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Poets' Corner

June 29, 2003|Carol Muske-Dukes

You Alone Are Real

to Me

Remembering Rainer Maria Rilke

Lou Andreas-Salome

Translated from the

German by Angela von

der Lippe

BOA Editions: 150 pp., $22

Lou Andreas-Salome's "You Alone Are Real to Me" is a memoir that revives our faith in the subtlety and dignity of the genre. If the purpose of the memoir is to make the past live again, then this evocative meditation on Rainer Maria Rilke is nothing less than a resurrection of the great poet's internal life.

The translation, by Angela von der Lippe, has captured the velocity and intensity of insight and the direct, searching style of the original work. We hear Andreas-Salome's voice almost as if she were composing her thoughts before us; finally, the reader seems to tune in on a conversation between two linked and radiant souls.

In our own age of narrow, self-absorbed contemporary memoirs, we are reminded here of the power of writerly expression in service of the "Other" -- the other self, the world of the strange yet familiar -- the rigor of mystery beyond the Prozac-prose of conventional revelation and disclosure.

Von der Lippe's moving and illuminating introduction and afterword frame this remembrance, written in 1927, a year after Rilke's death. She says of the author that "there is no audible self-referential note that might separate her from the object," an observation very much in keeping with Rilke's own belief that all true art "requires a final surrender of the artist to the object."

Rilke, whose ambivalence about (to use an unlovely contemporary term) "commitment" kept him living out of a suitcase for most of his life, drifting from lover to patron, from wife and child to solitude, maintained his deep connection with Andreas-Salome for three decades.

She was a fiercely independent woman, though not a feminist, believing as she did in women's "genius" for identifying with others. This genius appears to have been hers in particular -- and in this case, a genius for tracing the intuitive inner architecture of the "poet's poet."

Andreas-Salome was a writer, a novelist and biographer as well as a noted essayist on psychoanalysis, whose affairs and friendships included Nietzsche and Freud. Though older than Rilke, she represented to him an eternal youth of spirit, the lasting flame of the feminine: She was his muse.

What she felt for him was more than love or the contentment of a lifetime friendship -- here are a few lines from the memoir's beginning:

"Mourning is not as singular a state of emotional preoccupation as is commonly thought: it is, more precisely, an incessant discourse with the departed one, in order to draw him nearer. For death entails not merely a disappearance but rather a transformation into a new realm of visibility."

*

Music Like Dirt

Frank Bidart

Sarabande Books: 32 pp., $8.95 paper

Frank Bidart's chapbook "Music Like Dirt" defines the focus of its linked poems as a task of the imagination: to make or build a sequence of poems about making or building. Bidart is a legendary poet, whose unique sensibility and utterly original poems have amazed and intrigued readers and critics for many years.

When he directs our attention to his project -- "Not a tract, but a tapestry" -- we tend to follow the "eye-line" of his direction. "Making is the mirror in which we see ourselves" he says in "Advice to the Players" -- yet his note at the book's end urges the reader to think of "Advice" as a manifesto "written by someone who does not believe in manifestoes."

The threads of this living tapestry ravel and unravel, mesh together, then snap apart -- just as the artist confronts the embattled nature of being in the world -- all of the severed dreams and intentions as well as powerful lineaments of desire fulfilled or denied.

In the poem "Injunction," he tries to "un-name" the world that has been previously named by "the dreams of strangers":

As if the names we use to name the uses of buildings

x-ray our souls, war without end:

Palace. Prison. Temple. School.

Market. Theater. Brothel. Bank.

War without end ....

As these startling poems fulfill their mandate, the reader is compelled to see the world differently, to see the capacity to generate new shapes as fundamental, essen- tial to the definition of our humanness.

These poems, as all Bidart poems, seem to come from nowhere, out of the air -- just as he stepped out into the literary world from Bakersfield way back when. He seemed to have no predecessor in poetry -- like a male Athena he leaped fully armed from the head of some extremely made-over Zeus, some dramatic god of sentience, innocence and erotic despair.

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