This Rilke poem, "The Archaic Torso of Apollo," has come up in my life many times. This weekend, it turned up at the wonderful Mel Chin exhibit, which just opened at the New Orleans Museum of Art. Here's the poem.
Archaic Torso of Apollo
by Ranier Maria Rilke, translated by Stephen Mitchell
We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,
gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.
Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:
would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.
The Chin piece, a gorgeous sculptural object titled "Rilke's Razor, Jung's Version," is tremendous and difficult, like the rest of the exhibit at the NOMA. Chin creates work that demands a great deal from its viewers: it's interactive, socially conscious, and highly cerebral. It's also technically astounding. (Consider the skill manifested in the carving of the razor, in the craftsmanship of the box). There's an irony of course: Chin creates work that intends to do what the sculpture in Rilke's poem does (and, alternately, what Rilke's poem itself does) and alter the very path of the person who experiences it.
I remember the first time I had a conversation about this poem -- the first time it turned up in my life and flung itself at me. I was dating a writer. He was the kind of writer who called himself a writer, and worked very hard to do writerly things. He liked to sit with me at a table and drink dark black coffee and write all his manuscripts with felt-tipped pens on Memo pads encased in leather portfolios. He looked like he had just stepped out of a crime novel from the '60s. Obviously, this relationship couldn't last. We were both altogether too narcissistic for one another.
We met for coffee one day, and, out of the blue, he said, "I think there is no poem so perfect as 'The Archaic Torso of Apollo.'" I probably tried to say something snarky and quick-witted at that, because I am always trying to tease people into making myself appear smarter (some people call this "bullying," and they would be right). But the writer was unamused, and went on. "I just decided that it is the only poem that you can read every day for the rest of your life." He looked sad about that, and said that he wanted every poem to end like that, and they couldn't, of course. He sighed, sipped his coffee. "The best poetry for me is the kind that punches you right in the face at the end. I wish every poem I write could punch you right in the face at the end, but of course it can't, because there'd be too much violence in that."
I went home and sat with the poem for hours; let it percolate.
"You must change your life."
There are plenty of works of art that are Archaic Torsos for me: creations that have altered my path, works that have influenced me to the bone. But the thing is, I think you have to be open to them.
I spent the whole day at the NOMA on Saturday, and hours with the Chin exhibit. At some point, I started to cry. Standing in silence and letting in ideas can be an emotional experience (especially when you are a particularly emotional person, which I am, to my chagrin and resignation). Eventually, I left the museum and stood outside to try and process everything.
Outside, there was a man with a moustache wearing a bright pink track suit, an orange headband, and lime green headphones, leaping around the fountain outside the museum in tremendous, jumping twirls. Every few moments, he screamed (yes, SCREAMED) the lyrics to a segment of Beyonce's "Drunk In Love." I thought of "The Archaic Torso of Apollo" again. If a nameless Greek sculptor presented to Rilke his broken god, and Rilke gave the same to Chin in 21st century, and Chin gave the same to me on a bright Saturday in New Orleans, maybe it's possible that Beyonce did just the same thing for this jumping fellow.
Rilke doesn't say this, and neither does Chin, but I think it is possible that we find our deities whenever and wherever we are looking. You might read Rilke's poem a thousand times over (like I will admit I had before I sat across the table from the writer) and never have allowed it to punch you in the face. The poem might stay words on a page to you, the way a razor stays in a drawer before you pull it out to use it. (And how will you use it?)
We all must find what is holy, which may be different for each of us. Honor what alters you. Honor the moments you are ready to change. Worship whatever it is you find beautiful, even if its arms and legs are broken off, even if its eyes are only implicated.
You must change your life.