Is the comma in danger of extinction? Here at the The Coming of the Toads commas have fallen out of favor as we have begun to eschew the common comma, not all commas, and the comma in writing (where else is it used?) still remains an effective tool for the common reader, but sometimes the right word in the right place creates its own pause and nothing more is needed by way of punctuation, for the common reader or the anti-reader. Of course commas are used for more than to create pause. The comma used to separate items in a series, red white and blue, for example, often punctuated as red, white, and blue, keeps the colors from running together. The comma evolved from the colon and suggested something cut out but today the comma is used to add on, to amplify, to continue, to ramble on, sometimes unmercifully, the end nowhere near, the sentence a structure of lean-tos, each clause flipping about like a butterfly which may look to the common reader indecisive. Then there is the comma butterfly, also called angelwing, and what writer would want to eliminate angel wings from their writing, not us. Whoops, that’s anglewing, not angel wing, a mistake no comma can rescue. Still, the happy discovery that commas may suggest angel wings gives us a lift.
It sometimes seems clear if there is an afterlife it does not interfere with present life. But what is present? The light from our sun is already a little over eight seconds old. We sunbathe in the past, confident in a present we never quite seem to fully inhabit (physics explains it’s perfectly possible to split infinitives). Where then do we go? Maybe time is a question of physics, maybe of metaphysics – the things that may come after the physics.
The dead seem an extremely polite bunch. They do not intrude. Looking for them is like searching for aliens. We may feel their presence, approach them with the telescope of faith, but if they exist, somewhere-somehow, that life lies far far beyond the present five senses. To prove an afterlife, if we want to believe in ghosts and such, we must create a sense beyond our given five.
William Blake noticed angels out and about. Rilke claimed to have seen one. What is it about poets that make them easy prey for such notions? Wouldn’t it be a bit frightful if the first aliens the astronomers discover turn out to be previous earthlings? The problem with communicating with the dead may simply be the length of time their message takes to reach us. By the time the first message from the first dead reaches Earth, we may all be gone. What would the message say? Trick or Treat?
I take no issue with the dead. Nor am I looking forward to meeting any aliens. Let them keep their distance. My problem seems to be sugar: to wit, candy – the Halloween tradition (in these parts).
This year, instead of passing out candy, I propose to hand out poems. Short poems printed on three by five cards, maybe with a cartoon or drawing on one side of the card. I’ll drop a poem card into every little critter’s Halloween basket. No candy. No sugar.
But when I mentioned the idea to Susan, she said, “We’ll get our house egged for sure.”
“You think? With the cost of dairy these days?”
“And the parents will accuse you of poisoning their kids with poetry. Besides, Halloween cards are nothing new. And poetry, while sugar free, is still very high in carbs and calories, not to mention saturated and trans fats.”
So much for my proposal. I guess we’re sticking with candy.
Sestina falls prey to the sound silence of the Angel
sitting in her lap playing with a ball of wireless
a wireless webbed feline bureaucracy
where pleas receive no reply
and the sole sound is a silent catty wind
and long days pass with nothing said of the terrible
Rilke ranted something about beauty being terrible
while in Sestina’s lap sat the lapping catting Angel
who cannot hear in the stringless whine
no place for the bird to come to rest on any wire
wireless carriages of desire race to a place where all replies
are lost in the terrible beauty of the host’s hidden bureaucracy
At Sestina’s night bureau sits a bird clicking crazily
a loon poet on the bum singing terribly
rolling out with rigor a robust reply
to the Angel
who threatens to wire
up the wireless wind
To tone down this tuneless wordwind
while sleeps the will-less bureaucracy
but for now the Angel
sends no reply
Any ranting request certainly receives no reply
as Rilke races the ramparts terribly winded
and shaking her head the windless wireless Angel
disappears into the flow chart of blissful bureaucracy
to that place so terrible
wireworms crawl the tripwires of the hardwired
Waving to the boldest bidder of weird wire
waiting for the beauty of the instantaneous reply
that memo from the waiting Angel so terrible
dark wings unfold and the winds unwind
the galaxies of celestial bureaucracy
bang and bend in time to the tune of the supreme Angel
The terrible embrace of the wireless
Angel orders no reply
For wellness dwindles so deep in such a bureaucracy
See more Sestinas.
