The following is an excerpt from a novel, Night Songs.
IT IS LOU ANDREAS-SALOMÉ who gives you your life. You are twenty-two when you meet her and the feeling that comes upon your heart is unlike anything you have ever experienced. She has been Nietzsche’s intimate confidante, and Freud’s, and when she first takes you into her bed, you find yourself possessed, entirely and completely, by a power you could not have imagined. She changes your name, from René, the name given you by Phia, to Rainer, the name by which you will be known for all time. Rainer Maria. It is as if you are yourself at long last. Her husband is a specialist in the languages of Iran and instructs you about the nature of Islam and the cultures of the Middle and Far East and encourages you to read a German translation of the Quran, a book that feels more in keeping with your understanding of God’s role in the lives of men than anything you have read in your mother’s Bible. Her husband also includes you, without apparent reservation or complaint, in the day-to-day operation of the household, knowing full well that you are his wife’s lover. Their relationship is different from any you have experienced, one based entirely on intellectual and economic affinity, and Lou tells you that the condition she put on their union was that their marriage would never be physically consummated, a condition her husband has apparently accepted without complaint.
It is with Lou that you travel twice to Russia. She is fluent in the language—it is her birthplace—and it is through her connections that you are able to meet Tolstoy and Leonid Pasternak and others. Here is God at long last, apparent not only in the topography—the steppes and mountains and lakes and rivers and snow-blasted forests now careening into riotous bloom—but in the devotion of its people, their uncomplicated understanding that God cares for them, that he is present in their daily lives, bending his glorious heavenly ear to the soil and, in doing so, bringing forth all green things into the clear, golden air. You see that glory in the icons of Rublev and Nikitin and Zubov, in the onion domes of the old churches, in the long sweep of a world utterly removed from the bustle of Europe. There is ritual here, but it is simple and kind and necessary; you do not sense that the farmers in the fields are possessed of the heavy weight of guilt and sin. There is no question of heaven, for their souls are already prepared for the life to come after, and so the kingdom of God is assumed; they will be reunited with their loved ones in the veil beyond the veil. How could it be otherwise when God loves you? When God loves us all?
The place names themselves are like poems: Kiev, Kremenchug, Poltava, Kharkov, Vornezh, Saratov, Simbirsk, Karaz, Nizhny Novgorod, Yaroslavl. Even now, the very thought of those place names are like hot blood coursing through the muscle that is your heart. Lou takes you to meet the poet Spiridon Drozhzhin. He is like a man carved out of a block of wood by an adze, his poems holding in their centers an expression gaspingly simple and direct. You are Rainer Osipovich in Drozhzhin’s village, and that name, that renaming, feels like an acceptance of a path you do not yet truly understand you are walking, as if you have been invited into a circle so secret that you cannot even see its shape. Here, again, is God’s hand upon the earth. Here again is the whole of Russia as nothing more than itself. The village in which Drozhzhin lives is but a huddle of wood-slat huts gathered together between cleared fields and the thick green of the impenetrable forestland to the north. Lou and Drozhzhin walk barefoot along the river in the first hours of the day. What you want, what you have always wanted, is everything that is here all around you: a simplicity of vision, a simplicity of life itself, God held not in the context of a cathedral that speaks more of the wealth of the church than of the piety of its parishioners or the sanctity of its message, but in the fact of the earth itself, in the way the rye and the wind converse, in the way the moth and grasshoppers move among blue cornflowers and rainclouds roam the sky. My Muse was born in a peasant’s hut and it taught me many simple songs. The songs are where God lives. The songs and the breath between.
So strong is your impression of Russia that it is a struggle to find your way back from that place. You write your mother that you feel like one born in Saint Petersburg. Lou calls it your Russification, which only serves to remind you further of just how strained that relationship has become. You want to possess her, to have her utterly and totally to yourself, but Lou is unpossessable, a fact that you knew even from the start and which you appreciate and honor even as you wish you could change it. And perhaps more importantly than that, you can sense that Lou has grown tired of your passions, your occasional outbursts of wild weeping, your obsessiveness, and what she continues to view as your propensity for absurd and unwarranted levels of naiveté. For her, Russia is the country she fled for the greater culture of Vienna and Berlin, and the idea that some variety of simple grace is inherent in the lives of the dirty farm folk is, to her mind, but a quaint longing for a mythical Russia that does not actually exist, a kind of fairy tale of piety writ on people who are, to her thinking, very often closed-minded, uneducated brutes. And yet you cannot accept this point of view, nor can you shake the feeling that you have finally located a geography that mirrors exactly the topography of your soul.
