Thursday Poem: Rilke’s “Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes.”

So, I think by virtue of the fact that I often come across poems on social media and the web, I have (broadly speaking) managed to cover predominantly modern poems by living poets. The dead don’t get much play here, except for the recently departed. There’s nothing wrong with that, and that tends to be my focus anyway: what’s happening now, not so much what happened before. That doesn’t mean I pay no attention to the classics or the past, of course I do – without historical context, you will only be seeing part of the picture – it’s just that with very little time on my hands and a modern aesthetic of my own, framed by the times, I don’t go out of my way to seek out those older works.

This week, Rilke’s poem “Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes” was suggested to me, and though it has the feel of a flowery ballad, not at all what I seek out in poetry, it nonetheless grabbed me with its beauty, its effortless language. If you’re not familiar with the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, here’s a quick primer: Orpheus was a legendary musician whose lament at his wife’s death (Eurydice) was so moving that Zeus granted him permission to go to Hades to see her again. There, his music once again was so great that it moved a god, and Hades said he would relinquish his claim on Eurydice soul and allow her to return to life. The catch? As she followed Orpheus back to the land of the living, he could not turn back, not even once to see her. If he did, she would be gone forever.

The poem begins (as translated by Stephen Mitchell):

That was the deep uncanny mine of souls.
Like veins of silver ore, they silently
moved through its massive darkness. Blood welled up
among the roots, on its way to the world of men,
and in the dark it looked as hard as stone.
Nothing else was red.

Aside from its immediate sombre atmosphere, there is a lilting scale to the language, a soft near rhyme which propels you along. In the first two stanzas, Rilke effortlessly establishes the underworld as a tangible landscape before even introducing his characters:

In front, the slender man in the blue cloak —
mute, impatient, looking straight ahead.
In large, greedy, unchewed bites his walk
devoured the path; his hands hung at his sides,
tight and heavy, out of the failing folds,
no longer conscious of the delicate lyre
which had grown into his left arm, like a slip
of roses grafted onto an olive tree.

“In large, greedy, unchewed bites/ his walk devoured the path.” Fuck that’s good. It says everything you need to know about Orpheus’ state of mind, his desperation to get out of there so he can turn and see his wife, know for sure she’s even there and that this isn’t some cruel trick played by the gods (which, being notorious dicks, they were known to do).

They had to be behind him, but their steps
were ominously soft. If only he could
turn around, just once (but looking back
would ruin this entire work, so near
completion), then he could not fail to see them,
those other two, who followed him so softly:

I love this little passage, especially the parenthesis – I like to think it’s a little meta note on his part, a reminder to himself that he couldn’t stop now when he was midway through the poem, couldn’t go back to edit or rearrange, he had to push on lest it all be for nought. There’s a lesson in that for all of us. And then came the introduction to Eurydice, a shift to her perspective which is where the heart of the poem lies, the depth of the romanticism as well as the meaning, the exploration of death.

A woman so loved that from one lyre there came
more lament than from all lamenting women;
that a whole world of lament arose, in which
all nature reappeared: forest and valley,
road and village, field and stream and animal;
and that around this lament-world, even as
around the other earth, a sun revolved
and a silent star-filled heaven, a lament-
heaven, with its own, disfigured stars —:
So greatly was she loved.

“a sun revolved/and a silent star-filled heaven, a lament-/heaven, with its own, disfigured stars –“. Now there’s a line worth repeating endlessly. The alliteration, carrying the ‘s’ sound without leaning on it too hard; the stunning image of disfigured stars. This is the kind of Poetry with a capital P that people often think of when the subject is brought up, and with good reason, given how much of it was written over the course of hundreds of years. The grandeur of emotion; the discovery anew of the world and nature through grief. With any kind of mass saturation, what follows the initially successful work which captured the imagination of readers is inevitably weaker.

But now she walked beside the graceful god,
her steps constricted by the trailing graveclothes,
uncertain, gentle, and without impatience.
She was deep within herself, like a woman heavy
with child, and did not see the man in front
or the path ascending steeply into life.
Deep within herself. Being dead
filled her beyond fulfillment. Like a fruit
suffused with its own mystery and sweetness,
she was filled with her vast death

I love this idea of being deep within yourself, and I think many people, but especially writers, will be familiar with this sense of falling away from the world. Of being rooted in Self, in the inner world whence your feelings and thoughts come, and not wanting to or not being able to leave it. I also love the idea that with death comes fulfillment, its certainty is so great, there is no room for anything else. Too often afterlives are painted in pictures of endless torment or endless pleasure and neither of those things seems to me to be particularly appealing; as human beings, we abhor sameness, and thanks to the gift of consciousness are always aware that everything is changing around us.

