Daesin and The Blurred Moment in Rilke’s Poetry
While much of Rilke’s poetry is set in the tenuous “playing field” of an understanding of incidental existence, Shakespeare’s illustrious line, “all the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players” unequivocally applies. The collection of Rilke’s poems that I have on my bookshelf was actually a library book which was never returned (don’t tell) and I didn’t set about reading it until the summer of 2014—when I sat on my back porch with a glass of wine and my reestablished habit of smoking, beginning my reading with the Duino Elegies, and then moving on into the Sonnets of Orpheus. But there are some uncollected poems and some from The Book of Hours that I believe deserve more attention than has been given by other scholars and critics. Two poems, “Death Experienced” and an untitled one from Venice (July 1912) struck me as being located on a “stage” if you will, similar to that stage of our existences that Heidegger would refer to as the human being “thrown” into the world, inheriting the Daesin which defines most of Heidegger’s work. I believe this theme (or sentiment) pervades all of Rilke’s work—but even more expansively in the aforementioned poems.
Reading Rilke’s poems on the back porch brought me to an awareness of what Robert Bly refers to as “the God of distance and absence”—and also brought me into the enclosed and sacred space of the poems so that when the July wind sifted through the wind chimes, I felt his ghost deeply. In the untitled poem of July 1912, he begins: “O curves of my longing through the cosmos/and in every streak: my being’s/flung-outness.” This abstracted image conjures something ontological—a sense of the being having been “thrown” either into the world or flung from outer space, in the sense that there is now a great distance between existence and origin—a distance which informs “the curves [of the speaker’s] longing.” Just as distance always informs longing—this distance is a longing for something greater than a physical object, but rather a longing for unknown origin, ghost of origin, God, or that force which allows the whole world to exist. The macrocosmic implications are certainly evident here, and in the following lines, Rilke assumes perspective of the human race: “Many of them returning/only after a thousand years on the sad ellipse/of their momentum and passing on.”
In these lines there is a sense of Rilke’s omniscience in relation to the passing in and out of beings in the world, both in death and in travel, such that they are here temporarily in their “Daesin” and then finally no more. This concept is further emphasized in the succeeding lines: “Hastening through the once-existent future,/knowing themselves in the seasons or airily…” The sense of all existence being encapsulated into a gesture, or extended “moment” is evident here, and also in the closing of this brief poem: “…as a precisely timed influence/almost starlike in the overwakeful/apparatus for a brief moment of trembling..” and he culminates the poem without any punctuation. The lack of punctuation at the closing of the poem seems to indicate a distraction or an aura of sleep. The last word, trembling as a reference to “moment” almost suggests that our entire existences are at the core, in a sense a tenuous and uncertain blur, either informed by the disorder of the past, or of the unfathomable future.
The other poem which resonated in my inebriated reading of Rilke, “Death Experienced” begins: “We know nothing of this going hence/ that so excludes us. We have no grounds/for showing Death amazement and love/or hatred, since it wears the age-old mask/of the tragedy that hopelessly contorts it.” Heidegger, when speaking of the arbitrary entry into the world, also explains the inability of beings to either determine their futures or apprehend the idea that our futures are determined for us. To put aside Calvanist predestination, Rilke’s lyric about “[death’s] age-old mask [being] the tragedy that contorts it” suggests that Death is an extension of being, a simple event, absurd both to life and to itself—a kind of occurrence which is almost farcical rather than the ultimate dramatic tragedy that it has been claimed as throughout and continuing in the trajectory of history.
Shakespeare’s famous line from “As You Like It” is echoed in the next few lines: “The world is full of roles—which we still act./As long as we keep striving for acclaim,/Death also plays its part—though always badly.” And further, the next stanza (referencing a “you”) moves to elucidate the gestural moment of all existence in a parting and passing on: “But when you went, a streak of reality/broke in upon the stage through the fissure/where you’d left: green of real green,/real sunshine, real forest.” These lines also suggest the blur of passing in and out of existence as is perceived by the onlooker, or subject. The object seems to move like a particular hue which fades in and out, as somewhat illustrative of Daesin: here, there, once, never again, forgotten or remembered, a mere light in the cosmic evening sky. And yet in this stanza, a sense of the emotional connection to the object resonates. There is a romantic washing here which gives the earlier exposition of the poem a tinge of sentimentality.
Rilke continues in the following stanza: “We go on acting. Fearful and reciting/things difficult to learn and now and then/inventing gestures; but your existence,/withdrawn from us and taken from our play…” suggests the absence of a being—and yet this absence is among the continuance of existence regardless. The notion that Rilke’s intellectual aim is devoid of emotion is not accurate with regard to these lines and the closing stanza that follows: “…sometimes can come over us, like a knowledge/of that reality settling in,/so that for a time we act life/transported, not thinking of applause.” And who might applaud? God? Onlookers? The object’s absence is what informs the group’s existential dilemma: a missing element renders them aware of their lack of importance or significance in the world.
Rilke’s poems, while examining the ontological aspects of existence and the Heideggerian idea of Daesin, a larger philosophy in which he assigns himself a sort of omniscient role do not neglect the sentiments of love and loss. He speculates on the emotional pangs of the greeting and passing in the way one would a stray autumn leaf that is torn from a tree and skids across the pavement: “knowing [himself] in the seasons, or airily…” the dark shadow of where the heart throbs, encounters its joy and grief, and sits solitary in the sacred space of a summer porch, finds its bell jar and revels in its word-birthing silence.
Emily Vogel’s poetry has been published in numerous journals, most recently in San Pedro River Review, Lyrelyre, Maggy, Lips, The Paterson Literary Review, and The Journal of New Jersey Poets. She has published five chapbooks: most recently Digressions on God (Main Street Rag, author’s choice series, 2012). The Philosopher’s Wife, a full-length collection, was published in 2011 (Chester River Press). She has work forthcoming in New York Quarterly, Tiferet, and 2 Bridges Review. She is the poetry editor of the online journal Ragazine, and teaches writing at SUNY Oneonta and Hartwick College. She finds solace at home with her husband, the poet and essayist, Joe Weil, and their daughter, Clare.