For a time you are obsessed with the idea of assembling a show of Russian painters in Berlin or Munich, and this is what most occupies your thoughts when you travel to Worpswede, an artists’ colony in the moorlands in the north of Germany. You have a friend there, a polymath graphic artist and architect, but when you arrive you are beguiled instead by a pair of young women—a painter and a sculptor—who will come to occupy you completely. You think you are falling in love, although you cannot exactly tell with which woman, for your heart turns and turns again, ensnared, enraptured. Your relationship with Lou has reached a point of impossible strain. You walk barefoot with her through the forests—a habit you and she developed in Russia—and much of that motion is in silence, not the comfortable silences of your years together but something else, something that feels filled with the black ghost of loss.
What you want most of all is the sense of home you encountered in the Russian villages upon the upper Volga. Lou finds your interest in such a life utterly ridiculous. You are a poet, she tells you. There is nothing more important than that. And yet you cannot shake the feeling of emptiness that rides your heart. When the painter, Paula, announces that she is betrothed to the best of the Worpswede artists, the painter Otto Modersohn, you pivot your bruised heart to the sculptor. Her name is Clara, and the dark liquid of her eyes pours back into your own. By the time you are married, in 1901—you at the age of twenty-five, Clara just two years younger—she is with child.
You name the baby Rebecca Sophie and care for her as best you can, but in truth the squalling and incessant needfulness of the tiny creature are too much almost from the start. How can you be expected to do your work with a baby in the house? You worry about money, but there is no way to earn a living if you cannot write. And yet there is nothing to be done, at least not at Westerwede, where you have settled just a few kilometers from the artist’s colony. All the while, your thoughts are of Russia. The hills surrounding the poet Drozhzhin’s village hold the source waters of the Volga: the Daugava, the Lovat, the Msta, the Dnieper, the Syas, others too numerous to name. Even now, as you sit with the baby asleep in your arms, there are humble farmers amidst those lakes and rivers, their bodies bent close to the soil, and God is with them, the proof of his beating heart present in the summer’s pond lilies and the winter’s great gusts of clean white snow. This is what you have sought all your days: the reality of God here and now in the soil, in the water, in the air, in the touch of her eyes across the room, in the stirring of that chain pulled tight from one heart to the next. But now, huddled in the steaming marshlands of the Teufelsmoor, you only feel yourself crushed by the quantifiable terrors of your ever-dwindling income.
It is Rodin who saves you, saves you and destroys your family. You are twenty-six when you set off to Paris to write a German-language monograph on the man who is among the most famous artists of his era. He is a hulking figure, white-bearded, possessed of a scowling, serious countenance that sometimes breaks into slow, deep-toned laughter. In the years you spend in his company, you come to understand that he is the very embodiment of what an artist can and should be, his devotion to his work total and never ending; everything serves it, everything feeds and clarifies and supports it. Even the gardens around his workshop are there for his own inspiration and enjoyment, his mind and hands and heart all striving in unison upon the great labor of animating stone and metal. Nothing is extraneous; nothing left to chance. You did not know life could be this way, that anyone could ever have the courage to live their art with every breath. You are utterly and totally enthralled, and of course you are changed.
You have had pride in your poetry, in your skill at pushing the language toward the inherently inexpressible boundaries of the soul, but now you are faced, day after day, with art that is comprised of sheer physicality, and in its shadow your poetry feels a mere abstraction. Rodin’s work is of motion where there is no motion. It is pain and love and longing and passion and thought, all from clay and metal and stone. It is arms and hands and torsos, the great riotousness of the human form, its passionate motion, its heavy-browed contemplation: the mind and heart and soul manifested in flesh that is not even flesh but bronze and clay and marble. When you walk the Jardin des Plantes in the afternoons and evenings, you think of the ways in which Rodin’s hands move, as if intuitively, across the surface of clay or plaster, his chisel tapping against marble, working the details, bringing some aspect of the human form to life, the body its own source, its own subject, containing its own multitudes, all of which is manifest in the exterior, the phenomenon of sensory human experience: the interplay of light upon the curved, interwoven planes of the body. The flesh. The skin. The muscles rippling just underneath, but even these a kind of invisible truth rendered not by sculpting the muscles but only by suggesting their hidden shapes upon the surface. God! That any artist can do such a thing! From clay! From plaster! From stone!
