Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels’
hierarchies? And even if one of them pressed me
suddenly against his heart: I would be consumed
in that overwhelming existence. For beauty is nothing
but the beginning of terror, which we still are just able to endure,
and we are so awed because it serenely disdains
to annihilate us. Every angel is terrifying.
Rainer Maria Rilke
For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror. I first read those lines twenty-odd years ago in a one room apartment in an empty Victorian slum house in Jacksonville, Florida. A raccoon and her babies lived in the empty apartment above; a white rat that was probably, once upon a time, someone’s pet, used to slither in through a hole above a curtain rod, slide down the curtain and eat all the crumbs off the floor; and one zillion roaches lived behind the walls, making the bathroom walls writhe and shimmer at night. When I first moved into the place I made the mistake of turning on the bathroom light in the middle of the night, naked to the horror of all those roaches scurrying, scuttling, and scattering over each other – on the ceiling, across the walls, into the bathtub, down the sink drain... I can still hear the sound they made – something like one thousand wet crow feathers thrashing against an aluminum grid.
Roaches in Florida can reach the size of an egg, the size of a fist. When they are crushed by car tires, they can easily be mistaken for large oil stains. Sometimes they fly. The roaches in that room ran across my face at night, laid eggs on my socks in my clothes drawer, and sometimes the tiny ones, the babies, would manage to slip into a pot of rice and beans cooking on the hot plate (there’s nothing like lifting a pot lid and looking down at rice spotted with a few tiny boiled roaches). For the first three or four months in that place I couldn’t shake a repetitive dream where my skin had transformed into a patchwork of roach parts – wings, thorax, abdomen, tined legs, antennae.
One night, waking from that dream in a sweat, I saw a huge roach antenna waving from a crack in the wall, less than a foot from my face. I was close enough, and the roach was big enough, for me to make out the different segments of the antenna. These segments are an intricate part of how the roach feels and smells the world. Watching that tiny, slow-waving whip was hypnotic. It certainly knew I was there. Maybe, through the information it was receiving through those segments, it knew I knew. I have no idea how long I watched that antenna – with horror, with wonder - before it finally disappeared into the wall crack.
A few nights later, a roach ran across my face while I was sleeping and – crazy and enraged – I leapt out of bed and stamped around the room, throwing shoes, screaming. When I finally stopped - there was that sound again, that constant sound, the hum beneath everything in that house – feathers against metal – coming from the bathroom, from behind the walls. What was I going to do? I remembered that antenna waving from the crack near the bed and thought – desperate, sleep-deprived – why not try and make a deal? Christ, that antenna was easily big enough to pick up on something I said. If not the actual words, then the intent. So I began to talk, telling them that I knew the house was theirs, that they had been there long before I had arrived, but I needed sleep, solid all-night-long sleep, and I couldn’t afford to move, so –
“You can have this place at night,” I said into the dark, “but no more running on the bed, no more running across my face. The bed is my territory. You get the night in this place...but I get the fucking day. Understand? I don’t want to see any of you while I’m awake.”
No one ever believes this, but it worked. No more roaches ran across my face at night, and no more roaches scurried around in plain sight during the day.
It was around that time that a poet friend gave me his yellowing copy of The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, edited and translated by Stephen Mitchell, and I started reading the Duino Elegies. I was pretty green at the time and had no idea who Rilke was, how those lines are – for poets, at least – as famous as the opening lines of Anna Karenina are for novelists (“All happy families are more or less like one another; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own particular way.”). When I read that line – beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror – I instantly thought about my encounter with the roach antenna. And the crazy, sleep-deprived pleading with roaches in the dead of night. The goofy mystery of it. The mingling of repulsion and attraction. The naked encounter with something seemingly so very much ‘other’.
Several years later I was living in Des Moines, Iowa, where many of my aunts, uncles and cousins live. I spent that first Christmas Eve in Des Moines at my Aunt Marita’s house, and, in the family tradition, everyone was required to perform or recite something (we’re a family of storytellers, musicians and artists, so there you go…). My grandmother was sitting at the edge of the circle in a chair by the Christmas tree, eyes closed. She had always been a great storyteller, a writer of beautifully crafted letters, with a no-nonsense (and yet unjudgmental and, in my case, gentle) approach to things, but that year she had started to withdraw into herself. She was ninety-four. The stories she told me when I visited that year were all centred on her first four years of life.
