Rilkean memories ~ remembering makes us who we are

A beautiful ballad called ‘Remembering’ in an expressionist musical style by Avishai Cohen and his Trio, suffuses my home while I write this, as if to underline that I reminisce a lot and today I remember Rilke.

Rilke in 1900; Source ~ Wikipedia

“Poems are not . . . simply emotions . . . they are experiences”,  said Rainer Maria Rilke,

the lyrically intense German poet who was born in Prague, one of the principal cities of the Austro-hungarian Empire. He wrote only one novel in the entirety of his short lifetime, whilst in Paris, a work which was semi-autobiographical and published in 1910. It is in this, ‘The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge’, that his  protagonist, the young poet Brigge says[1]

“For the sake of a single poem, you must see many cities, many people and things . . . and know the gestures which small flowers make when they open in the morning. You must be able to think back to streets in unknown neighborhoods, to unexpected encounters, and to partings you have long seen coming; to days of childhood whose mystery is still unexplained . . . to childhood illnesses . . . to mornings by the sea, to the sea itself, to seas, to nights of travel . . . and it is still not enough”.

Rilke  lived a life that was emotionally fraught given his unhappy childhood, being the offspring of unhappy parents. The short existence of this intense poet appears to be punctuated by passionate feeling rife with mood swings, physical ailments and depression, partly due to the fact that he experienced ambivalence in living up to both the feminine ideal thrust upon him by his mother and the expectations of masculinity from his father. Yet, despite his deep seated misgivings towards his maternal figure and the aggrandizement of the paternal in his life, he became a poet and his novel’s character Brigge spoke for him as did his various letters and poetic verse. Rilke worked through his writing to reconcile the two unassailable truths of his life, the poetic feminine and the military masculine. Both were valid to him, both were life and death. 

In a  vivid description[2] of his despondency while on a gondola in Venice, in a letter to a past romantic liaison Mimi Romanelli, he attributed it to emanate for no particular reason except that it was cold and that the voice of the barcaiolo received no answer. In that letter dated 1907, he writes ~ I am not ashamed, my Dear, to have cried on a recent early Sunday morning in a cold gondola which floated around endless corners through sections of Venice only so vaguely visible that they seemed to branch out into another city far away. The voice of the barcaiolo who called out to be granted passage at the corner of a canal received no answer, like in the face of death.

Painful though his letter may appear, there is a beauty in his verse and his poetic exhortations that have appealed to many. It is apparent therefore that one such as Rilke would have inspired another of his kind, such as the talented singer, guitarist and musician Jeff Buckley, who according to Matt Johnson[3], the former drummer of his band, was one of the most extraordinary musicians to ever live. Johnson spoke of a time that during the recording of the album Grace, Buckley’s voice went through his body, in what he describes as a metaphysical event where something supernatural happened. In a telling reveal he added,  “Jeff was this lightning rod of the tone and tenor of all the human emotion in a room. He had this ability to act as an emotional lightning rod, and I always thought he’d hopefully become a vessel for that.” Jeff Buckley, the beautiful deep voice behind Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, as we know, drowned at 30 while on a swim in the Mississippi river, fully clothed.

Really Old Media ~ Grace by Jeff Buckley

What astounds me is the Rilkean theme that permeates through this and threads together disparate events across the decades. Friends and lovers of Buckley, inspired by the artist composed songs to his memory in tribute. One of them by Elizabeth Fraser[4], attributed to Buckley, on the liner notes of her group, Cocteau Twins’ “Milk and Kisses” CD in 1996 a quote: “Milk and kisses for the first man / my old man / love and a thousandfold rose for Buckley / my Rilkean Hearted friend”

In a song she appropriately titled Rilkean Heart, she speaks for Buckley, that furthers the impression of him as an emotional lightning rod as well as refers to the emotionally fraught relationship they had[5]. It is as if there is something that Buckley feels, remembers that drives him to emotional overwhelm and erratic behaviour towards the end of his life. What memories did he harbour that caused such confusion.

I understand that you’re confused, feeling overwhelmed
Well that’s a feeling state from then, the reality
With cleaning up my emotional life and getting in touch with myself
I’m beginning to ground myself in my own sense of being as an entity
One entity on the planet,
Becoming truly self reliant
And become connected with something beyond me
That is where I have to go
I’m so sorry I’ve been putting the search on the wrong place
~ Rilkean Heart, Cocteau Twins

It is not without precedent therefore, what I believe, that the idea of the emotional lightning rod would help define certain kinds of memories, central to those elucidated by the Philosopher Mark Rowlands. Rowlands identified a novel form of remembering that he called Rilkean memory,  believing that Rilke himself provided an exceptionally clear statement of the idea[6]

Rilke wrote: “And yet it is not enough to have memories. You must be able to forget them when they are many, and you must have the immense patience to wait until they return. For the memories themselves are not important. Only when they have changed into our very blood, into glance and gesture, and are nameless, no longer to be distinguished from ourselves – only then can it happen that in some very rare hour the first word of a poem arises in their midst and goes forth from them.” 

Rowlands maintains that the content of these memories fades and eventually disappears and yet the act of remembering survives in a new, mutated form. Of the two types he identifies, one is an embodied Rilkean memory, which is a bodily or behavioral disposition while an affective Rilkean memory is a mood or feeling. 

Ben Platts-Mills takes the idea further[7] to explain how people who suffer from anterograde amnesia possess a sense of self despite the inability of limitations in forming new memories. An amnesia suffered by some in the aftermath of an illness or an accident. Recollecting, remembering, helps people ground their identity and helps them weave a cohesive thread of existence, but not so with those with anterograde amnesia and yet, they each have an inimitable character and a strong sense of self. Platts-Mills holds that personhood, identity is a property of the whole body and an individual person can persist in the face of perpetual forgetting. 

What poetic justice then, to have the work of a poet weave itself into philosophy, the study of amnesia, the work of artists struggling with depression, the very act of remembering and the essence of personhood. It’s as if the Universe conspired to have everyone involved, arrive at a singular conclusion, just as Rilke said in his work, ‘the seventh elegy’: 

“Nowhere, Beloved, will the world be but within us. Our life passes in transformation. And the external wanes ever smaller”

I wrote a poem about my own Rilkean memory as a way to transmute memories of past experiences and as a tribute to a friend gone too soon.

A Rilkean Memory ~ tears for Sylvia

Sitting by a brook,
little eddies and dykes...
so fluidly music
this fresh swirl
crafting intonations to
should I daresay... soul?
Some thought crystallizes
and the heart skips a beat
like it remembered something
and then a disintegration of sighs
cascading down the cheek
to no particular recall,
just feelings,
budding off the tips of moss
awash a relenting rock.
My beloved held me in his heart
and I felt safe once more
as he whispered,
"why do you waste your precious tears?"
I felt a quiet shame
for holding onto grief
so shallow
like the babbling brook I lay beside
and the heart remembered,
a dear departed soul
who left tragedy in her wake.
A snuffing of a light so precious
to those that loved her,
I think I healed my memories
of me as I slowly said,
I will cry for Sylvia instead.

Some references:








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