Poetry at Sangam




Poetry, Ritual and the Production of Impossible Space

When I was a child, I lived in a subdivision town called Middleburg Heights, on the south side of Cleveland. The lots were small, just a bit wider than the houses, with yards that backed up to a short hedge that separated one yard from another. Alongside the garage, my father had planted fruit trees and rhubarb, and there was a honey locus tree with its thin willowy leaves.  The folks who lived behind us fought sometimes, and their son was the “weird kid” at school who’d spend all day in the bathroom, sometimes climbing out the window to get free.

In a dream once, I crawled back through the hedge and, instead of the back neighbors lawn, I found an open strip of land, a bit like the cuts that travel along power lines, but wind tossed & high grass & purple shadowed bushes like Van Gogh’s Arles, and the excitement of this, discovering this between where it couldn’t be, an impossible space, tossed by June airs. In some ways I’ve been looking for this kind of thing since, places between, or further rooms, a twisting stairway above.

In the brief time I have here, I read Anne Carson’s treatment of a poem by Sappho in Eros, the Bittersweet, and my own analysis of early Rg Vedic hymns to dawn to explore the manner in which figuration/articulation functions to open what I call a second neighboring, proximate, dialogically imbricate “impossible space” that is, depending on circumstance, the “room” of the ritual or the space limned by the lattice work of a poem. I’ll then move way upstream to show the relevance of this with respect to Rainer Maria Rilke, so as to consider the ways in which poetry is used in modern contexts as a way of revealing and justifying impossible space in the face of the ascendancy of a materialist world-view and/or the deconstruction of metaphysical specularization of the figure

My degree is in History of Religions, with a focus on Vedic and Early Buddhist ritual and discourse. In the course of a long project focused on explaining the centrality of the Buddha-image in a supposedly non-theistic religion, I worked on the creation of figural relations in RgVedic poetry and ritual as a relevant contextual case.  The key finding in this work was that the early context for many of these poems was a set of lauds sung at a ritual at which fire was kindled and brief offerings made at the sun’s stations at dawn, noon, and sunset.

Very briefly, the poems lay out two figural surfaces or topoi: the topos of the dawn itself figured by speaking of the quality of light, the new colors, the sun ranged in the morning’s clouds or perhaps just the bare line of red lifted into a lowering charcoal night or the new blue shapes of just discerned surroundings; and a mythic, imagined topos figured by way of singing of the devas, powerful spirit lords associated with plays of light (the sun, storm-clouds, the flashing waters, fire). The verses lay these topoi out like cloth and then weave them together using all the devices of poetry, and in that making, a third topoi is figured: the reflexive topos of the ritual ground  itself on which the singer stands, the songs sung alongside the doubled dawn, doubling the dawn.

Imagine then: a guy or several men sitting around a fire at dawn, somewhere on the vast steppes of Central Asia, their cattle moving about nearby, tawny in the fresh light, wind brushing the straps of their tents, calling out into—spelling out—the day. Like a bird song, something flung out into the air as a way of projecting a shape—a duration—that then exists as a figure among the other objects of the world. A figure that opens out a space of relation. A field in which they suddenly see themselves stand.

And so a tryptic: dawn world of the senses said doubled by an imagined topos writ across sky, by which singing a second doubling of fire and sun, world and the impossible space of the self—what Rilke will call a human space between river and rock—is gestured.


In a class on Poetry, Desire, and Religion, I have students read from Maurizio Bettini’s The Portrait of the Lover alongside Anne Carson’s Eros the Bittersweet. Bettini’s work includes a study of the trope by which a drawing or statue of a lover becomes a sometimes haunting, sometimes fruitful portal to an absent, often dead, lover.[i] Carson considers a proximate case, taken from a fragment by Sappho, in which a triangular set of relations is figured: Sappho, the poet, watches a man embrace a woman, and, in the saying of that, her own desire for the woman is admitted. [ii]

Carson suggests that in this case, desire for an other is opened up through a figure, and, mediated by that figure, a necessary and mimetically constructed difference between other and self is founded, where self discovers itself, secret, seeing from a separate, and interior place, apart from, and in relation to, even though.

Again then a triadic structure related to a call: a sensible other, an imaginaire—vehicle or prosthesis by which the reach towards sensed other is said, and the newly disclosed and impossible place of the self, now layered in relation to the other by the articulation of the poem.  A space opened up between self and world in which one is said to stand.


In both cases, what mimesis makes involves a touch between imagination or thought and sensed world: a bending or weaving, a back and forth made possible by language: edge of one image folded into the next, enjambment or metrical slip, doubled vowel or consonant by which two worlds touch, dance apart, echo back proposed.  In this way what sense said finds is a doubled world and an impossible place for desire.


