Rilke's America

Article excerpt

Tell us, poet, what you do- ipraise

Only, instead, the grave rasp of Kohelet

praising thedead, which are already dead

more than the living, which are yet alive.

Yea, better he than both, who has not yet been,

nor seen the evil work done under the sun.

The living freeze in fear and turn away,

except the ones who make a vulture's living

perched on others' fear. I spit at both,

but the wind's caprice doubles the spittle back

to my own face. Which, also, has turned away.

2. Chicago 2/15/03

Why are there nota few, three, five, ten, who stand to cry out in

the public squares: enough! and who will at least have given

their lives that it should be enough, while those out there are

now succumbing only so that the frightful thing shall go on and

on and there shall be no taking account of destruction. (RMR

to Ellen Delp, 10/10/1915)

We stood together in the public square

and cried Enough! Of course, nobody shot us

quite unnecessary. The frightful thing

would arrive on schedule. No one would keep tabs

on foreign bodies mutilated, dead,

or exiled. Nonetheless, in bitter cold,

we mustered for the march along Devon Street,

jamming a Seven-Eleven parking lot.

Across the street, a sparsely-furnished restaurant

full of bearded men. Assured that we,

outsiders, women among us, might come in,

we huddled over tea and asked the owner

what people had to say about this war.

"It's terrible, of course, but he will do it,

he will do it, no matter what we say."

At other tables, talk in another language,

opaque to us. Since everyone seemed careful

not to look at us, we did our best

to look at them without being seen to look.

The march assembled finally, with a banner

the bullhorn said was Urdu (English underneath).

Too many speeches, as we curled our toes

to ward off frostbite. Somebody yelled "Let's move!"

Over the halal groceries, restaurants

named "Ghandi'Or "Punjab," and storefronts bright

with vernal saris in the dead of winter,

faces appeared at windows, looking down at us,

a mob of strangers chanting "No Blood for Oil."

Nobody called to us, or smiled or waved.

What they looked was worried, as if some backlash

aimed at us might land, instead, on them.

At intersections, counter-demonstrators

reviled us as appeasers sold to Terrorists.

We didn't answer. Not that they wouldn't listen,

though that was likely, but that we ourselves

were done with listening. Brute repetition

husked our words of meaning, leaving only

three empty syllables: blood, oil, war.

The bullhorn asked us what we wanted. "Coffee,"

Somebody answered, spirit chilled with cold.

3.

Then, allât once, in the midst of his thoughts, it seemed that from

the ragingstorm a voice had called to him. . . . (Princess Marie von

Thurn undTaxis-Hohenlohe, Memories of Rainer Maria Rilke)

Leaning into the dark, I listen: nothing.

Thunder lagging the lightning, monochrome rain,

facefuls of drenching wind. Bored and unblessed,

I slam the window shut and read the Times.

An airstrike, it reports, blew up a wedding,

and last week, some "insurgents" hit a mosque

or maybe it said a market? The papers grow

interchangeable, fusing all days to one.

"Unnamed officials" tell us we can't stop

doing the frightful thing, lest worse things follow.

If storms can speak, what this one says is "war."

Not Who, iflcried, would hear me then among'

The orders of angels, but whether- if there were angels

I could hear them, calling against the wind. …