In the landscape of the Teufelsmoor, you had looked to the earth itself to provide a vocabulary, but now you wonder at how the exterior manifests an interior world, the exposed parts of the hidden, not only of those things you encounter in the Jardin but of characters you conjure from myth and legend and literature: King David and Joshua and the Buddha and Sappho. These are poems in which you try to reach through a kind of physicality and into the self, what the philosopher Kant called the “Ding an sich,” the thingness of the thing, unknowable, unreachable, and yet is it not the role of poetry to find that unreachable limit of language? You are the panther in its cage and you are the cage itself and the bars and the great cat’s terrible gaze. You are the sculpted torso on its museum plinth, the translucent cascade of its shoulders as its borders burst like a star. And what you write is that there is no place that does not see you. What you write is what Rodin’s work tells you day after day after day: You must change your life.
By the time you leave Paris it is 1910 and you are thirty-five. Clara has resumed her artistic pursuits, and Rebecca Sophie is being raised by your in-laws in Oberneuland, Lower Saxony, although you give such concerns little thought, penning an occasional letter in which you ask after Sophie, the girl’s middle name a mirror of your mother’s, Phia, and so a kind of nickname you return to in your rare thoughts of your daughter. Mostly you are occupied by the novel you have written about a dissipated young man awash with a surfeit of feeling, ruminating about an unrecoverable past as he runs out of funds in a Paris apartment. It is a grim and fractured text, only partially narrative, and it feels to you like some distillation of your darkest moments in the city of light. You have also written the best poems of your life, two volumes of in-ness of a variety that you could not have imagined before Rodin and which you call, simply, New Poems. And you have effectively put an end to your marriage, although your relationship with Clara continues to be cordial. You love her in a way, but there is no passion and perhaps there never has been. As for Rebecca Sophie, you get news of her from her mother but see her only on rare occasions. You will continue to think of her as a child for all the years to come, even when, much later, the news arrives that she has married and given you a granddaughter. The idea of it seems impossible, but the words are there and you know they must be true.
You find a variety of benefactors over the years to come, most of them wealthy patronesses who are more than happy to support a poet, even when he has certain requirements: a particular style of standing desk that you must have built, special writing paper bearing your initials, clothes that must be made to your specifications. You do not think of these as extravagances but rather as ways in which to push back the niggling concerns of daily life. Surely it is not much: a room in a castle upon the coast, good vegetarian meals, access to beauty and solitude as well as occasional company, sometimes intellectual, sometimes physical, a comfortable bed upon which to sleep, and access to books and art. If these are in place, you are able to do your work. If they are absent, you are much less able to find your muse. Is it such a terrible thing to maintain some standards as to how you are willing to live your life?
At the invitation of Princess Maria Thurn-und-Taxis, your latest patroness, you spend six months as a guest at the castle of Duino upon the cliffs above the Adriatic, and it is here that you begin the poems which you believe, almost from the first word, will be your life’s work, a series of lengthy and complex elegies that feel, as they flood from your pen, almost as if dictated from some other source, as if you have, at last, been afforded the opportunity to plug directly into the divine spark itself, your heart and mind, your soul, tethered to some heaven you are, even in the work, struggling to comprehend. Every angel is terrifying. It feels as if the words blow in directly from the dark sea, from the cold oceanic wind. As if the angels themselves are speaking to you with their terrible voices, their blinding light.
Details of Rilke’s time in Russia come primarily from Donald Prater’s A Ringing Glass: The Life of Rainer Maria Rilke and from the introduction to Letters, Summer 1926: Boris Pasternak, Marina Tsvetayeva, Rainer Maria Rilke, edited by Yevgeny Pasternak, Yelena Pasternak, and Konstantin M. Azadovsky. One line is quoted from Drozhzhin’s “My Muse” as translated by Anna A. Tavis; other language in the same paragraph is inspired by Drozhzhin’s work, though not quoted directly. Elsewhere, lines are borrowed from Rilke’s “The Panther” and “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” as translated by Edward Snow.
Christian Kiefer is the author of the novels The Infinite Tides (Bloomsbury), The Animals (Liveright), and Phantoms (Liveright) and the novella One Day Soon Time Will Have No Place Left to Hide (Nouvella). He directs the low-residency MFA program at Ashland University.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.