Dear Friends and Readersby Phong Bui
Dear friends and readers,
One requirement of my graduate seminar in the Photography, Film & Related Media program at the School of Visual Arts is that each of my students—and I participate—are asked to memorize a poem, then recite it at the beginning of every class. In this morning’s class (Thursday, January 30th) after my student Zhangbolong Lui recited Rilke’s early poem “Autumn Day,” about time as duration and the state of melancholy, I recited another Rilke poem, “The Man Watching.” Both are from the Book of Images published in 1902, the year Rilke came to Paris to work on a monograph on Rodin, and I thought it would be timely, since it’s a new year, to share his words with you:
I can tell by the way the trees beat, after
so many dull days, on my worried windowpanes
that a storm is coming,
and I hear the far-off fields say things
I can’t bear without a friend,
I can't love without a sister.
The storm, the shifter of shapes, drives on
across the woods and across time,
and the world looks as if it had no age:
the landscape, like a line in the psalm book,
is seriousness and weight and eternity.
What we choose to fight is so tiny!
What fights with us is so great!
If only we would let ourselves be dominated
as things do by some immense storm,
we would become strong too, and not need names.
When we win it’s with small things,
and the triumph itself makes us small.
What is extraordinary and eternal
does not want to be bent by us.
I mean the Angel who appeared
to the wrestlers of the Old Testament:
when the wrestlers’ sinews
grew long like metal strings,
he felt them under his fingers
like chords of deep music.
Whoever was beaten by this Angel
(who often simply declined the fight)
went away proud and strengthened
and great from that harsh hand,
that kneaded him as if to change his shape.
Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
by constantly greater beings.
“The Man Watching” can be read in so many endless ways. To me it describes how we all have desires to make leaps beyond our given capacities, yet often the fear of the unknown, and the weighty, habitual familiarity created by past history, can diminish us, prevent us from attaining the sense of becoming free through something larger than our own intentions. It seems to say, and encourage us to believe, that our own potentials are more real than who we are as a given; as though real life exists only from within, which constantly longs to become something other than itself.
This condition requires a need not for external validation, but rather for an inner courage and the insight to perceive how things may be in a perpetual state of flux: “What fights with us is so great! / If only we would let ourselves be dominated / as things do by some immense storm, / we would become strong too, and not need names.” Before gathering all of our strength to fight the Angel again, these lines seem to suggest that we, too, should allow ourselves to surrender to all that occurs in the intervals of action. As John Ashbery said in his poem “More Pleasant Adventures,” from his 1984 collection A Wave (equally memorable to Rilke, though tinkled with a sense of lightness): “Haven’t you always wanted to curl up like a dog and go to sleep like a dog?”
The year of the Horse has arrived. Due to the popular reception of the rotating guest editor in the Art section, and while waiting to fill the next iteration of Ted Hamm’s Local and Express section, this issue will begin with Art. Next month, in order to give equal prominence to each part of the Rail, we will begin with a different section and continue shifting in a clockwise rotation.
P.S. To commemorate the passing of our friends the painters Charles Cajori, my former teacher at the New York Studio School, and Ellen Lanyon, with whom I have many fond memories, we would like to send our deepest condolences to Barbara Grossman, Andrew Ginzel, and the rest of their friends and families.