars…
Shall I tell you how I heard the news?
No earthquake or avalanche announced it,
only someone – might have been anyone – said
he’d read it in a daily paper. ‘Show me the article –
where did it happen?’ ‘The mountains.
(I think of pine branches in a window)
Don’t you ever read newspapers?’
‘The article?’ ‘I don’t have it with me.’
‘Where did it happen?’ ‘In a sanatorium.’
(A rented paradise.) ‘Please tell me when.’
‘Yesterday, or the day before, I can’t remember.
Will you write something for us?’ ‘No, I won’t.
He’s family. I’m not treacherous.’
Happy New Year, then, which begins tomorrow!
Shall I tell you what I did when I heard
of your – no, that’s a slip of the tongue.
I don’t use silly words like Life and Death –
So tell me, Rainer, how was your ride?
How was it when your heart burst open?
Was it like riding Orlov’s horses – wild
and fast as eagles fly – as you once told me?
Did it take your breath away? Was it more intense –
sweeter? Russian eagles have a blood tie
with the other world, and in Russia
you see the other world in this.
It belongs to us, that long night of stars
I speak of with a secret smile…
You timed your crossing well.
if Russian script replaces German letters here
it’s not because the dead have to put up with
everything, as a beggar does, – it’s because
the world you live in now is ours.
– I knew as much when I was thirteen…
Am I digressing? No, that isn’t possible.
Nothing can distract my thoughts from you.
Every one of them, du Lieber, every syllable
leads me towards you in whatever language.
German is as native to me as Russian,
and most of all the language Angels speak.
There is no place where you are not.
Except the grave…
Do you ever – think about me, I wonder?
What do you feel now, what is it like up there?
How was your first sight of the Universe,
a last vision of the whole planet –
which must include this poet remaining in it,
not yet ashes, still a spirit in a body –
seen from however many miles stretch
from Creation to eternity, far above
the Mediterranean in its crystal saucer –
where else would you look, leaning out
with your elbows on the edge of your box seat
if not on this poet, with her many griefs…
I live in Bellevue: these suburban outskirts,
have birds’ nests in the branches. Glance
at your tour guide: Bellevue is a fortress
with a good view of Paris and its palaces.
How absurd we must seem as you lean out
on the crimson velvet edge of your theatre box,
looking down from an infinite height
on our Bellevue and Belvederes!
Skip the details. Here’s an urgent fact.
The New Year is already on my door step.
With whom can I clink a glass across
the table tonight? And with what?
Cotton wool? I have no champagne froth.
The New Year is striking. Why am I here?
What is there to do in this New Year?
If such an orb of light as you can go out
then neither life nor death has any meaning.
I shall only understand when we meet again.
What joy to end with you, begin with you.
Let us clink across the table, not with pub
glasses, but as if our souls fused.
I look upon your cross. Everywhere
outside time and place belongs to us.
Leaves and conifers. Months and weeks
in rainy city fringes without people!
And mornings – all of them spent together.
Of course I see poorly down here in a pit
Of course you see better from up there.
Nothing turned out between us. That is the truth:
Nothing happened. Nothing.
We know our roles, and both are large enough
not to mention that. Don’t wait
for the one who stands out from the crowd
– or the one who stands inside it either.
An eternal tune:
don’t speak of the one on death row
cut from the same cloth and remembered
by the same mouth. Only one world
was ours, and that was where we shone;
exchanging everything else to do so.
So, from these outskirts: Happy new world,
Rainer! Happy new sounds!
Everything once seemed to stand in your way,
even passion and friendship. No longer.
Happy new echoes, Rainer!
I used to dream at my school desk about rivers
and mountains. How is your landscape without tourists?
Was I right, Rainer, to think of heaven as stormy
and mountainous – not the way widows imagine?
And not just one heaven, but another over it?
With terraces? Something like the Tatra?
Heaven must resemble an amphitheatre.
Was I right to think of God as a Baobab?
Is there only one God – or another over Him?
I know wherever you are, there are poems.
How do you write without a table for your elbow,
or even a forehead for your cupped hand?
Drop me a line in your usual scrawl!
Death must offer many occasions for poetry.
Are you pleased, Rainer, with your new verse?
I can’t go any further, now I’ve learned
a language with so many new meanings.