And, in both cases, a third term infused or considered by an imaginative act of seeing (devas in clouds, the statued lover,  Sappho, herself, in the man), slid over the other, makes possible both a difference (no matter this is understood in physical or embodied terms or as the difference of death) and relation.

My sense of the relevance of this for this conference is that, when the poem itself is thought of as a lattice or tongue, a word that covers what desires reaches towards, it is then, also, a means of interrogating the relation of self to other, and thus a means of interrogating all that we ask of the “other”—as object, as God, as lover—we are at stake in.


The early twentieth century poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s repeatedly took up the poem as a primal scene for considering the relations I find in the Rg Veda and Carson saw in Sappho.  There is, of course, no way to make this point here in full. Hence, as a prolegomenon, I will spend the remainder of my time briefly reading a series poems—two from his early work, and two from the late Sonnets—as a way to trace this point.

The first is the lintel or bookplate poem for The Book of Images, “Entrance”. The poem begins with an imperative invitation to “whoever you are” that we step away from our room “where we know everything” at “the last house before the far-off” and from that threshold he imagines:[iii]

With your eyes, which in their weariness
barely free themselves from the worn-out threshold,
you lift very slowly one one black tree
and place it against the sky: slender, alone.
And you have made the world. And it is huge
And like a word which grows ripe in silence.
And as your will seizes on its meaning
tenderly your eyes let it go…

Here, Rilke lims the basic figure of the poem as imagined gesture—tree listed up against the sky, figured—by which world and self is known: world as word grown ripe in silence, and self in the movement of reaching for and forgetting, in the aside which is its own impulse, a prior echo, perhaps, of the Eighth Elegy’s “any womb-born creature” that, “terrified as fleeing from itself, zigzags through the air, the way a crack runs through a teacup. So the bat quivers across the porcelain of evening”.[iv] Here, the disclosure of desiring self produces a question related to the relation between self and world. In this poem, early in Rilke’s oevre, he can still imagine world can be relinquished, that the other can fall away, the ties undone.

If one looks at Rilke’s process, his major works generally came into being in pairs, differentiated either by genre or form, or by tactic. This suggests that, at the compositional level, a particular project was realized in at least two iterations. The second poem I want to consider is from the better-known sister of The Book of Images, whose English title is “The Book of Hours”, whose three sections were written over about five years.  In the first section, written not long after Rilke’s return from a trip to Russia, Rilke attempts to fashion a series of icon-painting poems in which an image of his “dark God” was figured. Very much aware that the poetic gesture “brought God into being” (much as the tree made world), these poems explore the poets relation to an other that, like the poet, needs and wants.

The series of poems make “picture” or “figure” as Bettini would have it dialogical by adopting a conceit of direct address as an aesthetic dynamic. The poems are sketches in a workbook, but also letters and make full use of what the epistle allows—direct address, assumption of sympathy, self-disclosure and questioning. The force of this diction allows Rilke to imagine the God he draws a neighbor, in a nearby room, separated only by a thin wall.

The familiar diction Rilke assumes here is close to that of Indian bhakti or Rumi, where God is read as lover, as thou, rather than distant Lord.  And its no surprise as many of the poems written were also, partly or in whole, written for Lou Andres Salome.

What is at stake in bhakti is an understanding that the intimate love relationship leads to a recognition of an other as a difference to which one must be loyal, and the use of this insight in thinking of the other in its relation to self whatever metaphysics or theology one has chosen to say the other in terms of. What Merleau-Pont calls chiasmus, a doubling of world that makes it possible to imagine other (and thus objects too) as worthy of ethical care and consolation.

The last poems I want to consider here are the first two poems in The Sonnets to Orpheus. The first, which echoing “Entrance” begins:[v]

A tree ascended there. Oh pure transcendence!
Oh! Orpheus sings! Oh tall tree in the ear!
And all things hushed. Yet even in that silence
a new beginning, beckoning, change appeared.

Rilke imagines that this note makes the forest animal’s own cries seem smaller—it quiets their difficult desire, so that they who at best had had a “makeshift hut to receive the music” of beauty, “a shelter nailed up out of their deepest longing” now have a temple that Orpheus has built “deep inside their hearing”.

The notes here are caught from the Seventh Elegy and Rilke’s determination there that at the heart of the relation figured by desire was call—and that call could be a sheltering tree, a stop against desire, a place for it, shelter, or well, or room.  Hence, the difference of self and other that figure makes, when held to, is an ethical difference, a means of realizing a good in the face of the other.

In the second poem, Rilke produces a layering, showing how well he has learned that things are doubled. We read about the Orphic call, the tree ascended sheltering, and turn the page, and he names it differently as a girl, beginning again:[vi]

And it was almost a girl and came to be
out of this single joy of song and lyre
and through her green veils shown forth radiantly
and made herself a bed inside my ear.