A post this past week over at Course of Mirrors prompted me to brush up on Angels. I have not read the book mentioned in the post, “The Wonderful Visit,” by H. G. Wells, but according to Ashen, it’s about an angel shot from the sky by a hunter all atwitter after a strange bird has been sighted in the area. Imagine shooting an angel. I’m going to have to read Wells’s “The Wonderful Visit.” Ashen says it followed “The Time Machine,” yet I don’t even recall ever hearing of it, let alone reading it. Well, Wells was a super-prolific writer, an angel of a higher order. Part of Ashen’s theme, I think, is that we have come to think of angels as cute, cuddly Cupids, innocuous Hallmark Card versions of a much more potent and potentially dangerous entity.
Was Rainer Maria Rilke a blogger? In “The First Elegy,” he wonders if any angel might hear him, “wenn ich schriee,” (“if I cried”). But various translators (perusing the Web) have given, “if I cried out” (but not William Gass, whose version I want to read). My copy of the “Duino Elegies” (The Norton Library, N155, 1963) shows the German next to the English, and was translated by J. B. Leishman and Stephen Spender. They give, “Who, if I cried, would hear me among the angelic orders,” and in their introduction they explain that Rilke was visiting a friend, a Princess Marie, at “Schloss Duino,” a castle near Trieste. He’d received a disturbing letter, a “business letter,” and went out onto a castle “bastion,” for a walk, and “a voice had called to him” with what became the first line of the Duino Elegies. According to the introduction, there was a “roaring wind” blowing around the castle. No one would hear him if he cried, or if he cried out. Yet surely an angel can hear through the noise.
Still, to “cry out” suggests some danger or risk at hand, some fear escaping in a scream of alarm. To simply “cry” does not necessarily suggest a yell, and might not mean a sound at all, but to cry tears, which can be done quietly. The German word Rilke used is “schriee,” which seems in German a form of yell, scream, and cry. Yet, it may not matter, for Rilke decides, in “The First Elegy,” to “keep down my heart.” He does not cry or cry out. For if he did, and an angel did hear him, and suddenly embraced him, he would disappear into the Angel’s super human existence. Yet, the angel “disdains to destroy us.” The angels ignore us, our cries, our crying, our predicament. Yet the “Elegies” might be Rilke’s cry, or his crying.
Here’s the opening of “The First Elegy,” by Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Leishman and Spender:
“Who, if I cried, would hear me among the angelic
orders? And even if one of them suddenly
pressed me against his heart, I should fade in the strength of his
stronger existence. For Beauty’s nothing
but beginning of Terror we’re still just able to bear,
and why we adore it so is because it serenely
disdains to destroy us. Each single angel is terrible.”
I posted my own version in a comment to Ashen’s post, thinking of updating the Rilke to a contemporary setting, keeping the irony. I’ve added to it just a bit here:
I rant in a memo to an Angel
perched high on a wire
of flow chart bureaucracy,
but her beauty ignores me;
it’s just as well,
for the beauty of her instant reply
would replace me.
Every memo from the angel is terrible.
Rilke seems to be suggesting that an angel, compared to the human, is like a light bulb to the moth. The moth is drawn to the heat and light by some desire to fly out of the shadows of its nightly existence, but is consumed by the giant bulb. And Rilke calls this being consumed by the object of one’s desire, “beauty,” which is why he says “terrible beauty,” which is why the angel is terrifying. Yet Rilke also says the angel “disdains to destroy us.” Apparently, we can only just bounce off the light bulb. We can’t penetrate it, and its light does not embrace or consume us. We cannot fully embrace beauty, which is a terrible predicament.
Joseph Campbell has an interesting discussion of angels, and of Satan. Satan was thrown into hell, Campbell reminds us in “The Power of Myth,” but why? What did he do wrong? Campbell suggests that God wanted the angels to serve his new creation, man, but that Satan so loved God that he refused to bow to any other. He was thrown into hell for not bowing to man. Thus man had bagged his first angel.
“The Second Elegy” begins with a line from the first. Rilke’s not giving up on his angels:
“Every Angel is terrible. Still, though, alas!
I invoke you, almost deadly birds of the soul,
knowing what you are.”