Goodbye. Until we meet each other
– if we do – face to face. Look
at the whole earth and the oceans, Rainer.
Look at all of me.
If you can, drop me a scribbled line
– Happy new writing, Rainer – and
I’ll climb a staircase bearing gifts to you
hoping to feel your hand on my head,
I’ll carry my New Year’s glass, without spilling
a tear-drop, over the Rhone and Rarogne
– your resting place – which marks our final parting.
Put this into the hands of Rainer – Maria – Rilke!
happy new year—happy new light, new world—happy new edge, new realm—happy new haven!
a first letter to you in the next—
the place where nothing ever happens
(barely even bluffing ever happens), place where roughing,
rushing ever happens, like Aeolus’s empty tower.
a first letter to you from yesterday’s
homeland, now noland without you,
now already one of the
stars... and this law of leaving and left, cleaving
this claw by which my beloved becomes a name on a list
(oh him? from ’26?),
and the has-beens transform to the unhappened.
shall I tell you how I found out?
not an earthquake, not an avalanche.
a guy came over—just anyone (you’re my one):
“really, a regrettable loss. it’s in the Times today.
will you write an article for him?” where?
“in the mountains.” (the window opening onto fir branches.
the bedsheet.) “don’t you read the papers?
and won’t you write the obit?” no. “but—” spare me.
aloud: too hard. silently: I won’t betray my Christ.
“in a sanatorium.” (heaven for hire.)
what day? “yesterday, day before yesterday, I don’t remember.
you going to the Alcazar later?” no.
aloud: family stuff. silently: anything but Judas.
here’s to the coming year! (you were born tomorrow!)
shall I tell you what I did when I found out about—
oops... no, no, I misspoke. bad habit.
I’ve been putting quotation marks around life and death for a while now,
like the empty stories we weave. wittingly.
well, I didn’t do anything. but something did
happen, happened shadowless and echoless,
now, how was the trip?
how did it tear, did you bear, did it burst
your heart asunder? astride the finest Orlov racehorses
(they keep up, you said, with the eagles)
was your very breath taken, or worse?
was it sweet? no heights, no falls for you,
you flew on real Russian eagles,
you. we have blood ties with that world and with the light:
it happened here, in Rus, the world and light
matured on us. the rush is up and running.
I say life and death with a smirk,
hidden, so you’ll kiss me to find out.
I say life and death with a footnote,
an asterisk (a star, the night I long for,
fuck the cerebral hemisphere,
I want the stars).
now don’t forget, my dear, my friend,
if I use Russian letters
instead of German ones, it’s not because
they say that these days anything will do,
not because beggars can’t be choosers,
not because a dead man is a poor one,
he’ll eat anything, he won’t even blink.
no, it’s because that world, that light—
can I call it “ours”?—it isn’t languageless.
when I was thirteen, in the Novodevichy monastery,
I understood: it’s pre-Babelian.
all the tongues in one.
anguish. you will never ask me again
how to say “nest” in Russian.
the sole nest, whole nest, nothing but the nest—
sheltering a Russian rhyme with the stars.
do I seem distracted? no, impossible,
no such thing as distraction from you.
every thought—every, Du Lieber,
syllable—leads to you, no matter what,
(oh to hell with the native Russian tongue, with German,
I want the tongue of an angel) there is no place,
no nest, without you, oh wait there is, just one. your grave.
everything’s changed, nothing’s changed.
you won’t forg—I mean, not about me—?
what’s it like there, Rainer, how are you feeling?
insistent, surefire, cocksure,
how does a poet’s first sighting of the Universe
square with his last glance at this planet,
this planet you got only once?
the poet gone from his ashes, spirit left the body
(to split the two would be to sin),
and you gone from yourself, you gone from you,
no better to be Zeus-born,
Castor ripped—you from yourself—from Pollux,
marble rent—you from yourself—from the earth,
no separation and no meeting, just
a confrontation, the meeting and the separation
how could you see your own hand well enough to write,
to look at the trace—on your hand—of ink,
from your perch on high, miles away (how many miles?),
your perch of endless, because startless, heights,
well above the crystal of the Mediterranean
and other saucers.
everything’s changed, nothing will change
as far as I’m concerned, here on the outskirts.
everything’s changed, nothing is changing—
though I don’t know how to send this extra week’s letter
to my correspondant—and where do I look now,
leaning on the rim of a lie—if not from this to that,
if not from that to this. suffering this. long suffering this.