A cousin was about to read from the book of Luke (“And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field…”), when he announced he wasn’t just reading from any bible, but from my grandmother’s grandmother’s bible. Suddenly my grandmother’s eyes popped open and she stood up. She had become very frail by this time, usually leaning on an offered arm to get around, so everyone was stunned when she stood up, unwavering, solid. No one moved. She stared into the distance with milky, half-blind eyes, and began describing a tornado swiftly approaching the farmhouse in Missouri where she’d lived for a few years as a child.
There was no one in the house but her grandmother and a younger brother. Instead of taking the children into the storm cellar, the old woman had grabbed her bible off the kitchen table and flung open the front door. Outside, the world was tearing itself apart. Everything was on the wing; the sound of the tornado a black howl. My grandmother and her brother didn’t know what to do, so they followed the old woman out onto the front porch, terrified, clutching tightly to her legs beneath billowing skirts. The front door banged on its hinges, branches and leaves skinned the house, wind shrieked into every crack, and the old woman raised her bible at the flying chaos and shouted, “My God is a beautiful God! My God is a terrible God! My God is a beautiful and terrible God!”
And there she was, my grandmother – hair slightly disheveled; arm aloft, holding onto an invisible bible; staring at a tornado at the other end of the century, at the other end of the room; her voice deep, commanding, ancient, as she repeated her grandmother’s words: My God is a beautiful God! My God is a terrible God! My God is a beautiful and terrible God! For a few seconds time collapsed and my grandmother was my great-grandmother.
No one moved. No one spoke. Then she closed her eyes and settled back in her chair, silent for the rest of the evening.
That line – beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror – will never leave me, has become part of my cell structure. It has served as a koan (of sorts) for twenty years – a question that cannot be answered with the rational mind, but only with an entire life.
The Beginning of Terror
on the silver water-heater
from the cold. Caught
in her gaze I
am the last day, you
are the first. She’ll be dead
by morning. What is
Pressing our foreheads
to rough bark, roots beneath
curve, a ribcage
around earth. For a few minutes
is a sudden-cry, awake: Streetlight
of dark limbs, roof
a smog-prismed star, silver car-bumper
wrote twenty seven volumes
after seeing light glance off
a pewter dish). What is
horizontal. Open mouth
of a dead mouse
rises from snow-crust. Burnt
rubber smell of the
snow-caked bus. Driver
his brakes are hung up (Hallelujah,
we can’t get to work). Fist-cold,
down to bone. Wet wood,
when fingers are frozen. Finally
light the stove. Flame
against glass: Earth, air, fire, water,
exchanging form: Every-
thing eating, being
eaten. A flock of sparrows
through the neighbor’s chimney smoke, turning
like a school of fish. What is
At the gorge’s
black lip: A woman, man,
and future creature (in-
from green lichen. The ones
who watch over
this shifting light, these
in the strata’d
to the Rio Grande. What is
In the cave-dream
white pigment, paints
no one has ever seen, says
those fish have some connection
to the content
of all dream. Answers
the terror-question beneath:
And when those fish die out? What is
So many slipping
off the edge: Prophets
to dumpster-crows; changeling
rune-syllables no one can read
inside every fist; scythe-keys
that refuse to unlock
we are climbing
the eyes of the old man
staring at the revolving blue and red cop-lights
in the car-jam at the bottom
of the 5th Street exit ramp. What is
over her body. Candle flames
all night. Shadows
across the wall. What is
Sacramento, California; Rio Grande Gorge, New Mexico; Nederland, Colorado
A good book about the problems of translating Rilke's Duino Elegies came out about ten years ago by William Gass.
It's a good introduction to the themes moving through the long poem. At the end is Gass' own translation.
I will be reading at the Dylan Thomas Centre, Swansea, this coming Thursday, June 30th, at 7:30 pm.
Work from On the Side of the Crow, How the World was Made, Sixth Sense, some newer poems, and possibly a short section of the novel, A Fish Trapped Inside the Wind.
Paintings above are by Hieronymous Bosch, the godfather of all surrealists that were to come. If you're interested in a song with fascinating lyrics about the paintings of this original proto-surrealist check out my series of blogs on the demo tapes of Zak Jourek (a forgotten singer-songwriter) here.
Or listen to the song (and his other songs) on Soundcloud here.
He interweaves beauty and terror in an interesting way.