And slept there.

In a key poem of Part Two that begins “Will Transformation”, Rilke pairs this poem to a note from the myth of Daphne to finish the thought of tree as dancing girl who, “as she feels herself become laurel, wants you to change into wind”.[vii] But here, it is her sleep—her forgetting is everything:

the awesome tree, the distances I had felt
so deeply that I could touch them, meadows in spring:
all the wonders that had ever seized my heart.

She slept the world.

And so tall tree in the ear is doubled by girl asleep in the ear and dreaming. A doubling that is made formally explicit where Rilke makes us aware of Sonnet as lattice, pouring his thought across the end of the first quatrain, and then again across the turn the first tercet should signal.  Following a mimetic impulse has led him to say world and self as garment laid down over a lattice, a bit of cotton seed, caught by a thorn.

Thus mimesis also as a way to make room, and not just room, but what Rilke speaks of in a poem from The New Poems, “The Rose Interior”:[viii]

Where is there the outwardness
to what lies here within?
Whose wound was ever dressed,
bandaged in such fine linen?
Reflected here, what skies
lie open and at ease
as in a lake within
these open roses
in which all softly rests
as if no accidental hand
could shake or make it spill?
Unable to contain
the riches that are theirs
they pour out their excess
sharing their inwardness
to enrich the days; until
the whole of summer seems
one great room, a room within a dream.

I want to end by briefly meditating on the place of the ear in these first two sonnets. In a poem from 1912, Rilke concludes a withering self-reflection on this exploration of stereoscopic effects in the New Poems by saying:[ix]

Work of the eyes is done, now
go and do heart-work
on all the images imprisoned within you; for you
overpowered them: but even now you don’t know them.
Learn, inner man, to look to your inner woman,
the one attained from a thousand
natures, the merely attained but
not yet beloved form.

In the new poems Rilke had attempted to master the doubling I speak of here by creating stereoscopic effects in his poems—doubling surfaces that were realized in specular rather than tangible or felt terms. Seeing, however, as a mode of relation is one that ever allows ourselves the fantasy that we either do not touch—hidden like Sartre behind his keyhold—or can fully grasp without destroying the object we desire. In seeing, the heart has not yet bent itself to care. The relational space of hearing, however, is different. Hearing produces a sense of being somewhere. What we hear are the echoes back from what surrounds us, a domed space or room even when the roof is the sky. Thus hear is shelter made possible by the shell of the ear, and when a things said makes a shelter, the word—the tree lifted up—not only covers over what it says, it makes a place for it as well, there in the cupped hand of the ear.


In Atlanta, there is a painting by Anslem Kiefer, in which a stick figure drawing of the constellation Draco, steps down out of the sky across a shore of crashing waves. Crosses the horizon between imagination and sense, back.

In all this is the thought that the call makes room because it is heard.


[i] Maurizio Bettini, The Portrait of the Lover, translated by Laura Gibbs, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999). Bettini  locates what he calls a “fundamental story” in Pliny concerning the birth of the image in which a lover’s traced profile is the model for the art of modeling in clay. Alongside this, he places several motifs concerning the use of a simulacra or image as a means of uniting a person with his or her dead lover, including the story of Laodamia and  Protesilaus and that of Alcestis. See Ibid. pp. 7-25.

[ii] Anne Carson, Eros, the Bittersweet: An Essay, (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press 1986). Carson’s translation of fragment 31 is as follows (Ibid., pp. 12-13):

He seems to me equal to gods that man
who opposite you
sits and listens close
to your sweet speaking

and lovely laughing—oh it
puts the heart in my chest on wings
for when I look at you, a movement, then no speaking
is left in me

no: tongue breaks, and thin
fire is racing under my skin
and in eyes no sight and drumming
fills ears

and cold sweat holds me and shaking
grips me all, greener than grass
I am and dead—or almost
I seem to me.

Carson uses the poems to argue that the activation of eros requires this triadic structure, anchored by the insertion of the imaginaire into the picture. In this sense, what I call the prosthetic, “plays a paradoxical role for it both connects and separates, marking the two that are not one.” (Ibid, p. 16).

[iii] Rainer Maria Rilke, The Book of Images, translated by Edward Snow, (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1994), p. 5.

[iv] Rainer Maria Rilke, Ahead of All Parting: The Selected Poetry and Prose of Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Stephen Mitchell, (New York: Modern Library, 1995), p. 379.

[v] Ibid, p. 411.

[vi] Ibid, p. 413.

[vii] Ibid, p. 485

[viii] Rainer Maria Rilke, New Poems: A Bilingual Edition, translated by Stephen Cohn, (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1997), p. 247.

[ix] Ahead of All Parting, p. 129.