I live in Bellevue. a little city
of nests and branches. exchanging glances with the guide:
Bellevue. the fortress with the perfect view
of Paris—the chamber with the Gallic chimera—
of Paris—and further still...
leaning on the scarlet rim,
how funny they should be to you (to whom?),
(to me!) they must be funny, funny, from fathomless heights,
these Bellevues and these Belvederes of ours!
I’m listless. losing it. the particulars. urgency.
the new year’s knocking at the door. what can I drink to?
and with whom? and what indeed to drink? instead of champagne bubbles
I’ll take these wads of cotton into my mouth. there, the stroke—God,
what am I doing here? what auspices—what am I supposed to do,
this new year’s noise—your death echoes, Rainer, it echoes and it rhymes.
if such an eye as you has shut,
then this life isn’t life, and death’s not death,
it’s dimming, slipping away, I’ll catch it when we meet.
no life, no death, okay so some third thing,
a new one. I’ll drink to that (spreading straw,
strewing flowers for the 1927th thing,
bye 1926, what a joy, Rainer, ending
and beginning with you!), I’ll lean across
this table to you, this table so big no end in sight,
I’ll clink your glass with mine, a little clink,
my glass on yours. not tavern style!
me on you, flowing together, us giving the rhyme,
the third rhyme.
I’m looking across the table at your cross:
how many places on the margins, how much space
on the edge! and for whom would the shrubbery sway,
if not for us? so many places—our places,
and no one else’s! so much foliage! all yours!
your places with me (your places with you).
(what would I do with you at a rally?
we could talk?) so much space—and I want time,
months, weeks—rainy suburbs
without people! I want mornings with you, Rainer,
I want to begin the mornings with you,
so the nightingales don’t get there first.
it’s probably hard for me to see because I’m down in a hole.
it’s probably easier for you because you’re up on high.
you know, nothing ever really happened between us.
a nothing so purely and simply nothing,
this nothing that happened, so apt—
look, I won’t go into detail.
nothing except—wait for the beat,
this could be big (first one to miss
the beat loses the game)—here it comes,
the beat, which coming beat
could have been you?
the beat doesn’t stop. refrain, refrain.
nothing except that something
somehow became nothingness—a shadow of something
became its shade. nothing, that is to say, that hour,
that day, that home—and that mouth, oh, granted
courtesy of memory to the condemned.
Rainer, did we scrutinize too hard?
after all, what’s left: that light, that world
belonged to us. we’re a reflection of ourselves.
instead of all of this—that whole light world. our names.
happy vacant suburb,
happy new place, Rainer, happy new world, new light, Rainer!
happy distant point where proof is possible,
happy new vision, Rainer, new hearing, Rainer.
everything got in your
way. passion, a friend.
happy new sound, Echo!
happy new echo, Sound!
how many times at my schoolgirl’s desk:
what’s beyond those mountains? which rivers?
is the scenery nice without tourists?
am I right, Rainer, rain, mountains,
thunder? it’s not a widow’s pretension—
there can’t be just one heaven, there’s bound to be
another one, rainier, above it? with terraces? I’m judging by the Tatras,
heaven has to look like an amphitheater. (and they’re lowering the curtain.)
am I right, Rainer, God’s a growing
baobab tree? not a Louis d’or?
there can’t just be one God? there’s bound to be
another one, rainier, above him?
how’s writing in the new place?
if you’re there, there must be poetry. you
are poetry. how’s writing in the good life,
no table for your elbows, no forehead for your strife,
I mean your palm?
drop me a line, I miss your handwriting.
Rainer, do you delight in the new rhymes?
am I getting the word rhyme right,
is there a whole row of new rhymes,
is there a new rhyme for death?
and another one, Rainer, above it?
nowhere to go. language is all learned up.
a whole row of meanings and consonances
goodbye! see you next time!
we’ll see each other—I don’t know—we’ll sing together.
happy land I don’t understand—
happy whole sea, Rainer, happy whole me!
let’s not miss each other next time! just write me beforehand.
happy new soundsketch, Rainer!
there’s a staircase in the sky, lined with Gifts.
happy new ordination, Rainer!
I’ve got them in my palm so they won’t overflow.
over the Rhone and over Raron,
over the clear sheer separation,