The other option tends to be purgatory, which is another kind of punishment. But here, the afterlife begins and ends in death, such is the totality of it – nothing else is needed. Nonetheless a consciousness remains, an awareness and understanding of the state you exist in. It is, in short, like life: when you occupy it, the fullness of it is bursting within you. Things change around you, and you struggle to retain a grasp on the big picture, constantly assaulted not just by the world itself and the advance of time, but also your memories, everything flitting between your grasping fingers. Here, Eurydice is consumed by the state of her existence, unable to grasp what once was but content also in the now. There is a peace in now for all of us, the living and the dead, if only we could learn to live without greedily wrapping it between before and after.

That was my takeaway, anyway – it’s midnight now, and I’m not sure if I’ve conveyed my meaning well enough, but either way I hope I will have convinced you to read this moving poem about life and love and loss, memory and mortality.

Thursday Poem: Alone by Tomaž Šalamun

Recently, I read an article by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei called ‘On Poetry.’ In it, he talks about his father, a poet who was forbidden to write. “He was a true poet, viewing all subjects through an innocent and honest lens.” Honest, I understand, honesty is a necessity in poetry (although even now, a voice in the back of my head says is it? Is it really? I do so hate absolutes), or at least it is in mine, but innocence? I don’t know. I baulk at that word. We are none of us innocent, and there is something here in his words which speaks of a dated idealism, the kind I come across too often in people who think only of Shakespeare when you mention poetry, who think of their high school English class and their own shitty rhymes composed in the midst of teenage angst.

Just because your lens is not innocent, because you are a fallible and broken and dirty man or woman, does not mean you cannot perceive the world with the same piercing clarity, with the purity implied in the word ‘innocent’. Even filthy hands can be plunged into the sweetest waterfall, yes? You do not need to conflate the two. I guess I’m speaking about this now because poetry is work to me, it’s a hard thing, a means of arriving at truths which are not easy or soft or even common – it requires enormous and unflinching effort to see what needs to be seen, and to then commit it to mind or paper or screen. Weiwei comes closer to this in his article when he speaks about his father being made to clean toilets: “And yet, as a child 
I saw him making the greatest effort to keep each toilet as clean and as pleasant as possible, taking care of the waste with complete sincerity. To me, this is the best poetic act.”

Now, to Tomaž Šalamun’s poem, ‘Alone‘ (there is a link between these two things, never fear). It begins:

One finger is the tundra,
one finger is the Bodhisattva,
one finger is mother Slovenia.
Two fingers still remain, beckoning
and with awful force feeding me
seventeen hands with this arrangement.
I’m alone on the roof of the world and drawing
so stars are created.

There is some similarity here to the last poem I talked about, ‘Maelstrom: One Drop Makes The Whole World Kin’, in that both poems see the world in everything, the interconnectedness of this thing we call life. Šalamun takes that concept to its extreme, seeing everything in himself, in each finger and nail and hair and act, there is God and the universe. There is a grandeur to this poem which speaks to the natural arrogance of poets, to assume they are in everything and everything is in them, and I get the sense that Šalamun is very much skewering that even as he embodies it at the same time. There is a danger in that assumption, this being a translated poem, there could be something in the language of the original or the context which I am missing, but that is my reading of it.

Glug glug glug I drink gulps of light
and I brush.
So I shower and put myself back, alone.
I alone am the center of the world’s light, the Lord’s lamb.
I alone am all animals: a tiger, an ant, a deer,

I love, as well, the repetition of the word ‘alone’, especially when it’s juxtaposed against this concept of all-inclusivity.  ‘I alone’ he begins his lines later, ‘I alone am all the people’, a contradiction suggestive of a narcissism so sweeping in nature it encompasses nature and everyone, and in so doing moves beyond that concept entirely. If we all saw ourselves as intimately entwined in everything as the narrator does in this poem, we would take better care of each other and the planet we live in.

