Issue 82, Winter 1981
(In memoriam Paula Modersohn-Becker)
I have my dead, and I have let them go,
and was amazed to see them so contented,
so soon at home in being dead, so cheerful,
so unlike their reputation. Only you
return; brush past me, loiter, try to knock
against something, so that the sound reveals
your presence, Oh don’t take from me what I
am slowly learning. I’m sure you have gone astray
if you are moved to homesickness for something
in this dimension. We transform these things;
they aren’t real, they are only the reflections
upon the polished surface of our being,
I thought you were much further on. It troubles me
that you should stray back, you, who have achieved
more transformation than any other woman.
that we were frightened when you died. . .no; rather:
that your stern death broke in upon us, darkly,
wrenching the till-then from the ever-since—
this concerns us; setting it all in order
is the task we have continually before us.
But that you too were frightened, and even now
pulse with your fear, where fear can have no meaning;
that you have lost even the smallest fragment
of your eternity, Paula, and have entered
here, where nothing yet exists; that out there,
bewildered for the first time, inattentive,
you didn’t grasp the splendor of the infinite
forces, as on earth you grasped each Thing;
that, from the realm which already had received you,
the gravity of some old discontent
has dragged you back to measurable time—:
this often startles me out of dreamless sleep
at night, like a thief climbing in my window.
If I could say it is only out of kindness,
out of your great abundance, that you have come,
because you are so secure, so self-contained
that you can wander anywhere, like a child,
not frightened of any harm that might await you. . .
But no: you’re pleading. This penetrates me, into
my very bones, and cuts at me like a saw.
The bitterest rebuke a ghost could bring me,
could scream to me, at night, when I withdraw
into my lungs, into my intestines,
into the last bare chamber of my heart
such bitterness would not chill me half so much
as this mute pleading. What is it you want?
Tell me, must I travel? Did you leave
something behind, some place, which cannot bear
your absence? Must I set out for a country
you never saw, although it was as vividly
near to you as your own senses are?
I will sail its rivers, explore its valleys, ask
about its oldest customs; I will stand
for hours, talking with women in their doorways
and waiting, while they call their children home.
I will watch the way they wrap the land around them
as they work in field and meadow; will demand
to be led before their king; will bribe the priests
to take me to their temple, before the most
powerful of the statues in their keeping,
and to leave me there, shutting the gates behind them.
And only then, when I have learned enough,
I will go to watch the animals, and let
something of their composure slowly glide
into my limbs; will see my own existence
deep in their eyes, which will hold me for a while
and let me go, serenely, without judgment.
I will have the gardeners come to me and recite
many flowers, and in the small clay pots
of their melodious names I will bring back
some remnant of the hundred fragrances.
And fruits: I will buy fruits; and in their sweetness
that country’s earth and sky will live again.
For that is what you understood: ripe fruits.
You set them before the canvas, in white bowls,
and weighed out each one’s fullness with your colors.
Women too, you saw, were fruits; and children, moulded
from inside, into the shapes of their existence.
And at last, you saw yourself as a fruit, you stepped
out of your clothes and brought your naked body
before the mirror, you let yourself inside
down to your gaze; which stayed in front, immense,
and didn’t say, I am that; no: This is.
So free of curiosity your gaze
had become, so unpossessive, of such true
poverty, it no longer desired even
you yourself; it wanted nothing: holy.
And that is how I have cherished you—deep inside
the mirror, where you put yourself, far away
from all the world. Why have you come like this
and so denied yourself? Why do you want
to convince me that your amher necklace still
was heavy, with a heaviness that cannot
exist in the serene heaven of paintings?
Why such a mournful look? Why do you hold out
your body’s contours as if they were your palm,
so that I see the lines only as fate.
Come here, into the lamplight. I’m not afraid
to look the dead in the face. When they return,
they have a right, as much as other things do,
to pause and refresh themselves within our vision.
Come here; let us be silent for a while.
Look at this rose on the corner of my desk:
isn’t the light around it just as timid
as the light on you? It too should not be here,
it should have bloomed and faded in the garden,
outside, never involved with me. But now
it lives on, in its small porcelain vase:
what meaning does it find in my awareness?
Don’t be frightened if I understand it now;
it’s rising in me, ah, I’m trying to grasp it,
must grasp it, even if I die of it. Must grasp
that you are here. As a blind man grasps an object,
I feel your fate, although I cannot name it.
Let us lament together that someone pulled you
out of your mirror’s depths. Can you still cry?
No: I see you can’t. You turned your tears’
strength and pressure into your ripe gaze,
and were transforming every fluid inside you
into a stronger life-force, that would rise
and circulate, in equilibrium, blindly.
Then, for the last time, chance came in and tore you
back, from the last step forward on your path,
into a world where bodies have their will.
Not all at once: tore just a shred at first;
but when, around this shred, day after day,
reality expanded, swelled, grew heavy—
you needed your whole self; you went away
and broke yourself into fragments, as you had to,
painstakingly, because your need was great.
