YOU SAID I MUST READ RILKE
by Celia Gilbert
You said to me, “You must read Rilke.” Strange name, it had no sex, it had no country for me then, it ran like water lightly
over shining stones, shining as it caressed them. It was a word in your mouth, a word your tongue had pronounced, a word you had
made up, perhaps, to impress me, to extend over me your superiority.
I laughed, I waved to you, I blew you a kiss. You smiled, shutting the door on me,
shutting away from me the brilliance of your green eyes, the dark arc of your brow, the beak of your Jewish nose and your lips,
the upper one, thin and menacing, the lower full and sensuous. Between your lips your tongue was often seen as it wrestled with the
angel of speech. When I first met you I looked away; your features would curl up like paper in a flame, your jaw would clench and
unclench and the red, raw, wound of your tongue would move helplessly like a fish without water.
“Ahh. Ahh. Ahh,” you would gasp until you could grasp the word, ride out the moment, and
At first I fantasized that the word you faltered on was a word of deep significance to you, and that, if I came to know you well enough, all of your stammers put together would form the answer to you affliction.
In time I learned how not to look away.
That night you refused to take me to the bus; I was on my way back to school. It was part of your way of keeping me in my place, not to do a thing I wanted. You went instead, you wrote to me later, to a whore house. Most undergraduates preferred fumbling with their own kind. But you had been seduced over and over by your mother's rapacious friends. Early on they had marked you out as one of theirs, one who understood women, who admired and feared their power. Rilke knew that too. Hadn't he been dressed as a girl until he was ten years old? The elderly, religious aristocratic women, the streetwalker waifs, the strong artist comrades, Clara Westhoff, his wife: Paula Becker-Moderson; and the incomparable Lou Andreas-Salome, he understood women, not face to face, but from alongside.
You went to prostitutes. But you fell in love, irrecoverably with a girl of your own kind, a girl still in her teens, gracious, determined, and troubled. You belonged to each other. Together you lived through the love there was no other way of resolving. Then she divorced you.
We have not met since you were eighteen and I was twenty. You are forty-two. Rilke died at fifty-two. At different times we have each lived in Paris, as Rilke did. We have walked in the gardens of the Luxembourg, as he did; we have sat on the winter bench in the little park of St. Julien of the Poor. We have stared as he did, at the threads of the tapestry of the Lady and the Unicorn, lost in the dizzying fecundity of its maidenly dream.
Alone, now, you know what it is to be ruined. Every worldly thing you turned your
hand to has failed. You see your children a few weeks every summer. Everything has been stripped away. Humiliation has no terror for you. You have lived through events which are the stuff of pulp novels. On the wharfs of Marseilles you have hidden in fear for your life. The woman you love now is owned by a man who runs illegal arms to Africa. You can never buy her out of the life. Your mother is very wealthy and will live forever. Now that I am older, I read Rilke more frequently.
Rilke knew one thing that after all you do not. He knew how to leave women. He knew how to retreat to the homes they found for him, lent him, fixed up for him. He knew how to leave his wife after one year, after the birth of their daughter. He knew how to write to his daughter and tell her he wouldn't be present at her wedding because of his need to work.
Yet, you are close in other ways to his life. When I see you across this table,
where we meet after a gap of twenty years, I see that you are as out of place in this little, self-important, university town
I live in, as he would be. You are a medicant, a pilgrim, someone who has come back from the dead. You are the hero of “Autumn Day,” who will never build a house, who will read; write long letters, wander under the trembling leaves a night.
Your face has filled out. The lean, restless, manic gaiety is gone,
something solemn and childish has taken its place. The time we talked all night and almost made love comes back
to me. Why would you recall that? But you must remember that you told me to read Rilke. I remind you.
“Rilke?” you say, startled. You grimace, the old struggle begins. I wait,
breathlessly. A word beginning with a "vee," but it won’t come, not for a while. We look at each other, comfortable. It is part
of you, this demon, and you are what I want to recover, my past, in love with it. “Weltschmerz.” It comes at last. “My
undergraduate Weltschmerz” The word explodes and dies away in a hiss.
We pay the check. Outside, a light rain is falling, on a black man unloading kegs
of beer, on students rushing by, books clasped to their breasts. I want you to kiss me but you don’t. Instead, you bend towards me
with an affectionate, brotherly smile. “You know,” you say, “you must really read Vallejo.” We shake hands. You, disappear now
forever, in these moments that you have entered my present, the you I treasured has crumbled and fallen to dust. You move off,
your shoulders down, your step unhurried, a man with all the time in the world. Together, we watch you go, Rilke and I.
Copoyright © 2015 by Celia Gilbert.