the cliffs of the heart

Posted by on August 11, 2010

Blurry swan and reflection of moon ©

Blurry swan and reflection of moon © 2010 Julia Mason Wickes.

[Exposed on the cliffs of the heart]

by Rainer Maria Rilke

Exposed on the cliffs of the heart. Look, how tiny down there,
look: the last village of words and, higher,
(but how tiny) still one last
farmhouse of feeling. Can you see it?
Exposed on the cliffs of the heart. Stoneground
under your hands. Even here, though,
something can bloom; on a silent cliff-edge
an unknowing plant blooms, singing, into the air.
But the one who knows? Ah, he began to know
and is quiet now, exposed on the cliffs of the heart.
While, with their full awareness,
many sure-footed mountain animals pass
or linger. And the great sheltered bird flies, slowly
circling, around the peak’s pure denial.—But
without a shelter, here on the cliffs of the heart. . . .

* * *

Today, I am looking for a chink in which to sit down and write. I think I may have found one. Child two is napping; child one is successfully engaged in a quiet time, which means that after an episode of protest tears trumped by my insistance, she resigned herself to getting lost in her imagination in the other room, and now I hear a conversation happening between a/some matryoshka doll/s, a Mr. Potato Head, and a Strawberry Shortcake figure, and so on.

But there is no way this little chink of available writing time is going to last, so I’ll try to think fast.

I like this poem for many reasons. For one, I like thinking of the heart as a place with a vast landscape, where things can be explored and discovered, including cliffs. I also like it because it reminds me of the lines from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem that says, “O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall / frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed….”

We went on a twelve day road trip including visits with two sides of our extended family, and a friend’s wedding in between, all taking place in three different states. We returned last Wednesday to a stuffy, shut-up apartment and a fruit fly epidemic because I so carelessly and unbelievably left a bunch of bananas in our kitchen. I was looking forward to returning, but it was so unappealing to walk in the front door that first night and find myself so squarely in my own life. It has taken me almost a week since returning to synchronize with reality and fully re-assume my post. But the worst of the fruit fly epidemic is over, thank goodness.

I had lots of insights into family life on our trip– the kind that, if they are going to be expressed, will require some other vehicle than a blog– something which offers a greater distance. We spent a day in Ashville, North Carolina, where we tried but failed to visit the house of Thomas Wolfe, because it is closed on Mondays. Thomas Wolfe needed to get his biography out of his system and did so by writing fiction, changing all the names of places and people, but in such a thinly veiled way as to cause an uproar in his home town, because everyone knew exactly what and whom he wrote about. I have tried to read Look Homeward, Angel before, but it bored me so much I could not go on. I plan on trying again now, even if I have to take it in little boring sections little by little for a year. It just seems like the right time. I want to read that darn book for the sake of having it read. It is just one of those books that has been on my list for years. I have to know.

So, the heart has cliffs, and little unknowing plants growing on them, gasping for air, and I do believe that the erosion that precedes the formation of such cliffs happens mostly in one’s family of origin. I came to the conclusion that if I ever want to express all that I long to express about cliff formation in the heart, I really have no choice but to take up fiction writing. Right now that idea is still a little bit laughable to me, but then a little sobering too. It’s both laughable and sobering if it happens and laughable and sobering if it never happens. We’ll see.

  1. annajouj
    August 11, 2010

    Sobering, perhaps. But not laughable. I can completely see you as a fiction writer [a la Flannery O'Conner, as I would picture]. This is a very thought-provoking piece, one that makes me wonder as well about the prospect of writing fiction. I doubt I could do it, but I can see, thanks to you, how it could be a liberating sort of influence on the writing so hindered by self-consciousness and Southern-bred expectations as one such as I [and you?] . . .

  2. Kris Livovich
    August 12, 2010

    Families, doesn't Tolstoy have something to say about them? 'All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way'

    Or maybe – we are all dysfunctional in our own unique way?

    Glad you are back!

  3. amber
    August 12, 2010

    I've not read this poem by Rilke before, what volume was it published in? It captures so much of what I love about Rilke–strong, clean images that speak to an emotional/spiritual reality without ever being too obvious.

    You know I think you could, and should, write fiction. I understand the need to get things out without explicitly naming people, although I'd be more likely to write poetry than fiction, it's a lot shorter.

    I also once tried to read *Look Homeward Angel* and gave up for the same reason.

  4. Julia
    August 12, 2010

    Anna: Floridians aren't really allowed to claim southern identity. It's one of those weird southern rules that must be obeyed. I'll just say that I'm hindered and leave it at that.

    Kris: I've never heard of that Tolstoy quote. Interesting. I think it's actually not entirely true. Dysfunctional patterns in families are actually pretty predictable across the board, which is why 12 step programs are so successful. But dysfunctional families usually believe that they are somehow unique, special, and distinct from the rest of humanity, and that is part of what makes them dysfunctional. So in a sense, maybe Tolstoy is right.

    Amber: It's in *The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke* translated by Stephen Mitchell and published by Vintage International. It's good, isn't it?