Then from the night-warm soilbed of your heart
you dug the seeds, still green, from which your death
would sprout: your own, your perfect death, the one
which was your whole life’s perfect consummation.
And swallowed down the green seeds of your death,
like all the others, swallowed them, and were
startled to find an aftertaste of sweetness
you hadn’t planned on, a sweetness on your lips, you
who within your senses were so sweet already.
Let us mourn together. Do you know how hesitantly.
how reluctantly your blood, when you called it back,
returned from its incomparable circuit?
How confused it was to take up once again
the body’s narrow circulation; how,
full of mistrust and astonishment, it came
flowing into the placenta and suddenly
was exhausted by the long journey home.
You drove it on, you pushed it forward, you dragged it
up to the hearth, as one would drag a terrified
animal to the sacrificial altar;
and wanted it, after all that, to be happy.
Finally, you compelled it: it was happy,
it ran up and surrendered. And you thought,
because you’d grown accustomed to other measures,
that this would be for just a little while.
But now you were in time, and time is long.
And time goes on, and time grows large, and time
is like a relapse after a long illness.
How short your life was, when it is compared
to those empty hours you passed in silence, bending
the abundant strengths of your abundant future
out of their course, into the new child-seed
that once again was fate. A painful task:
a task beyond all strength. But you performed it
day after day, you dragged yourself in front of it;
you pulled the lovely fabric out of the loom
and wove its threads into a different pattern.
And still had courage enough for celebration.
When it was done, you wished to be rewarded,
like children when they have swallowed down the draught
of bitter tea that perhaps will make them well.
So you chose your own reward, being still so far
removed from people, even then, that no one
could have imagined what reward would please you.
But you yourself knew. You sat up in your child bed
and before you stood a mirror, which gave back
everything, whole. And this everything was you,
and in front of you; inside was mere deception.
the sweet deception of every woman who smiles
as she puts her jewelry on and combs her hair.
And so you died as women used to die,
at home, in your own warm bedroom, the old-fashioned
death of women in labor, who try to close
themselves again but can’t, because that ancient
darkness which they have also given birth to
returns for them, thrusts its way in, and enters.
Once, ritual mourners would have been procured—
women whose job was weeping, who were paid
to howl the whole night through, when all is silent.
That’s why you had to come: to claim the mourning
which we omitted. Can you hear me mourn?
I would like to fling my voice out like a cloth
over the fragments of your death, and keep
pulling at it until it is torn to pieces,
and everything I say would walk around
shivering, in the tatters of that voice.
But mourning is not enough. I must accuse:
oh not the man who withdrew you from yourself
(I cannot find him; he looks like everyone),
but in this one man, I accuse: all men.
When somewhere, from deep within me, there arises
the vivid sense of having been a child,
the purity and essence of that childhood
where I once lived: then I can’t bear to know it.
I want to form an angel from that sense
and hurl him upwards, into the front row
of angels who cry out, rememhering God.
For this suffering has lasted far too long;
none of us can bear it; it is too heavy—
this tangled suffering of spurious love
which, building on convention like a habit,
calls itself just, and fattens on injustice.
Show me a man with the right to his possession.
Who can possess what cannot hold its own self,
but only, now and then, will catch itself
for a blissful moment, and throw itself away
into the air, as a child throws a ball.
As little as a captain can hold the carved
Nike facing outward from his ship’s prow
when the lightness of her godhead suddenly
lifts her up into the bright sea-wind:
so little can one of us call back the woman
who will no longer see us, but, as if
by miracle, sets forth along the narrow
path of her existence, in perfect safety—
unless, that is, he wishes to do wrong.
For this is wrong, if anything is wrong:
not to enlarge the freedom of a love
with all the inner freedom one can summon.
We need, in love, to practice only this:
letting each other go. For holding on
comes easily; we do not need to learn it.
Are you still here? Are you standing in some corner?
You knew so much of all this, you were able
to do so much; you passed through life so open
to all things, like an early morning. I know:
women suffer; for love means being alone;
and artists in their work sometimes intuit
that they must keep transforming, where they love.
You began both; both exist in that
which any fame takes from you and distorts.
Oh you were far beyond all fame; were almost
invisible; had withdrawn your beauty, softly,
as one would lower a brightly-colored flag
on the gray morning after a holiday.
You had just one desire: a years-long work—
which was not finished, in spite of all your efforts.
If you are still here with me, if in this darkness
there is still some place where your spirit resonates
on the shallow sound-waves stirred up by my voice:
hear me; help me. We can so easily
slip back from what we have struggled to attain,
abruptly, into a life we never wanted;
can find ourselves entangled, as in a dream,
and die there, without ever waking up.
This can occur. Anyone who has lifted
his blood into a years-long work may find
he can’t sustain it, the force of gravity
is irresistible, and it falls back, worthless.
For somewhere there is an ancient enmity
between our daily life and the great work.
Help me, in saying it, to understand it.
Do not return. If you can bear to, stay
dead with the dead. The dead have their own tasks.
But help me, if you can without distraction,
as what is farthest sometimes helps: in me.