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Riffing with Rilke (Duino Elegy No. 2)

Friedrich Nietzsche, painting by Edvard Munch (1906)

“Brecht versus Rilke: once they had finished with us,

They had us by the balls and on our knees.

All that too is old hat now:

Benn vs. Rilke Pound vs. Rilke Gertrude Stein vs. Rilke . . .”

—Helmut Heißenbüttel, Gelegenheitsgedicht (Occasional Poem, 1976)


Hey! What’s happening?

All angels are scary, but don't I know you?

Why, it's old Fritz! Boy, am I ever glad to say hello!

Is this maybe like in the story of Tobias and the Angel, where

the Dottor Serafico just shows up at the door?

You’re a little underdressed for a mountain trip like this, if you don't mind my saying so,

But not a bit frightening (just a kid, who’s got the kid in me curious).

If it had been some terrifying archangel coming on down here from back of the stars,

I’d have been scared shirtless! So what are you now, like, anyway?

Don’t tell me you can’t talk because you’re mewing!*

Tell me! Do it for the plot!


You said that we must love the fate we've got—

amor fati, wasn't that the phrase?

But you didn’t say how—and it’s not the easiest thing in today's

world, you know. Then

syphilis broke your amazing brain. And you, who were,

Or might easily have been the greatest German poet,

Could do nothing but make those inarticulate gurgling noises.

Fame had made you famous.

People came to check you out, admiring your enormous mustache.

You just lay there.

(When you’re unknown, nobody understands you.

Famous, they don’t understand you either, but they pretend.)

Entre nous soit dit,† old buddy, Lou never loved you. It was always me.                     

And fame has been hard on me, too, you know.

Now they say I am the greatest of the German poets,

Goethe, Schiller, Hofmannsthal, Brecht, Gertrude Stein (Was she even a German poet??) . . .

Seems I’ve outdone them all.

It’s lonely at the top, no joke!

Frankly, I can’t always make sense of those Duino Elegies myself.

I just wrote down what the daemon came up with—like you did too, I guess.

Doch dies ist Sache der Götter.

Thank Christ, anyhow, I never caught der Siff! What a bummer that must have been!

*On "mewing," see "A technique attributed to a British orthodontist named Mike Mew that involves putting pressure on the roof of your mouth with your tongue to try and change the shape of your face."

† "Just between the two of us."

‡"That, though, is the gods' doing."

Heißenbüttel epigraph quoted by Wolfgang Leppmann in his superb biography, Rilke: A Life, translated by Russell M. Stockman (New York: Fromm International, 1984), viii. A masterpiece that some enterprising publisher really ought to reissue!


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