I. “Those who (while visiting a foreign country) have lost the end of a Q tip in their ear and have been unable to explain the problem….Any person who has lost a urine sample in the mail…. Women who gave up the accordion because of pinched breasts… Anyone whose knees have been ruined as a result of performing sexual acts in elevators… Any writer who has been photographed for the jacket of a book…sitting in a study and looking intensely at one’s own book….” –Michael Ondaatje, “The Elimination Dance (Intermission)” from The Cinnamon Peeler
This book was sold to me as containing “the sexiest poem ever,” and there is a sexy poem in it, although it did not really get the seller anywhere with me. I was in Paris, and the only souvenirs I could afford were paperback books and one bottle of cheap wine to drink on the next Bastille Day.
On same trip, I visited the Centre Pompidou with these two charming American attorneys who liked buying me dinner. I enjoyed their mocking of all the crazy things at the museum, like the artist’s shit in a can and the cabbage on a pedestal, and the giant Flintstones igloo-looking thing, which was being observed by a mass of serious-faced French students sitting in a circle on the floor. It was some funny stuff.
Duchamp and Man Ray and these other jokers were having a good time being fabulous, and making serious jokes, and I think the last thing they would want is for people to furrow their brows and hunker down to contemplate deeper truths. So I loved making more jokes, and shrugging with delight. The most ridiculous thing that happened was that I forgot the idiom for “still life,” and confused the hell out of the nice lawyers by translating a lot of painting titles as “dead nature.”
II. “What will you do, God, when I die?/I am your pitcher (when I shatter?)/I am your drink (when I go bitter?)/I, your garment; I, your craft./Without me what reason have you?/…Your gaze, which I welcome now/as it warms my cheek,/will search for me hour after hour/and lie at sunset, spent,/on an empty beach/among unfamiliar stones./What will you do, God? I am afraid.” — Rainer Maria Rilke, Book of Hours, translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy
That’s some of yer classic highly heretical mystical thinking there. I love all of Rilke’s Hours, although I guess they might strike some people as rather plain and some of them are kind of sloppy wet kisses (as the subtitle suggests, “Love Poems”) to Rilke’s God. Mystics have a closeness to God that everyone else is intensely jealous of. That’s what happens when you take the coolest, smartest, sexiest girl to the prom. But would you rather go with someone else? I didn’t think so.
On the other hand, it sucks to get burned at the stake. After all that preaching they did at you telling you God loved you and was personally interested in you. Then the minute you start actually experiencing God and talking about it, there’s hell to pay. So to speak. By “prayer,” we meant reciting things other people wrote. And by “listen for God’s voice,” we meant listen to us.
Rilke jokes a lot with God in those poems, although in his joking he is, like all spiritual thinkers and some dadaists, very serious. “You, God, who live next door” and “I cannot believe that little death/whom we busily ignore/should still trouble us so.”
III. “Your thoughts don’t have words every day/They come a single time/Like esoteric sips/Of the communion Wine/Which while you taste so native seems/So easy so to be/You cannot comprehend its price/Nor its infrequency” –Emily Dickinson, 1452
Dickinson has the most unique voice in English. That’s it. And no one has any idea what she’s talking about 1/8 of the time, which is great, too. Another 1/8 of the time she’s stinking obvious and even a little trite (shallow things can actually be real deep, she wrote). She doesn’t care what you think. She’s going to rhyme and sound like an inside-out hymn and a bassackwards Psalm. That’s just how she rolls.
I was really planning to become Emily Dickinson at one point. I became too fond of travel, and social exchange. I still think about Dickinson’s crusty puzzle poems the way I think about “Taxi Driver”: I’m never quite sure what’s going on, which is both exciting and frustrating.