That, of course, is looking at the poem with a sincerity that is perhaps not there, but is hoped for – the centrality and emphasis of ‘alone’ suggests such completeness is impossible, that you can never move beyond the ‘I’ into ‘all’. It remains a hope, a grand act of want, a ludicrous and whimsical desire, the kind that suffuses creative types especially into sweeping declarations of Godhood, of universality. Even as he indulges in its language, the way a satirist can take on the form of his target, Šalamun also crushes it emphatically with his last line. Then again, who is to say that there is not a universe in that one word, in alone?

The reason I mention this poem alongside Ai Weiwei’s commentary is because I think it makes a perfect rejoinder to that whimsy I spoke of earlier. There is a hardness to the relentless repetition of alone, even as it is centred in such gorgeous language, in unique imagery and a vernacular that ranges from colloquial to formal. “Glug glug glug I drink gulps of light” is my favourite line, and a good example of that. These pieces each have something to say, each have something to offer, and neither perfectly repudiates or compliments the other. To Šalamun’s loneliness, however, I will offer Weiwei’s last words:

To experience poetry is to see over and above reality. It is to discover that which is beyond the physical, to experience another life and another level of feeling. It is to wonder about the world, to understand the nature of people and, most importantly, to be shared with another, old or young, known or unknown.

You can never truly be alone with poetry.

Thursday Poem No Show

So, you may have noticed I didn’t post about a poem this week and since I have an hour to kill in an airport, I thought I’d explain why, which is that I embarked on an impromptu roadtrip across the Australian countryside a few days ago. We drove 3,000km before accidentally smashing into a kangaroo on a desert highway, rendering the car undrivable. We were unhurt and managed to hitch a ride to the next major city, Perth, where I’m about to catch a flight home to Sydney.

While there’s no poem this week to talk about, I do have some poetry news of my own to share: I’m very pleased to say that one of my poems has been shortlisted for the ACU Poetry Prize 2015 and will be published along with the other shortlisted entries in their annual chapbook. Aside from that, I have a poem in the forthcoming issue of Tincture Journal and the September issue of Meanjin, so keep an eye out for those!

Until next week,
– Omar

Thursday Poem – Maelstrom: One Drop Makes The Whole World Kin

It’s winter in Sydney. I’ve just come out of a cinema, it’s 11pm, the cold is constant and bracing, and my friend drops me off at the train station. The platform is empty. The occasional freight train roars by, a blur of green. The moon is shaved into a crescent by clouds. I am deeply alone, expanding with each shivering breath, and I love it. I love moments like these, moments in which I feel so in tune with the world around me that I am finally at peace in my own skin.

I get out my phone, and I begin to flick through some poems, knowing I’ll be late for this entry, but not minding so much. I had to spend the day writing a review I’ll actually be paid for, which is something I don’t talk about enough on this blog. I am a working writer, and I get paid to share my thoughts on subjects, or for poems or stories I’ve written – in fact, I’ve recently published a piece on this very subject in the new issue of Kill Your Darlings, which is a fantastic journal. A friend of mine, a published poet himself, asked me recently why I still maintained this weekly ramble. Why do it for free when I could likely get paid to do the same thing? It would be better for my career if I did it that way, he said.

In part, the reason is because if I were to do this professionally, I would have to put in a professional effort. As it is, I do that when and where I have the energy to spare, but by and large these posts are off-the-cuff. Beyond that, I was wary of this becoming work, a chore I’d try to avoid, and I love being able to publish it immediately as well. Not having to wait weeks or months for my work/thoughts to appear is incredibly satisfying – it’s also a sign that I am very much a product of my generation, of these times, in which we are wired to this network of immediacy and the rush provided by connection (supposed or real).

In any case, I guess I’m saying all this because my friend was likely right, and I may have to stop or at least scale back this routine in the near future. Hopefully, that will merely constitute a move to another publication, but that may not be the case. I’m currently operating purely on my freelancing income, and if that’s to be in any way viable, I simply won’t have the time or ability to continue as I have. With that said, I truly hope I’m wrong, because in the last eight months I’ve somehow managed to gain around 2,000 subscribers (that’s you!) to my dinky little blog about poetry. And even if 1,990 of you are bots, I’m still appreciative of it because, hey, even machines need poetry.

So, back to the scene from earlier, I’m flicking through poems on my phone and I find this simple little gem by Anne Waldman called Maelstrom: One Drop Makes The Whole World Kin. In reading it, I find my perfect aloneness is ruptured, splintered, and an even deeper connection, a deeper love wells within. This is the function of poetry, this rupturing. I will share with you the first line, no, merely the first clause, first few words. It’s all I needed honestly, and it’s not complicated or new or wildly original – it’s just what I needed to read at that particular moment in time:

All the world is one

Thursday Poems: Dooms of Love Grayed In

You would think that since my day job ended last week, I would have had ample time to find a poem this week, and that I would for once not be tired while I did so, but life is nothing if not a constant nuisance, a child made for the trampling of plans, expectations, hopes and dreams with equal dispassionate ease. Which is to say that I’m only getting to it now, and if that weren’t insult enough, I am not here to showcase one poem but two.

It may be because I was sitting here in my chair nodding off, or because my housemate is playing his guitar and singing in the next room, making it hard to focus on each line, but I found myself drifting in and out of these poems, occasionally caught and tangled again on a beautiful line or sharp thought, and so by the time I was done, I didn’t feel up to reviewing either work – my father moves through dooms of love by E. E. Cummings or Grayed In by Martha Collins – in full. They had meshed in a weird way in my skull, a fact I think would please Collins in particular, with her penchant for presenting simultaneous possibilities in the same moment – things are always about to happen happening happened, falling (still) rising, etc.

Her poem begins:


Snow fallen, another going
gone, new come in, open
the door:
                  each night I grow
young, my friends are well
again, my life is all
before me,
                   each morning
I close a door, another door.

That second stanza is electrifying; I sat up in my chair, tried to recover my breath. I love it for its contradiction, growing young with time, but also for its aching delusional optimism — too often I feel just the opposite, that each night marks a closing, not an opening. But it’s true as well that all life is before you all the time, and that is a thought to treasure.

Collins is fond of playing not just with words and spacing but also time, linear constructions, place and self in a kind of breathless cascade down the page. It doesn’t always work for me, personally, although that could be the tiredness talking, but the speed with which she diverges from one stanza to the next can be jarring.

For example, we go from this:


down buildings walls houses
schools, no one building only

bombing, months of little in,
now nothing no one out, only

down: bodies arms legs in Gaza

to this next section, with no connecting tissue offered:


On this day, this birthday, I wish
myself for the first time (who
would be a child again?) back

at that dining room table with
him, his years of little more less

Everything weaves together in this poem and even if it didn’t capture me a hundred percent of the time, the moments it did were frequently stunning. Her imagery though sparse never fails to conjure a complete and striking picture. At the same time as I was reading through this poem and my housemate was singing and I was thinking I should probably go to bed and leave this for tomorrow, I saw Cummings’ superbly titled poem and dove into it.

It begins:

my father moved through dooms of love 
through sames of am through haves of give, 
singing each morning out of each night 
my father moved through depths of height

Typically, I’ve struggled with older, classical poetry. I often find it to be archaic in its formulation, or overly sentimental, etc. This poem, however, is unique in that the language Cummings uses is so singular, the phrases so adroit in pairing juxtaposing concepts or emotions like the titular “dooms of love”, that for once I wasn’t obsessing over the rhyming metre. Many poets twist themselves into knots with rhyme, taking the poem in a direction it doesn’t want to go purely to achieve the desired couplet, but I didn’t notice that here and if I did, wouldn’t care anyway – how could I when joy burgeons out of this poem so strongly?

Yes, it can become a bit much at times, but it’s worth it to move through “griefs of joy” with “wrists of twilight”, “singing desire into being” as “septembering arms of year extend.” That last phrase almost split my skin with delight I grinned so fucking hard. It’s so goddamn perfect. Nothing more need be said to bring that picture to life, and more than that, it’s such an efficient marriage of time and image to take us into the next stage of the poem, of his father’s life.

Both poems tonight are exemplary in their deployment of language, their dissection of time and place and personhood, albeit in different ways; though both most clearly deserve to be looked at on their own, I can’t bring myself to regret the way exhaustion spliced their oddities into one. The overall effect was is will always be beautiful.